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Community Blogging The New Wave of Citizen Journalism BY JULIE FANSELOW On June 20, 2007, the St. Paul Pioneer Press pub- function, just as investigative reporters from the lished an article about methamphetamine in “legacy” media used to do (and sometimes still do, Minnesota. The story focused on signs of progress newsroom budgets and corporate ties permitting). against meth abuse, but the last paragraph men- Paraphrasing A. J. Liebling, New Haven Indepen- tioned reports of a heroin network among high dent editor Paul Bass writes, “Power of the press school students in Northfield, a community of about now belongs not to those who own one, but to those 19,500 people forty-five miles south of the Twin who own a modem. We own a modem.” Some civic- Cities. minded bloggers take a critical tone with local gov- ernment; others are less combative. But no matter This was news to Griff Wigley, the founder of a what the prevailing tone, these blogs give readers a community blog called Locally Grown Northfield. rich sense of place. So Wigley called the local police chief, who con- firmed that he was investigating the issue. Wigley In fact, “placebloggers” is the collective name for then wrote the first of what would be more than a the citizens who generate locally driven blogs and dozen posts on the topic. news sites. A Zogby survey released in February 2008 found that 70 percent of Americans say jour- “We lit the fuse,” he recalls. “We were kind of nalism is important to maintaining community qual- ground zero and took a huge amount of abuse for ity of life, but that nearly as high a number—67 it.” But Wigley says that positive changes happened percent—say the traditional media are out of touch as a result of the increased publicity. Posts and com- with what citizens want out of their news. Bill ments at Locally Grown recount these changes: Densmore of the Media Giraffe Project at the updated curriculum and more counseling at local University of Massachusetts-Amherst says the rise in high schools, increased local treatment options, and community blogs has happened as local newspapers plenty of honest conversation over substance abuse. cut staff, adding, “People hunger for community, but the economic reality of the mainstream media is Wigley is one of a growing number of local bloggers that they can’t supply that need anymore, or choose and citizen journalists who write about and advo- not to.” cate for their communities in sustained, organized ways on the Internet. These blogs (the word is short- The Media Giraffe Project recently welcomed com- hand for Web log) and local news sites are run as a munity bloggers, journalists, and researchers to A labor of love by one or more writers, most with no Passion for Place—New Pamphleteers/New formal journalism training. The best blogs evolve Reporters: Convening Entrepreneurs Who Combine into online communities where dozens—sometimes Journalism, Democracy, Place, and Blogs, a confer- hundreds—of citizens regularly comment, offer ence held jointly with the Minnesota Journalism news tips, and generally gather around these blogs Center at the University of Minnesota. “It’s clear just as they might meet at a local coffee shop. there’s more momentum for these things,” says Wigley, who was among about 180 people attending Community blogs are having a sizable impact on the conference in June 2008. “I was encouraged traditional journalism. Many serve a watchdog to the point where maybe I ought to write a book on © 2009 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com) 24 National Civic Review • DOI: 10.1002/ncr.230 • Winter 2008 Community blogs are having a sizable impact chipping instead of burning. “We’re trying to get city leaders to see [that] you have to communicate in on traditional journalism. this new world,” he says. He wants to see more can- didates for office write blogs, and continue blogging if they win. this.” Wigley certainly has the background: in 1991, Locally Grown is also the first pilot site for the an Utne Reader neighborhood salon in Northfield national Representative Journalism project, which is considered, as its topic, how the then-fledgling exploring the idea of having a community support its own journalists. Bonnie Obremski, a young but Internet could be harnessed for the public good. That discussion led to the founding of an orga- seasoned reporter, came to Northfield in June 2008 nization called Northfield Citizens Online and an to do more in-depth stories that run on (but are edi- online bulletin board, which became a blog, torially separate from) the Locally Grown site. She Northfield.org, in 2003. Wigley went on to launch reports not to Wigley and his partners but to Locally Grown and has also become an Internet Leonard Witt, a journalism professor at Georgia’s coach whose Website notes that Wigley and Kennesaw State University who founded the “RepJ” Associates specializes in “leadership blogging, citi- project, and to Chris Peck, the editor of the zen media, and weapons of mass collaboration.” (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, who give editorial guidance. Witt’s vision is that someday there may be professional journalists plying their trade on com- On the Web, On the Air munity blogs and news Websites across the country. The heroin story was somewhat atypical fare for A similar project funded by a Knight News Chal- Locally Grown, which also exists as a weekly pod- lenge grant, Spot.us, is promoting “community- cast (audio show) that airs on a local radio station. funded reporting” that, according to its