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Bloggers as community journalists

Jon has some interesting things to say about the state of community journalism in Boston right now. It has the makings of a blueprint for how to improve non-MSM journalism (Step 1: Stop concentrating so much on the inner workings of the New York Times). I am particularly interested in his ideas on organizing a site to become an information resource, rather than just an ever changing flow of reverse-chronological postings.

But goshdarnit, Jon wins no points for calling community journalism in Boston a failure because no local bloggers caught on to the story of the poor little Maynard High School radio station fighting for its life against the big California religious broadcaster.

I admit: It's a good story. So why didn't I jump on it? I missed it because Maynard just doesn't fall on my radarscope. I concentrate on Boston and surrounding towns (so I will do a Technorati search on "Mattapan" every so often to see if anybody's writing about it, but I just don't search on "Maynard"). Although not as controversial, the recent move of WILD from AM to FM affects a lot more people in Boston more immediately than WAVM's struggle, and I did cover that. I also have no doubts that if WAVM were in Watertown, Lisa would be all over it.

But speaking about Universal Hub in particular, Jon is dismayed that I don't think all community journalists should aspire to taking down the Boston Globe (yeah, yeah, I write a weekly blog column for them, usual disclaimer applies). When bloggers can devote several months of fulltime work to breaking a story of the magnitude of the Boston priest scandal, let's talk. But you know what? There is just TONS of stuff out there than none of our local bigfoot media outlets cover short of that, stuff that most definitely affects your life and that blogs are just perfect for. Which leads us to Jon's specific criticism of Universal Hub:

Yesterday the "top" post was a picture of birds bandying around a fake owl on the roof of one of the Turnpike rest stops, capping off another day's worth of griping about the MBTA. Nothing about WAVM-FM.

This, I think, just represents a fundamental difference of opinion as to what constitutes "news." I happen to think the T is a big, on-going story - and one that the MSM around here aren't covering particularly well. According to the MBTA, nearly 800,000 people ride the T every day. When service sucks, that isn't news? What else affects so many people around here every single day? One of the postings I'm most proud of here is Just another day on the T. One weekend, the MBTA did some scheduled maintenance on Orange Line tracks downtown, but didn't seem to communicate that to either T workers at the affected stations or T riders, leading to massive confusion in which people were told to walk to another stop for shuttle buses that weren't there (because they were at yet another stop). Classic example of the problems on the T, and something neither daily paper ever covered, but Universal Hub did (because several local bloggers posted about it).

As for pictures of crows on dummy owls, I admit it - I have a weakness for quirky things. But I also think that "news" is not just about portentious, weighty, serious matters. Sorry, but there is just more to life than violent crime and fretting about the Religious Right.

But I've babbled enough. I'm not even sure anymore exactly what constituted "community journalism." What's your definition? And what should we be doing about it?

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I basically see three kinds of blogs-as-journalism:
1. Blogger attempting to compete with some segments of a national or regional media organization's product (Bloggers go to DNC; Bloggers get White House press credentials; Bloggers cover lieutenant gov. race).
2. Blogger attempting to filter newsmedia in a major media market (Bostonist, Gothamist, etc).
3. Blogger with small, local geographic area to cover outside of a major media market where there is little or no formal media presence.

1 and 2 are typically criticized because a lot of their content consists of pointing to existing media reports, often from traditional media organizations. Some people don't consider 2 journalism at all. But blogs in Category 2 are often quite popular; readers value them for pointing them towards stories in the newspapers they no longer read, or to pick out one story out of a rich media environment where no one can read it all. #2 style blogs also add local blogs to the mix, and act as a geographical watercooler, or act as a "court of appeal" for an ignored story they think deserves more attention. I exist in category 3. I live in a city of 32,000 with an understaffed weekly with one reporter.

There aren't many of 3, and I suspect most of them will be outside (but not neccessarily far outside) major metro areas. I don't know if there will be lots in the future. It's true that bloggers tend to want to source items from stuff that's already on the net, and that's a handicap I've tried to minimize by, well, leaving my house. Checking in with local civic and arts organizations is good too, as is subscribing to their paper newsletters. That said, many of the things I put on H2otown would not make it into a paper where space is at a premium, and my newsgathering techniques (I TiVo local access cable of town meetings) would not pass muster at a newspaper. But in many cases, I am all they got -- there's no one else covering some of this stuff in any way, in person or otherwise. H2otown t-shirts: Better than Nothing! or H2otown: We Watch Local Access Cable So You Don't Have To!

I realize that my newsgathering techniques aren't professional grade; in fact, people might laugh at them. I'm willing to be humble and to be humbled about that. I'm also completely upfront with readers and anyone who asks about how I get stuff. All I can say is I'm giving what I can with what I got, and enough people find it useful.

I really like Jon's idea of the webzine format. I use Drupal, and I frequently use "sticky" posts to push stories I think are more important toward the top. It would be nice to have something even more flexible/powerful. I should say that I probably won't be using it unless my hosting provider, Bryght, offers the module. I don't have the technological expertise to run a Drupal server on my own, so I stick to what's offered in Bryght's standard service. (I think if I asked them nicely they would definitely consider it, though).

I do completely agree with Jon's poor opinion of the "Magically Self-Assembling Citizen News Source," which is an entirely mythological creature. My experience is that it does take somebody who's committed to rolling the rock up the hill. Indefinitely. I produce most of the content, and it's important to me that it "adds up" to something and isn't a random grab-bag. I think people who do blogs that do more "pointing" are also aiming, in many cases, towards a cohesive editorial vision; it just might not look like a newspaper's editorial vision.

