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The New Voices: Hyperlocal Citizen Media Sites Want You (to Write)!

When Norman Mailer, Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher founded the Village Voice in 1955, they probably envisioned their alternative publication as the voice of the people. Yeah, right. Nearly 50 years later, the American revolution in people — ordinary citizens — having their voices heard in the media is taking place in what big-city folk call the flyover zones, with hyperlocal online publications that promise to publish nearly every article, opinion and photo that any Joe Blow might submit.

In a small corner of small Bakersfield, California, a bold publisher launched the Northwest Voice online and in print in May and has already had nearly 500 people submit articles or photos. In Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, students at Northwestern University launched GoSkokie to study how citizen media sites might operate with little editorial oversight. In Columbia, Missouri, students at the University of Missouri launched MyMissourian in affiliation with the student-run daily newspaper and with a miracle budget near $0.

These efforts all gained inspiration from South Korea, where OhMyNews has been a wildly successful — and profitable — pioneer in participatory journalism online. Plus, these newbies build on the suburban efforts of and the network of do-it-yourself news sites run by, as well as the clean design of iBrattleboro, a local site in Brattleboro, Vermont, run by a local Web site development and graphics team since February 2003.

And there’s more to come., which sponsored the effort at Northwestern, plans to launch town blogs in three small hamlets in New Jersey. And the J-Lab at the University of Maryland recently announced $1 million in seed money for 20 startups doing micro-local news projects. The name of the grants? “New Voices,” of course.

Newspaper readers have always had their little “letters to the editor” section, if they can get in. But cheap online tools have given anyone with a Net connection the chance to start a publication, a Weblog, a chat room, a bulletin board. Citizen media sites focused on tiny communities give journalists a role as content shepherds, whipping the chaos of reader-generated content into a manageable morass.

Mary Lou Fulton is the publisher of the Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, which is owned by the daily newspaper, the Bakersfield Californian. Launched just last May, the Voice has been groundbreaking in the industry, taking the best of its Web site and putting it in print every other Thursday, delivering it to every household in the northwest part of Bakersfield.

“We are the traditional journalism model turned upside down,” Fulton told me via e-mail. “Instead of being the gatekeeper, telling people that what’s important to them ‘isn’t news,’ we’re just opening up the gates and letting people come on in. We are a better community newspaper for having thousands of readers who serve as the eyes and ears for the Voice, rather than having everything filtered through the views of a small group of reporters and editors.”

The Northwest Voice site is an embarrassment of riches. The front page recently highlighted Bulldog Day at middle school, when parents attend a day of school with students; a profile of a restaurant at a Shell gas station; and a photo of a nine-year-old girl dressed up like a cat for Halloween. Someone go wake the Pulitzer Prize board.

Now all that might bore you, but if it was a school where you teach, or a gas station where you eat, or your nine-year-old daughter, you’d be rapt with attention.

Clyde Bentley, associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and the driving force behind MyMissourian, explains how people often connect to the news. “Your success comes from what we call the ‘Refrigerator Award,’ those little [clippings] that you find on somebody’s refrigerator,” he told me. “They’re seldom front-page items. You start seeing that the community has this real sense of pride in getting recognition from what seems like personal things. At larger newspapers, they say ‘this is bush league.'”

People-powered or student-powered?

But if these nascent efforts bring more people into the editorial process and help the media cover smaller communities better, the so-called bush league content might just bring in major league revenues, at least in aggregate. The idea is to tap into smaller advertisers who hadn’t considered newspaper ads before.

The Northwest Voice has had growing revenues, and Fulton expects to hit consistent profitability by the end of the year, just seven months after launch. The publication has three full-time staffers — just one editorial person — and one part-time production person. Its site includes little Google-like text ads that link to site-hosted ads for small businesses, often repurposed from print ads. The real money so far is in the print publication because it has a controlled circulation that includes every community household.

Fulton says that it’s not just advertisers who prefer the print publication. “The print edition is the product readers prefer,” Fulton said. “Readers say they like the tangibility of print and also like the tabloid format because our design is very visual and uses lots of pictures. Over time, I believe more readership will shift to the Web. I imagine the print edition will eventually become a Web index of sorts in which we’ll publish excerpts of articles in print and direct readers to the Web for the rest.”

