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Hypergene MediaBlog » iBrattleboro: Citizens can be good reporters despite a lack of qualifications
All about Participatory Journalism - how audiences are changing the future of news and information.
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iBrattleboro: Citizens can be good reporters despite a lack of qualifications

We did and email interview with Christopher Grotke and Lise LePage of the Vermont community web site, last November in preparation for our Harvard Nieman Reports article:

iBrattleboro Q: What prompted you to start

A few things. When we moved to Brattleboro in 2001, we noticed that the town had no good web site with information about the town. We first thought we’d create a site that had stories about the history of the town, links to local businesses, etc. We were thinking of a static, informational site. Not interactive. We got distracted with other work (we’re web designers) and let it slide.

In late 2002, we thought about it again and realized we could do it differently. We had another “community” site relating to indie music that was open to everyone anywhere and wasn’t really doing what we wanted… but we were aware of open-source CMS (Content Management System) software and wondered if that might be something to use for a town site - maybe others would help us fill in the content.

Really old newspapers were an inspiration - extremely local news like “Mrs. Smith will be traveling to visit her sister for a week.”

Brattleboro had a community radio station, rfb (radio free brattleboro) that allowed anyone to become a DJ. There was also the cable access channels where anyone could produce a TV show.

We were also hearing rumblings about the FCC wanting to allow major media outlets to consolidate and take over more territory, and this bothered us. We have one paper in town and thought it was, well, a dangerous situation from the point of view of an informed public.

The proverbial light above our heads went off - ding - we could make a newspaper-like thingie that would allow anyone in town to become a reporter. We knew there were smart people with good ideas and if they used it the site could be quite good. We didn’t know if they would do it, though, but thought that with rfb and BCTV, it would be a natural addition to a town that seemed to like to make its own media.

We looked around, liked Geeklog, and got the site up and running by Feb 2003. Six months later or so we found out about OhMyNews in Korea and said, “Hey, that’s what we are doing. Citizen journalism! It has a name!"

Q: What have you learned?

Not sure yet. George Clinton says “give the people what they want and they want it all the time.” That comes to mind occasionally.

We’ve learned that our hunch was right and this is a great thing. It keeps impressing and delighting us - and occasionally driving us nuts.

We’ve learned that when people see the site they seem to like it and want it where they live. People covering citizen journalism seem very interested in figuring out the secret to success.

We’ve also learned that we really like the people around here, and they all have a lot to contribute. Citizens can be good reporters despite a lack of “qualifications” - a lot of news can be shared. Giving people freedom of speech can be hard, as some want to abuse it, and others aren’t yet used to it.

Now that iBrattleboro is there, people expect it to be there for them. If it goes down for even a moment, we hear about it. We have to check it multiple times a day, every day of the year. Holidays, vacations - maybe that’s something we’re missing - clones.

Q: What impact have you seen within your community?

Pretty amazing stuff. Almost too much to list.

One recent example: we did a story about the troubles at BCTV late last spring. Reporters at papers picked it up and came to meetings. They reported on the weirdness. That caused more citizens to come to meetings. This led to quite a few things, but the end result was that the people causing problems all resigned last week, and the station will soon be back to being a healthy organization.

During the war’s start and after the election last year, the site was a little spot of sanity and comfort for people watching mainstream media in disbelief. iBrattleboro talked about election fraud in Ohio when the MSM was saying “get over it.”

We’re able to cover things on weekends, when The Reformer stops their news (one weekend issue for Sat and Sunday). They miss stuff. So, news about the big fire downtown was completely reported, photographed, etc. on our site two days before the paper could get to it.

Election results published were within an hour or two of the polls closing rather than the next morning.

We’re also providing a community and voice to some shut-ins and shy people.

Q: What is missing from iBrattleboro (content, functionality, more members, training, etc)?

I’d like people to cover even more meetings, review movies and restaurants, recipes, book reviews… More of everything, and more reports on the same event would be fun. More! More good writers doing full stories would be nice. We have a few great writers doing great things. More!

Functionally, we plan to upgrade the site soon, add classified ads, ride boards. We don’t NEED more members, but they keep coming anyway and we like that the diversity keeps growing. Once we hit 12,000 registered users, we’ll be pretty much done, I think.

Training wouldn’t be bad at some point, but most people pick it up pretty quickly. We have teens and grandparents on the site, and everyone in between.

