Journalism Returns to its (Grass) Roots

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Moderating with Moderation
There are always going to be issues about having an open forum for distribution and discussion of content. There are varying community standards about what could be considered appropriate for discussion. This leaves the people who run the site to vet what goes on the site, and they take this responsibility seriously. "Just because you have a collaborative publishing model," Fulton says, "you don't abdicate your responsibilities as journalists. We edit everything before it is published, and we are very much involved in the process of producing the publication."

Grotke and LePage see their roles as light moderators, not unlike moderators of a discussion list. While they read everything, the only time they delete anything is when it is patently offensive or if it has no local link whatsoever, such as events going on in Boston. They do, however, allow discussions of national topics such as the presidential election results. "We like the pure expression of what people say, and we are aware that when people send a letter to the editor at local paper, they edit it or don't print it, and we just don't do that," Grotke says.

Can Grassroots Journalism Make Green?
With a business model deeply rooted in the community, this type of online news forum offers extremely localized advertising opportunities, attracting small local businesses that might not be able to afford to advertise in more traditional media outlets.

Fulton says the print version of her paper is offered for free, so they use a traditional advertising model, and display ads on the Web version of the publication, as well is in print. They try to attract businesses that cannot afford or prefer not to be in other media outlets. They also cross-sell with a sister publication, and they keep the staff lean, relying on only three full-time people and one part-time person to monitor and produce the publication. "We've never had an issue where we didn't generate revenue," she says. "We are very close to profitability, which is not too shabby after 10 months."

Grotke and LePage take a different approach for, seeing the site more as a public service and a way to show off their Web development skills than as a money-making platform. They have a policy that they will only accept ads from local businesses, no chains, and they keep prices low to attract advertisers and keep it affordable for small businesses. "Our model is to build the site and content, and assume that once that is rolling that advertisers will come naturally," Grotke says. In fact, they recently hired an intern to sell ads, and they would be pleased if the site eventually generated steady revenue, but it is not their primary motivation for the site.

Is The Grass Greener?
The vast majority of traditional journalists needn't worry that their jobs will be co-opted by citizen journalists any time soon. In fact, people involved in the citizen journalism movement believe this is something that augments traditional media and that it is a concept traditional media should be embracing. Gillmor thinks the professional journalist's role remains unchanged, but that it must now co-exist with the citizen journalist. "The question is what the role of the new kinds of journalist will be in the world that already exists. I think there will be an ecosystem where people are doing things at different levels and in different styles and with different kinds of business models (if any). The grassroots folks will be in symbiotic relationship with the pros, at least that's what I hope," Gillmor says.

Lasica agrees. "This a movement rising along side big media. It's not going to take the place of big media. It's going to complement and work with it." Grotke and LePage have found that the local media often picks up stories that appear on their site first. "The two are not mutually exclusive," says LePage. "We don't see ourselves as a replacement." In fact, LePage says, "If iBrattleboro were to go away, local news outlets would be disappointed. We provide a window on the community they don't have because we are an open forum."

Citizen journalism is part of a wave of new media that includes blogs and podcasts and folks with digital cameras posting their pictures on Web sites. Grotke points out the irony of the World Wide Web, which is supposed to bring the whole world to your computer, but is now contributing to bringing your local community back to the individual, and in the process, giving people the power to contribute to the discussion in ways never thought possible before in traditional media models. Whether this grows and develops from a grassroots movement to a mainstream staple, only time will tell, but with the growing disaffection with media giants, the current generation of tools, and the unabated desire of people to tell their own stories, the movement should continue to grow and thrive. "Participation is something every newspaper should be doing," according to Fulton. "Through participation with readers, you get better, more relevant, and more authentic content than what you would have otherwise."

Companies Featured in This Article
New Media Musings
The Northwest Voice www.northwestvoice. com
Dan Gillmor on Grassroots Journalism
Poynter Online

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