Website, As they write the blog and create the audio show in “allows an individual or group to take control of news by sharing the cost [crowdfunding] to com- their own time, Wigley and partners Ross Currier and Tracy Davis (both of whom are active in the mission freelance journalists” to investigate and business community and sit on the Northfield write stories on specific topics. Planning Commission) tend to focus at least as much on what’s good in their communities as what’s Evidence of how community-driven journalism dif- wrong. Wigley asked to delay his interview for this fers from traditional reporting could be seen in an article so he could take photographs of the mock August 2008 post that Obremski made at Locally kidnapping of a team of judges visiting Northfield Grown the morning of a public hearing for the city’s for the “America in Bloom” competition. planned annexation of 530 acres of farmland from an adjacent township for industrial use. At the top Yet Locally Grown doesn’t hesitate to call local of her story offering background on the issue, leaders into question. Recently, for example, the city Obremski offered this “Note to readers:” cut down a dozen trees with no notice. Wigley took pictures, put up a blog post, and gave his neighbors Please keep these questions in mind when read- a place to vent their frustrations online. In another ing the feature below and respond, if you would instance, Northfield blog posts questioned the city like, to help me move forward with coverage: practice of burning tree waste at a city lot. The chief What are more benefits and shortcomings of a complainer got appointed to a city commission plan that would ask Northfield residents to pay overseeing the lot, and the panel decided to do wood for water and sewer lines to extend to newly National Civic Review DOI: 10.1002/ncr Winter 2008 25 annexed properties along the city’s northwest “We’re trying to get city leaders to see that you border? Who can give current estimates of the cost of the proposed project to lay that infra- have to communicate in this new world.” structure? What do residents envision as the best use of the undeveloped farmland? Are there questions surrounding the annexation proposal I have not yet attempted to answer? neither City Hall nor the local electrical utility nor The online medium makes it easier for reporters to Seattle’s daily newspapers could match. collaborate with the community to ensure coverage that is truly “fair and balanced,” and the unlimited Record and Sand knew they were making a differ- space allowed on the Internet—as opposed to the ence for their neighborhood when they heard from finite amount of column space or airtime faced by people who, although they were without power, had traditional media sources—may mean much more called family and friends far from Seattle, asked comprehensive coverage as stories evolve. Obremski them to get online, call up West Seattle Blog, and says that although she’d been in Northfield for only read the latest storm-related posts to them. Traffic to a few weeks, people began stopping her on the street the blog more than doubled during that period, to talk about the community: “I’m not sure this from a thousand page views on December 14 to would happen in every community. Northfield is a twice that a week later. As of August 2008, West very civic-minded community, to say the least.” Seattle Blog had about fifty-four hundred unique daily users and seventeen thousand page views per Obremski had a journalism background, but Jan day in a neighborhood of about seventy thousand Schaffer, executive director for J-Lab, the Institute people. It’s also become a full-time business for its for Interactive Journalism, notes that many new cit- founders, and it has about thirty local businesses izen-driven blogs and news sites are run by “people signed up as regular advertisers. who don’t necessarily aspire to be journalists, but aspire to help community life go well.” According to Schaffer, these activist-minded bloggers are covering A New Breed of Watchdog neighborhoods in a way that traditional media Some community blogs have a proudly adversarial sources aren’t, “unless there’s some horrible crime. relationship to governments and officials they mon- They’re adding feet on the street at a very hyperlocal itor. Professional photographer and avowed level.” “growthophobe” Dave Frazier was an avid govern- mental watchdog long before he started his Boise Take the West Seattle Blog, run by the mom-and- Guardian blog in 2005. There’s even an Idaho pop team of Tracy Record and Patrick Sand (who Supreme Court decision named for him, one that actually are trained journalists). In December 2006, upheld the Idaho Constitution’s mandate that local Seattle was socked by a ferocious windstorm that government entities cannot hold debt for more than knocked out power to parts of the city for up to a a year without a two-thirds vote of citizens. Frazier’s week. Record, a TV news veteran who’d launched Guardian has been successful enough that a spin-off her neighborhood blog one year before, happened to effort, the Caldwell Guardian, started in a nearby have the week off from her day job. She swung into suburb in 2007. TheGuardianblogs would never be action with dozens of posts offering block-by-block mistaken for government house organs; in fact, information on the power outages and other related Gary Deulen, a chief deputy for the Canyon County hazards spawned by the storm—information that Sheriff’s Office, called Caldwell Guardian blogger 26 National Civic Review DOI: 10.1002/ncr Winter 2008 Paul Alldredge and