Journalism Returns to its (Grass) Roots

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Driving Factors
Dan Gillmor, a former columnist at the San Jose Mercury News and author of a book on grassroots journalism called We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People, sees a number of converging factors pushing citizen journalism forward. "It has to do with the availability of the tools that are getting cheaper and easier to use. I also think people have a natural wish to tell their stories and to tell each other what's going on, and to some degree, dissatisfaction with media that they are already getting," Gillmor says.

Steve Outing, who covers media issues for Poynter.org, thinks it is about bringing journalism back to the community level, something that has disappeared as large media companies acquired much of the local media. "Newspapers have been bought up by chains, and they are more homogenized then they used to be. There is a great deal of dissatisfaction with local and regional newspaper coverage. They often don't have the resources to get down at the local level to cover the parts of people's lives they really care about—what's going on at their kid's school and the garden club, stuff that is really too mundane for the local newspaper to cover. The theory is that community journalism is a great way to personalize or localize coverage so it is more relevant to people," Outing says.

Lasica believes there is a fundamental need for people to communicate with one another that has been lost in the world of big media. "I think it is something deeper in the culture driving this. People are finally getting their fill of mass-media conglomerate entertainment and information. They are seeing that there is an alternative, so people are turning to alternative news sites to get a lot of their information. They are entertaining themselves—[for example,] creating music and videos. Once that light went on, people figured out we don't need to be passive recipients," Lasica says.

Getting People Involved
As much as folks want to hear their own personal stories, years of having the media spoon-feed them the news has made them complacent, so it can be difficult to convince readers that the site really belongs to them and that it is their responsibility to produce and post the content. Lasica says it is a battle to change the way people relate to the media. "I think we have been brought up in an age where people believe that media is something that is done to them, that it is something for the experts, for the professionals, for the elite; that's never been true, and we need to get out of that mindset that it's a difficult undertaking, expensive and technical," Lasica says.

LePage and Grotke say they see this all the time with iBrattleboro.com. They have people come up to them on the street asking them to publish something, and they tell them, "We aren't the reporters. You are the reporters." LePage says they spend a lot of time trying to persuade people that it's OK to post. According to Grotke, "People don't get that anyone can do it. They are used to sending it off to the newspaper and letting them handle it, or they may call us to see if a reporter can cover an event. We have had to train people to do it themselves."

Fulton says that when she helped launch the Northwest Voice, it took a lot of work in the community to get people involved, and that is an ongoing proposition. "It's a lot of work. It's not as simple as simply pronouncing that you are now accepting community content," she says. "You have to know what audience you're targeting. You need to do the leg-work of reaching out to the people in the community who have the information and teach them about participation and how to participate. You have to keep shaking the trees all the time."

According to Fulton, the Northwest Voice has tried a number of ways to encourage participation. Photo contests are a huge driver of participation because people see them as a safe way to contribute. "We drop these seeds in the paper," says Fulton. "Some work and some don't, but it creates scaffolding for participation."

The Northwest Voice uses iUpload blogging software, which provides a simple form for participants and back-end editorial control for the editorial staff, which enables them to monitor and control Web site content and select which content will appear in their weekly print version. Robin Hopper, CEO at iUpload, says the software has been fully branded to look like a unique Northwest Voice application and designed to make it as simple as possible for the contributors. People can contribute through a simple form or they can contribute to a particular section, which is actually a blog, although contributors probably wouldn't see it that way. "All the schools, churches, and associations have their own blog and can contribute whatever they like in their own personal space. Then editorial staff sifts through everything and can categorize it, accept it, and cue it for print version," Hopper says.

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