One of the things I like best about H2otown is my ability to cover things that would get into the local paper alongside things that wouldn't -- such as quotes from local blogs, a town councillor's comment on chickens, a census of candidate lawn signs, and a former resident's reflections on moving to Shanghai. I think one of the reasons this kind of stuff is easier to put in a blog is because a blog has no lower limit on the size of an item; it can be a sentence long. Theoretically, the paper also has no lower limit, but in practice, it generally does. (Outside of calendar listings, which are short in both places).

The fact is, I live in a place where not much major news happens. Don't get me wrong -- I like it that way. Major news is, after all, not usually good news. And the things that capture how it feels to be a resident of Watertown can't be encapsulated in the doings at town hall, or elections, or school committee alone. Those are important, but by themselves, they're a 2D picture of the community. In particular, the local newspaper has a hard time pointing out the fact that a lot of stuff that happens in town is...well...humorous. If the paper points that out, people get mad and the paper looks like a bully. Since I'm "just a blogger" and I'm careful to ensure that the joke is on me, not on people or groups in town, I can communicate the fact that most functional small cities are comic operas with real estate taxes -- without being mean.

We may have lived through a historical blip where it was possible to have a viable commercial business producing a local newspaper. I may live to see the day when Watertown has no newspaper. In that case, I think volunteer media is better than no media.

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Wow, Lisa, that's a lot. Thanks for describing the h2otown operations. To consolidate our points, we're governed to some degree by the software we have, so I look forward to learning more to see what we can do with Drupal to improve your site, as well as this one.

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That sound you hear is a raging keg of self-importance rolling on down the road. I'm sure the internal conflict Jon had over whether or not to contribute his shining excellence to some website (which, later on, would not meet up to his exacting demands) was great and traumatic.

Seriously, not everybody gets into this Let's Write Stuff And Put It On The Web nonsense for the same reason and it'd be stupid to assume so. Sure, some folks want to stomp all over the grey ladies of journalism and overthrow print media in favor of the Bloggerati or whatever stupid name they're calling themselves these days, fine, sure, more power to you mate, whatever. Others just want to catalogue their extensive collection of cassette tapes, or gossip about celebrities, or complain about their commute, or talk about the cat.

And the minute a site devoted to chronicling the relevant chronicling of the goings-on of a community (and Boston is a large, diverse community full of boatloads of interesting people and some crashing bores) -- the minute that site eschews one group of these people in favor of another, it's failed its mission. It cuts both ways, too: Nothin' But Fake Owl Pics! would fail Boston as equally as Nothin' But Amateur Reporters! (Especially amateur reporters getting into pissing matches over who broke which story first, but I digress.)

So keep the bird pics coming, Adam. It is so good to balance out the irony-deficient with moments of levity and smiling interest. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll hie back to my own journal, where I'm concocting this hilarious rant about Nantucket Nectars caps and my cat, who likes to play with them in the most adorable way...

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Ok: I didn't say that I didn't care for the frivolity. I've contributed a handful of items in that spirit.

The trouble if everything if that's the overwhelming theme-- and the blog latest-first format persists-- there's no room for seriousness.

As for my involvement wth UH, my explanation did read rather silly and self-indulgent, but I felt I should explain where I'm coming from. It's great that Adam has set this up and is running it. It has more civility than the old NE.* newsgroups. It has more personality than the Boston.com messageboards. It involves the community, unlike Bostonist. It's not a newspaper, but it faces the same challenges: how do we keep this compelling and interesting and draw in more of the community? What can be done that isn't being done elsewhere?

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Fake owls ++

One thing that would help a lot is wider access to public meetings through audio and video. Wider local access media would be very helpful to me at H2otown, because I can't attend all the meetings, and only two meetings a month are televised. I think this is true in general of "volunteer media," one of the things that is in short supply for us is the time or availability to go to meetings that conflict with our work or home duties. The ability to timeshift taking in what happened at a meeting would be a big building block for volunteer community journalists, who can scan these meetings that aren't covered by local newspapers for good stuff, now that they can get to it.

If there were podcasts of town meetings I'd be in heaven.

I do think there's also value in aggregating the voices of local bloggers, even if this is not traditionally "news." Many more people are getting the opportunity to be on the historical record. We have very few accounts of the lives of teenage girls during the colonial era, for example, because history tends to preserve the perspectives of "important people." The fact that there are a lot of LJs out there means that 100 years from now at least some will have survived and give a picture of contemporary life from the perspective of people living it.

Funny today -- history tomorrow!

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Adam-- I concede that I forced the issue a bit too much. I was grandstanding a bit on Maynard, which as you pointed out, I didn't even correctly identify it as a town. I think I did raise a number of questions that could be asked. And looking back, I probably should have held the part II for a few days in order to withhold judgment. As it is, my logs report about 20 referers to the CJ piece to 2 to the actual story.

And yes, let me appreciate you a bit more here, I'll say that reading UniversalHub is much more enjoyable than any single local blog. There is much greater consistency-- I do expect the quirky photos and the brief posts when I come here. I still remember your quirky photo of the the gloves on the fence last winter.

As I responded on Civilities, gripes about the T are frequent enough that they are not news in the dog-bites-man sense. From a literary point of view, I just scan past the average T gripe when I call up this site. I think ultimately, that the optimal type of MBTA-rider website would include blog-like personality (photos), the depth of BadTransit.com, and the imprint of the Globe's Mac Daniel, who probably can get phone calls returned faster. And to succeed the site might have to contain the inevitable "restore the E line" discussions. And it would contain a good balance of seriousness and fun. This is what NYU professor Jay Rosen was looking to do with this "public journalism" exercise in the 1990's before he got on the blogging kick. I'll sketch out a plan on Civilities in the coming week.

Anyways, the real work I need to do ahead is to help out on Drupal.

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