Deloris Cram ofCanyon County successes, and attract new participants. The Watch in nearby Nampa “CAVE people: Citizens Northwest Area Foundation decided to use blogs as Against Virtually Everything.” a key component of its Horizons program, which helps small rural and reservation communities But Frazier says he has no doubt the blogs serve a across seven states in the Upper Midwest, Great need that was going unfilled by traditional media Plains, and Northwest move “from poverty to pros- sources. “I’m doing the job of the news media and perity.” “One of the things we wanted to try and I’m doing the job of the city, and I shouldn’t have understand and capture is what was happening in to,” he says. All too often, when confronting local these communities,” explains Jerry Uribe, an NWAF officials with claims of fiscal irresponsibility or ethi- director who oversees the Horizons program. cal missteps, Frazier says “the first thing they say is ‘You’re wrong.’” Pushing his hands in front of him Blogs, he adds, have given the foundation a front- in a “back off” gesture, he adds, “Rather than, row seat—from a distance—into what’s happening ‘We’ll take a look at this.’” At first, Ada County in the communities: “Our philosophy is, we don’t would not send him its press releases, claiming he like to interject ourselves at the community level, but was not a legitimate journalist, but relented after the blogs allow us to have a sense of what is happening president of the Idaho Press Club wrote a letter on across 140 or 150 communities.” Each Horizons Frazier’s behalf. Indeed, Frazier is a third-generation blog post is numerically keyed to one or more of a journalist whose father and grandfather both dozen goals (among them “Building knowledge and worked for newspapers in Michigan, and who him- awareness around poverty” and “Building skills and self shot news photos for top newspapers and mag- mobilizing around leadership”) that all Horizons azines worldwide before turning to stock communities are pursuing, allowing NWAF, its photography in the 1980s. regional Horizons delivery organizations, and indi- vidual communities to track which goals are being Frazier says that, after three years of blogging, city addressed. and county government employees frequently come to him with tips. Sometimes, he even takes things NWAF hired Wigley to help put blogging tools in into his own hands, as when he stepped up to pay place for the program, and to coach communities $4.78 in late fees for a local man who’d had a lien in using the Internet, both through in-person ses- placed on his home. (The late fees had accrued when sions and online screencasts. Wigley was encouraged the Nampa-Meridian Irrigation District initially sent to make the tools work “at the speed of dial-up,” the bill to the wrong address.) The case wound up Uribe says, especially since many rural and reserva- on page one of Boise’s newspaper, the Idaho tion communities still lack access to high-speed Statesman. Soon after the coverage, the Nampa- broadband service. Meridian Irrigation District reviewed the taxpayer’s case, waived the late fees, and sent Frazier a check An August 2008 survey from the Communications for $4.78. Workers of America showed that of the five states with the slowest broadband Internet in the United States, four of them—Idaho, Montana, North Tracking Increased Engagement Dakota, and Wyoming—are in NWAF’s service In another category of place-based blogs, organiza- area. NWAF doesn’t require Horizons communities tions that promote civic engagement have recently to have blogs, but many do. “It’s highly encour- begun helping communities use blogs and other aged,” Uribe says. “We are going to continue this online tools to record their work, document their blogging strategy because there’s value to it.” National Civic Review DOI: 10.1002/ncr Winter 2008 27 One of the best Horizons blog serves Eveleth, Everyday Democracy, formerly the Study Circles Minnesota, a community known as the home of the Resource Center, has also reached out to help com- U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame and the site of Sen. Paul munities access the Internet. In September 2007, Wellstone’s 2002 plane crash. The mining town has Everyday Democracy launched a blog called seen tough times lately as its population dropped DemocracySpace that frequently features guest from just over four thousand in 1990 to about posts from communities that are taking advantage thirty-six hundred today. Steady population and of the organization’s methods of using large-scale, economic declines are among the reasons Eveleth inclusive public dialogue to solve pressing local decided to become involved in Horizons, and in problems. Executive director Martha McCoy says June 2007 several participants launched a blog as a that a growing number of citizen leaders realize the way to share the information, ideas, and action proj- importance of using the Internet, especially to reach ects that were bubbling up out of the project. people who are unable to attend town meetings; to recruit participants, especially younger residents, for The first post was a reprint of a local newspaper new programs and projects; and to generate a lively story on the wrap-up of community dialogues multimedia record of progress for supporters, offi- (called study circles) held in Eveleth. Before long, cials, and even funders. however, the Eveleth Horizons blog was turning into a chronicle of happenings in Eveleth—a way to record progress, bring the community together, and Keep It Fun; Use Lots of Photos offer a valuable service in a town where the