Journalism Returns to its (Grass) Roots

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When Christopher Grotke and Lisa LePage moved their Web site development business from Boston to Brattleboro, Vermont a couple of years ago, they were impressed by a local radio station that allowed anyone in the community to become a disc jockey. They decided to apply the same concept to a Web site, and invited anyone in the community to contribute content and discuss community issues in an open forum. Grotke and LePage did not know it at the time, but iBrattleboro.com, the site they developed, was part of a growing trend called citizen (or grassroots) journalism that has returned journalism to its origins as a "Town Crier" communication method.

In the emerging world of citizen journalism, content is generated almost exclusively by members of the community, rather than by professional journalists. Ordinary citizens contribute stories about their lives (live from their own backyards), stories that might be considered mundane by most professional publishers. Community Web sites provide a place for people to celebrate the ordinary victories in their lives, a forum for discussing local political issues, coverage that specifically suits its local readership, and a way to connect people to one another—all things found wanting in a world dominated by big media monopolies.

This article explores this growing movement, looking at what has propelled it, why people are so attracted to it, and how it is being encouraged and developed on many levels both to support the community and even to support a new journalistic business model.

Defining Citizen Journalism
Citizen journalism is so new that it does not even yet have a formal name. You might hear terms like community, participatory, or grassroots to describe it, but they all refer to the same basic concept of giving people the tools to publish their own content. JD Lasica, one of the founders of the grassroots media site Ourmedia.org and a journalist who writes the New Media Musings Weblog, which is devoted to information about the changing face of media, says that whatever you call it, it is about people taking up the tools of media and creating content by themselves for themselves. "There are a lot of names for this, but it all revolves around the same idea of regular folks becoming part of the news equation—being creators and producers and designers of media instead of passive consumers," Lasica says.

Lasica believes that the trend really took off with blogs. "The first wave of citizen journalism was the explosion of Weblogs, primarily text-based. They fulfilled the promise of the Internet and the Web, which from the beginning, was the ability to create stuff in an easy way. People weren't doing it before because it was too hard to do," Lasica says. Now, he points out, it is no longer limited to text, but includes digital pictures, digital video, podcasts (personal radio broadcasts that play on Apple iPods and other media players), and more.

Mary Lou Fulton, managing editor at the Northwest Voice, a community newspaper in Bakersfield, California, which began publishing last year using the community journalism model, thinks it's about turning the traditional media model on its head. "The media business has done a good job of turning our readers and viewers into passive people. We have not given them ways to participate, and have actually discouraged participation. If you don't know anything about our business, we have very little transparency. One of the great advantages of citizen journalism is that it really opens up the process. We accept everything that is local and appropriate to a family publication, and this changes the whole conversation with the reader," Fulton says.

Lasica points out that citizen journalists look at news a bit differently from the traditional media. "Citizens define news a lot more broadly than traditional journalists do. What's news to them could be a little league game or the swim meet," Lasica says. LePage concurs, saying her site gives people an outlet to share all kinds of content. "The site offers a great way to find out what people in town are thinking, and it's a great way for people in town to share ideas. If you have a group, you can publicize it, or an event that's coming up. If you are a poet or a writer, you can do a creative piece. If you are very fired up about some issue, you can discuss that." In March, for example, the site's big issue involved the resignation of the local select board member. LePage says this may not seem like a big deal outside of the community, but it was for the Brattleboro area.

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