Linking up with the other local media - community radio and tv and the upcoming local paper. We could all get in sync with one another and get people using all these together.

Q: How has the local newspaper, Brattleboro Reformer, responded?

Reporters read the site and look for story ideas. They did a couple of stories on us, too, when we were just getting going. One reporter called to see if a site like this could be created in another town (they wanted to quit...).

We’re under their radar to some degree because we haven’t bit into their ad revenues. Yet. (We plan to be filled with local ads within 10 years. Only 7 to go!)

They are owned by MediaNews Group in Denver, so “management” doesn’t really care about the town at all. They have a high turnover rate for reporters. Their “senior” reporters are fresh out of college with no experience and little understand of the town or what happened here even a year ago. Really. It’s a pretty sad little paper, is losing revenue and respect, but it IS the town paper so people feel obligated to buy it. A new community paper is trying to start up, too, now.

I expect that someday, Denver will give them new web software that has a “citizen journalism” component - not because they care, but because it is trendy and others do it.

Q: iBrattleboro appears to be part of a growing phenomenon. Other people are experimenting with similar projects in communities around the country. Where, in your opinion, is all of this going? Why are citizens participating? What would get more of them to participate?

It’s great, isn’t it?

Where is it going? No idea. I don’t see authentic citizen journalism sites replacing newspapers, just as TV didn’t replace radio. It’s just another technology/tool in the mix. Our sites probably challenge and intrigue “real” reporters and editors, but they shouldn’t worry. And if they were smart they wouldn’t try to copy us. I don’t believe they can do it as well, and would be sacrificing what they DO do well… real, professional journalism. I would hope they’d use this as an opportunity to invest in even better professional journalism… to make a clearer distinction with sites like ours.

I think on the citizen journalism side, citizen journalists will get better. The more examples they see, the easier it is to “get it”, and the quality of everyone’s participation will rise.

People may begin to decide which town they want to live in based partly on if the town has something like this there for them. I know people here would feel pretty empty and alone without a site like this. They now take it for granted.

Why are they participating? Well, we asked them to, for one. It’s a place where a story can get out even if the paper won’t cover it. That was another reason we started the site - we would send press releases to the paper and they wouldn’t be published for whatever reason… maybe lack of space. Our site has space and encourages people to tell their story, however small.

This site also allows people to discuss things in detail, and people like to discuss things. We have no limits on length, so we get some very long, well-researched pieces. We also get paragraphs that barely qualify as a “story”. It’s all good, and who are we to judge what the town should read. We aren’t really like the Editor of a paper, deciding what to cover. It’s funny how often we are “covering” the same things, though.

We also scoop the papers and people are learning that they can get news on iBrattleboro before the morning paper comes out. (Our citizen journalists also have seniority over most of the newspaper staff now, too… an odd situation. Our stories can be more accurate, more in depth, and can be in a larger context than recent arrival from a journalism school can produce, even if they are great. They just don’t know the history of the stories they cover, or the people involved.

We have some features (Emma’s Maze, for example) that are unique to us, too. People like seeing the agendas of meetings, checking the calendar of events to see what’s going on, using the list of local links to find local web sites (we have more in our index that Google or Yahoo have in their Brattlebor directories) (We have over 330… they have about 40-50).

I think people also like the unpredictable nature of the site - anything can happen and it usually does - and they like sharing information and ideas with the people they know. Our site works so well, to some degree, because this is a small town (12,000) and people see each other on the street and talk, go to meetings and talk, and get online and keep going...

Getting more to participate? We just crossed 1,000 registered users, and that doesn’t count all the people who don’t “join” but read it.  Just about everyone in town who follows news and issues knows about and checks the site, based on who we run into and what they say. There are some luddites out there without computers, but the library provides free access. We like growing naturally, by word of mouth and by our reputation. We’ve never advertised, for example, other than word of mouth and a few tiny flyers when we first started.

We could probably do some media mentor programs to get underserved audiences, or kids, to get involved. Strangely, the activist crowd hasn’t really “got it” yet and we thought they’d be all over it from day one. And some ultra conservatives seem to want to avoid us because of the activists!

We’re happy with the way things are growing and have always had a 10 year plan to become a staple of the town. I think we’ll beat that, now, too.

Posted on Feb 24, 2006 | 1:19 pm EST

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