Jeff Jarvis, president at and blogger at, is a big believer in hyperlocal citizen content and helped fund the experiment at GoSkokie. But when it comes to making profits, he isn’t a ranting throwback to the dot-com hype era.

“The business strategy and hope — quite unproven still — is that with a critical mass of very local content we will attract a critical mass of local audience,” Jarvis said via e-mail. “And because we can target advertising down to a town level, and because we will use automated tools to reduce the cost of sale and production, we can finally attract and serve a new population of small local advertisers. Again, this is unproven; we are testing the thesis.”

Bentley says that MyMissourian cost nearly nothing to build and operate — just the domain registration fee — as it uses free open source software. But he also relies on free labor, with 20 students in an online journalism class pitching in, writing and overseeing sections. For business models, the biggest variable in cost is probably the labor necessary to prod and coax — and lightly filter — content.

The Northwest Voice has about 80 percent of its content coming from the community, with the editor providing most of the rest. MyMissourian has a good number of articles from its student editors, and GoSkokie is about to get an influx of original reporting from Northwestern grad students.

Rich Gordon, chair of the New Media Department at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, said it took his class only four weeks to launch the site, but the hard part was populating it with content. The site also had a technical glitch where it became impossible to post to the site. Worse than that, GoSkokie has failed where sites like iBra
ttleboro have succeeded: being a dependable resource for community residents.

iBrattleboro has a nifty interactive map of the town, with points — and businesses — of interest. Plus, a quick look at iBrattleboro’s Entertainment section brings up local events and even comments on current films playing. But at GoSkokie, the Culture section is outdated and lacks community involvement. My brother-in-law, who lives in Skokie, was upset that the site didn’t have a “Best of Skokie” type section covering restaurants, cleaners and other businesses, and told me “most of the stuff is not relevant to my life.”

To edit or not to edit

That’s not to say that GoSkokie won’t eventually succeed by reaching the tipping point of community involvement. It’s just reaching that magic point that can be so difficult.

While it doesn’t cover hyperlocal news, the tech site Slashdot is a model of citizen journalism, or at least citizen commentary. A cross between a group Weblog and a bulletin board, Slashdot depends on its community to rate — and berate — people who might make false statements.

While Fulton and Bentley like to call their sites “open source” journalism, Slashdot founder Rob Malda, a.k.a. Commander Taco, says that the software term should only apply if the sites allow anyone to distribute the content as well. MyMissourian does allow readers to retain secondary rights to publish their writing elsewhere, but Northwest Voice doesn’t. Neither site uses the flexible Creative Commons copyright scheme.

Malda told me it takes time for a site to build the critical mass of a community that can police itself.

“Trust is something earned, and Slashdot today has that because we’ve been doing this for years,” Malda said via e-mail. “But it’s important that no piece of content is taken for granted … A site like Slashdot needs to be read with a skeptical eye. No filtering system should be exempt from scrutiny. People forget that network news is a filtering system too, which is why we all freak out when CBS posts forged documents. Our moderation system is really no different fundamentally. We’ve just lowered the bar for participation on every level. The lowered bar might mean that more individuals make errors, but on a whole the community will act right.”

At MyMissourian, there are four major rules for content: no nudity, no profanity, no personal attacks, and no attacks on race, creed or national origin. Bentley says his editors don’t edit for Associated Press style, as they do for the newspaper, but take a lighter touch with an eye for readability. And when it comes to fact-checking, they largely rely on the community to uncover inaccuracies.

Bentley says that journalists underestimate the writing talent of the general public. “Most of us in journalism don’t realize how intelligent people really are,” he said. “We have a tendency to remember the people who can’t write. By and large, not only are people good at the mechanics of writing, but they can tell a good story. It’s not just journalists with pens and notepads out there. There’s a lot of folks with the desire to write, they’re just not journalists.”