tradi- What are the hallmarks of a great community blog? tional weekly newspaper is not available online. By Given people’s hectic lives and the amount of hours the time Eveleth had its community visioning event most of us already spend online, fun has to be one in November 2007, the blog had not only promoted component. “First and foremost, they ought to be a the event with several advance posts but boasted place where people can, in an enjoyable way, put on coverage of the actual event the very night it hap- their citizen hat, converse with people and become a pened. In short, in a global 24/7 media culture ruled little more knowledgeable than they were before,” by breaking news, scandal, and celebrity gossip, the says Wigley. Eveleth Horizons blog is serving as a major source of the news that matters most to the people in It’s hard to measure, he adds, but it’s always been Eveleth. the Locally Grown team’s hope that the more peo- ple who read the blog and hear its related podcasts, Is it hard to do? Blogger Stefanie Jarvis (who also the more will attend local city council and school works, goes to school, and raises two young chil- board meetings and be better informed when they dren) is one of three Eveleth residents who collabo- show up: “We’re sort of modeling, in certain ways, rate on the project. She says that she sometimes that being a citizen is fun. It’s engaging. It’s not just spends three or four hours a week on the blog, but voting; that’s at the bottom of the civic ladder.” it’s been a good creative outlet. She likes to find new ways to jazz up the blog, such as scrolling text and In his recent article for National Civic Review,Brad an “email us” button using code she copied from a Rourke explained how the blog he started in 2007, MySpace page. It’s also cheap: there’s no charge for Rockville Central, grew quickly to gain notice from Google’s Blogger tools, or for most of the widgets local officials and give citizens a way to plug into that are abundantly available on the Internet. (See their community. “It’s a space for people who other- the sidebar for resources on starting a community wise aren’t involved in public life,” he says. But it has blog.) also built community away from cyberspace, as at 28 National Civic Review DOI: 10.1002/ncr Winter 2008 Links to Community Blogs Locally Grown Northfield http://locallygrownnorth- The Knight Citizen News Network has a directory of nearly field.org/ 850 citizen-run news sites and blogs: http://www.kcnn.org/citmedia_sites/. New Haven Independent http://newhavenindepen- dent.org/ Griff Wigley created a series of screencasts as visual aids for communities starting blogs through the Northwest Area Foundation’s Horizons program: West Seattle Blog http://westseattleblog.com/blog/ http://www.kcnn.org/citmedia_sites/. Boise Guardian http://boiseguardian.com/ The screencasts tell how to set up a blog in WordPress, one popular blogging platform (http://wordpress.com/). Eveleth Horizons http://www.eveleth.blogspotc.om/ Other popular and easy-to-use platforms include Google’s Blogger (http://www.blogger.com) and Rockville Central http://www.rockvillecentral.com/ SixApart’s TypePad (http://www.typepad.com). monthly lunch meetings that are announced on the by the Representative Journalism and Spot.us proj- blog. Rourke, Frazier, and Wigley are also big propo- ects. But few community bloggers, even those who nents of putting lots of photos on local blogs, to add get paid, are in it for the money. “It’s a labor of love. visual interest and strengthen threads of community. It’s almost a form of volunteerism,” says Jan Schaffer. “They can give back to their community All bloggers, whether individuals or traditional through the media, through media participation. media members, wrestle with the greater freedoms They’re citizens who are paying attention to their the Internet allows for anonymity and dialogue that communities and are helping others pay attention.” might not pass muster in the print edition of your local paper. References The best civic blogs tend to set a civil tone that Bass, P. “About the New Haven Independent.” Retrieved Sept. 23, 2008, from http://www.newhavenindependent.org/ encourages people to remain neighborly, and many discourage anonymous commenting. According to about_us.php. Wigley,Locally Grownseeks to be a place where cit- “Progress Against Meth Good News About Bad News.” izens and leaders can “mix it up, not to be where (Editorial.) St. Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota), June 20, 2007, B12. things are decided, but so issues can be teased out over time. I think we have a really good track record Rourke, B. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Blog.” National Civic Review, 2008, 97(3), 17-25. with that,” he says. “Zogby Poll: 67% View Traditional Journalism as ‘Out of In the end, most place-based bloggers are investing Touch.’” Feb. 27, 2008. Retrieved Sept. 23, 2008, from countless hours (usually for free) because they love http://www.zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1454. their communities and want to see them be the best place they can be. Is this sustainable? Some local sites Julie Fanselow, who served as online organizer for Everyday such as West Seattle Blogare evolving into more tra- Democracy, formerly the Study Circles Resource Center, has been following the rise of community blogging for the past ditional, advertiser-supported news outlets. Others may fund reporting through the methods being tried five years. National Civic Review DOI: 10.1002/ncr Winter 2008 29
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