Across the country, community media projects have been sprouting out of a dying traditional media system that has often failed to deliver what the public really wants: local news and information. Now, more than ever before, citizens are taking the media back, using this time of media chaos to forge ahead with news projects that serve their interests – regardless of whether they graduated from J-school or not.
As a “trained” journalist, I understand those who feel threatened by these upstart media projects: Where’s the professionalism? The hard-hitting reporters and fact-checking? But that’s really just my ego talking; there will always be “professional” news outlets in some form. In other words, rather than take the place of mainstream media, new websites are doing something much more essential: reigniting democracy at the grassroots.
Addicted to community news
Last year, Mary Serreze started NorthamptonMedia.com, an advertising-supported website serving my community in western Massachusetts. Serreze was working in the IT department of the local newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, when she became discouraged by their political coverage. So she began steeping herself in local politics, and was soon bursting to share what she was learning.
She started a radio program at the local Low Power FM radio station, and then developed her multimedia reporting skills. When the Gazette declined to publish her work, Serreze decided to step out on her own – or rather, step up and ask the community for help. The all volunteer-run site, a self-proclaimed “one-stop-shopping” portal for Northamptonites, believes in the “nimble, street-level approach to collecting the news.” Serreze said she started the site “to create a little buzz about things like planning board meetings. Once you start getting involved, it becomes sort of addictive.”
In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed NorthamptonMedia.com step up its level of reporting to begin to challenge newspapers in the area. “The newspapers don’t always provide in-depth reporting,” Serreze says. “We’re prodding them to do a better job.” It used to be that letters-to-the-editor were the only way citizens could communicate with newspapers, question editorial judgment and push for specific reporting. But the traditional gatekeeper walls on news and information have been dismantled by technology. Now readers can challenge local media by simply doing the reporting themselves and turning to alternative local news sources.
The local arena, Serreze says, is where people can effect change, where “you can really dig in, and perhaps make a difference.” It turns out that many other newcomers to journalism in communities across the country are thinking the same thing.
Painting a real local picture
On the same day The Rapidian was awarded a three-year grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the daily local paper in Grand Rapids, Mich., announced it was downsizing from four sections to two. It was perfect timing for the birth of a citizen journalism project that “empowers neighborhood residents to report the news from the inside out.”
The Rapidian’s vision is to create four news bureaus in different sections of the city and use a mentoring system to train citizen journalists. In its first three months of operation last fall, the site has received 120,000 page views and more than 300 submitted news items.
Publisher Laurie Cirivello said the site is helping give a voice to neighborhoods whose residents have felt divided and disenfranchised by mainstream media. “We’ve got a lot of neighborhoods who think they don’t get coverage, or the only coverage they get is when somebody gets shot or a house is broken in to,” she said. “There’s no productive coverage that paints a real picture of what’s going on in those neighborhoods.”
Cirivello said one of the most fascinating parts of The Rapidian was how city residents came together to create the site and cherry-picked positive elements of traditional media while simultaneously creating a new vision to better serve their needs. Cirivello noted that the community decided not to allow anonymity in the comment section of the site.
“The shield of anonymity provided a forum for a lot of hate and spewing,” she said. “The community wanted to try it as a town square, where you come with your face and your whole self.”
The community blog Duke City Fix in Albuquerque, N.M., was also born out of disappointment with the (only) local newspaper’s coverage of events and the realization that community members needed their own forum. “In Albuquerque, there’s only one newspaper left – the Albuquerque Journal,” says Chantal Foster, who created the site in 2005. “They’re a large land owner, so it should come as no surprise that their slant is pro-growth, pro-sprawl. I wanted … to offer a different perspective on the community.”
Duke City Fix, which has been publishing longer than most new arrivals, has seriously impacted its community by deepening relationships between residents and hosting their organizing efforts. (For example, a group of cycling activists used the website to successfully organize a campaign to get the city to build a boulevard connecting several disparate bike paths.)
Foster emphasizes a common element of community media I’ve always cheered: the inclusion of traditionally disenfranchised voices.
“As a woman seeing so many [male-dominated] generations of authority figures, I like to see more voices trickle up,” she said. “These online communities have allowed other voices to gain prominence.”
But Foster also points out some of the challenges posed by community media, something often overlooked when new projects are trumpeted.
“In some ways, people’s analytic capacity is decreasing and they’re forming like-minded communities to hear themselves rant and vent,” she said. “If you’re not paid to do in-depth research on an issue, the only folks who will do that research are one-sided and politically motivated – passionate to the exclusion of another viewpoint. I don’t think that’s great for the evolution of our community discourse.”
Of course, community media projects face a more tangible problem, the same problem decimating traditional media: how to create a viable business model. Many new projects still lack sustainable models. But challenges aside, Foster is grateful for the contribution the project has made to the community.
“If the point of life is to make the world slightly better when you leave it than it was, I feel like in some teeny, tiny way, maybe I’ve done that,” Foster said. “Or provided the forum for others to do that.”
What’s encouraging about this DIY-approach to media is how many people are stepping up to work long hours and volunteer to report and write stories. This means that people understand what their communities are worth, and they’re no longer willing to accept a media system that discounts them.
As more citizens report on their local city council meetings, I’m hopeful they’ll feel emboldened to fight for a better media system by supporting universal broadband access, net neutrality and well-funded public media, and opposing media mergers that further consolidate the industry. In Northhampton, Grand Rapids, Albuquerque, and most places in between, journalism’s status quo is clearly not good enough.