The editors at Northwest Voice and GoSkokie also have taken a more hands-off approach and were pleasantly surprised at how little they’ve had to edit. Gordon said his editors put minimal efforts into editing submissions at GoSkokie, but that people may have been put off from the lack of ground rules.

“What everyone was afraid of is that it would be a nest of porn or full of wild allegations, but that didn’t happen,” Gordon said. “But what may have happened was that the lack of editing and control may have inhibited people from contributing because they thought it wasn’t going to be a well-regulated community.”

Seeds of hope

One of the greatest byproducts of citizen journalism is a sense of civic involvement for people who have felt shut out of their own local politics and media. So while media companies such as are planning ways to aggregate and sell its micro-sites, there’s also a place for non-profits and civic organizations to boost community activism.

That’s the thinking behind the $1 million “New Voices” grants being showered in the next two years on community news ventures by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and administered by the J-Lab at the University of Maryland. The J-Lab itself is a spin-off of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, which helped support 120 media projects at print and broadcast news organizations.

Jan Schaffer, executive director of the J-Lab, said she was inspired by the success of the Gotham Gazette, a non-profit site run by the Citizens Union Foundation. With just a handful of people running the site — and many citizens participating — the site has helped cover the local New York City elections better than any of the daily newspapers, Schaffer says. Initially, the “New Voices” grants will only go to sites affiliated with non-profits or educational institutions — and only to startups as seed money.

“The question is can you create opportunities for citizens to get informed and inform others about micro-news that falls under the radar of news organizations who don’t have the resources?” Schaffer told me. “And in the process you seed the interest in participating in community issues. Can you create a sense of news entrepreneurship that I think the industry needs? And in the process can you train a new generation of journalists in a new way of doing news and hopefully a much more diverse pool of journalists?”

The seed money will help, but Schaffer says that J-Lab will only consider proposals that include good business plans and ways of making revenues beyond the grants — whether from advertising, subscriptions, e-commerce or other sources. Plus, they’re open to funding more than just Web ventures and will consider low-frequency radio stations, satellite radio or even a local version of C-SPAN.

These are the types of projects that can allow journalists to serve the public in a way they never imagined in the past by helping them become less a community gatekeeper on high in an ivory tower and more of a community enabler and virtual talk show host, with time enough for everyone’s voice to be heard.

Exit Polls Bring Traffic Deluge, Scrutiny to Blogs, Slate

The dirty secret of most news Web sites is that their biggest viewership comes during the day, when people are at work and should be working. On Election Day in the U.S., you can’t blame people for spending their work hours hunting around online for exit poll numbers, the supposedly closely guarded numbers that came this year from the National Election Pool, a group effort created by ABC, the Associated Press, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC.

So a certain friend of mine spent a good part of his day Tuesday simply refreshing Slate’s special page with exit poll numbers, keeping up on how well Kerry was doing throughout the day in various battleground states. Lucky for him, his boss was even more of a political junkie and was probably doing the same thing.

The problem? The numbers were far from prescient, and Kerry was really headed for defeat on Tuesday. Though Slate and Wonkette and Daily Kos (but not Drudge Report) all ran some sort of disclaimer about the exit poll numbers, saying to take them with a huge grain of salt, most readers who passed the numbers around excitedly were in for a real shocker that night when they turned out to be dead wrong.

While the mainstream media might be seen as a bit conservative in their efforts to hold back on calling elections and giving out early exit poll data, they were the ones who ended up looking good, while Slate was caught with a mid-day headline on exit poll numbers over a huge happy photo of Kerry. (Hey, why not title it “Dewey to Defeat Truman”?)

To add insult to injury, many of these sites crashed under the weight of all the curious-voter traffic, costing them readership and stability at perhaps their most crucial moment on Election Day. While it was the 2000 elections that brought down many of the big news sites and made them reconsider infrastructure, 2004 brought traffic concerns to independent media and political bloggers.

As for rationales, Slate media critic Jack Shafer, who ran the exit poll page, told me that the reasoning for publicizing the numbers was all about demystifying a process controlled by the media elite.

“Think of the exit poll as a secret tracking poll conducted for the elite,” Shafer said. “All Slate is doing is giving civilians a look at the process that they’ve been locked out of previously. The exit poll numbers are being swapped from NEP to its clients to politicians and journalists to boardroom big shots today like crazy, so why shouldn’t civilians have access to the information? I trust readers and voters to see the exit polls for what they are.”

But if Slate truly saw them for what they were — “a snapshot of an extremely fast-moving object,” as Shafer says — why trumpet them so prominently on their front page with a photo of Kerry looking triumphant? And even run a headline about how Bush might still pull it out (as if he were losing)?

According to Nielsen/NetRatings, Slate had the fourth biggest jump in traffic of all sites on Election Day, growing 169 percent to 412,000 unique visitors, faster growth than even on that day. The Drudge Report reportedly had 36 million visits on Election Day, its best showing ever.

Blogger and political consultant Markos Moulitsas, who runs the top left-wing blog Daily Kos, was quick to post the exit poll numbers he found at colleague Jerome Armstrong’s MyDD blog and from his own unnamed sources. Moulitsas says that, unlike the mainstream media, he isn’t hemmed in by corporate rules or journalistic ethics.

“If someone says I’m being irresponsible, I can just say ‘screw you,'” he told me. “I don’t have a responsibility to my stockholders. I said these were for entertainment purposes. I know people got a lot of false hopes, but oh well. Most of the people who were really paying attention this time — it was their first time tracking an election as closely as they did. … All the caveats in the world didn’t seem to accomplish much.”

Holding the line — and not

Not all bloggers were passing around exit poll numbers, however. Democratic pollster Mark Blumenthal, who only just recently started his Mystery Pollster blog, declined to run the numbers and threatened to take down any comments from people if they exposed them. Blumenthal did post probably the most in-depth explanation of how exit polls work and why they might be problematic.

“I just want you to know that those leaked exit polls really don’t tell us much more about the outcome of the race than the telephone polls we were obsessing over just a few hours ago,” Blumenthal wrote on the morning of Election Day. “Even if we wanted to call a race on unweighted, unfinished, mid-day exit polls alone (something the networks will not do), we would need to see differences of 10-15 points separating the candidates to be 95% certain of a winner.”

Glenn Reynolds, law professor at the University of Tennessee and preeminent poli-blogger at Instapundit, also refused to run any of the exit poll numbers or link to them.

“I don’t think [exit poll numbers are] all that useful unfiltered, and we’ll know the real numbers (I hope) soon enough anyway,” Reynolds told me earlier on Election Day. “Besides, that’s why we have Drudge! On exit polls, there’s a certain baffle-the-experts pleasure in seeing them turn out wrong, but on the other hand they are — or should be — a useful check on fraud.”

Perhaps, this time it was the election results that were a useful check on the exit polls.

As the exit polls made the rounds online, stockbrokers caught wind of a possible Kerry win and pushed the broader U.S. markets downward. That gave financial wires like Bloomberg and CBS MarketWatch the opportunity to run stories that mentioned the exit polls in a second-hand way. The Australian was less circumspect about the polls in a story titled, “Blogs send jitters through Wall Street,” noting that Drudge had posted numbers showing Kerry leading in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Drudge, for his part, ran no caveat about the numbers as he splashed them on his front page. However, perhaps after getting depressed about them, the conservative gadfly took them down in the early evening and ran the banner headline, “Enough of the media exits; let’s count the people’s votes.”

The pain of popularity

Meanwhile, the prominent sites that did run exit poll numbers got more traffic than they bargained for. Visitors to had trouble getting access, and Daily Kos had to take measures to streamline the site, as well as expanding its bandwidth. Moulitsas told me he now spends $3,500 to $4,000 for hosting and bandwidth per month and has added three temporary servers to the five he already had to handle the increased traffic this week.

Moulitsas stripped some graphics, turned off traffic meters and even stripped out ads to make sure the site didn’t go down. Daily Kos held up pretty well under the strain, though Moulitsas said there were some early outages when the exit poll numbers were first posted.

“When the first exit polls started coming out, all hell broke loose,” he said. “I turned off my traffic meters because they were a drain on my resources. I was averaging about 800,000 visits per day before that. I would guess I was
getting three to five times the normal traffic that I get.”

Reynolds told me that Instapundit likely had its second most trafficked day on Nov. 2 — after its high point during the RatherGate days — even though he wasn’t running exit poll numbers. He said he also had to take action to prepare for the heavy traffic in advance.

“I lightened the graphic load a bit, and my hosting company did some prep by increasing the number of connections servers are allowed to have open,” Reynolds said. “It’s been mixed — access to the site was intermittent, though some of that problem is heavy traffic elsewhere on the Internet.”

Throughout Tuesday, I had trouble getting to Wonkette, Instapundit and Daily Kos, and Josh Marshall’s blog was down for a number of hours in the afternoon. The deluge of traffic for sites with and without exit polls shows just how much political blogs are becoming part of media consumption for a big event like an election. However, it’s easier for a site like Slate, backed by Microsoft, to boost bandwidth than a small one-person blog operation.

Still, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg told me his site’s traffic “swelled to a multiple of what we anticipated” due to people looking for exit polls and estimates the traffic was in the millions on Nov. 2. He admits that the site’s performance was slower than usual, but after rejiggering some servers, they were able to handle the inundation.

The future of exit polls

No one knows exactly what will happen with exit polls in the next big election and whether the mainstream media will crack and start running them in newspapers and on TV in a reaction to the popularity of the Net.

Doug Feaver, executive editor at, says that exit polls are useful for news organizations in finding out who the electorate was and why they voted the way they did. However, those numbers aren’t released until after all the polls have closed, and Feaver doesn’t expect that this longtime policy will change in the future.

“There are at least two excellent reasons not to release horse-race exit poll data,” Feaver said via e-mail. “There is a distinct possibility it will be wrong, which doesn’t help the credibility of the news business. Additionally, early release of the information might unfairly influence an election in a state where polls are still open. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

So did the release of exit poll numbers online do more than just move the stock markets? Did they somehow affect voter turnout or hurt the credibility of bloggers or online media? Bill Grueskin, managing editor of Wall Street Journal Online, says that it’s probably impossible to know. The Journal didn’t run exit poll numbers, but did run an in-depth story on how they spread online.

“As a practical matter, it’s impossible to say whether, or how, these numbers affected voting,” Grueskin told me via e-mail. “Did the positive Kerry numbers encourage his supporters to vote, or did it make them feel they didn’t need to? Did the numbers spur Bush supporters to get more people to the polls, or did it demoralize some of them and cause them to stay at home? I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I suppose someone could find anecdotal evidence to back up responses to any of them.”

Slate’s Weisberg doesn’t buy the theory that the poll numbers affected voter turnout and says he has no regrets about running them. “There is much dismay in the old media about how the Web and bloggers have broken their cartel, preventing them from withholding this kind of information on a dubious theory that it suppresses voter turnout,” he said via e-mail. “But I don’t think that publishing leaked exit poll data hurt our credibility with the public or our readers at all. To the contrary, readers come to Slate in part because of our transparency and directness on issues like this.”

Reynolds, for one, thinks that the mainstream media will “probably” change their policies in the future for running exit polls. “And once they do, the numbers will lose their allure as forbidden fruit,” he said, “and just become additional data points.”

Slate’s Shafer won’t predict what the media companies will do down the line, but he thinks the NEP consortium might crack down on all the leaks from excited journalists e-mailing exit polls to friends.

“What more likely after this election cycle, I think, will be heightened security among NEP’s owners and subscribers,” Shafer said. “They’ll restrict the number of people who can view the data and they’ll poke out the eyes of anybody unauthorized to view it. They might even come hunting for me with a fiery red poker!”

Not bloody likely. Trying to staunch the flow of previously taboo information on the Net has proven difficult if not impossible on everything from videos of beheadings to names of sexual assault plaintiffs. More likely, this will become the accepted nature of exit polls: leaked to friends and bloggers, run up the pole and then likely ridiculed just like every other poll that ends up being wrong.