Stake Your Claim in the Community… Newspaper

Newspapers grew out of local communities' need to communicate, for the most part, the more mundane aspects of life: auctions, real estate transactions, events, and, occasionally, a more scintillating tragedy or crime. But over time, the newspaper's role shifted from community service tool to expertise and entertainment vehicle. While this certiainly brought in a broad reading audience—and advertising revenue—ties to the community loosened. Publications still included information that would meet readers' needs to know, but they began to employ professional writers and opinion makers instead of some civic-minded citizen willing to have ink-stained hands and earn little for her efforts.

"There's been a professionalism of journalism in the past 20 or 30 years," says Mary Lou Fulton, publisher of The Northwest Voice. "It used to be a blue collar profession. Journalists add value through perspective but the news becomes what we choose to write about." Fulton—who holds a degree in journalism from Arizona State and has worked for community papers for years, followed by a stint in the then-burgeoning online community at Geocities and AOL—emphasizes that newspapers never abandoned the people they served. She says that getting individuals to participate in the publication process has always been "a holy grail in the newspaper industry," but that recent efforts have largely been unsuccessful.

The Northwest Voice has gleaned a lot of press for being one of the first print and Web newspapers to be produced almost completely by voluntary contributions, in its case, from the people living in the northwest part of the Bakersfield, CA community it serves. While not the first of its kind—The Melrose Mirror, produced by the Silver Stringers, dates back to 1996—Fulton has used the experience to take the reigns of advocacy for this populist approach to news production.

As Jack Driscoll, editor-in-residence at the MIT Media Laboratory (and advisor for the Silver Stringers) put it: "Average citizens had no printing presses in their cellars, no broadcast networks to tap into. Now they do." For Driscoll's maiden project with the Stringers, he had to teach them both how to be journalists and how to interact with the technology.

However, a convergence of time, place, and technology has made not only a local newspaper published by the community for the community possible, but has also allowed Fulton to evangelize a new Web-enabled publishing model she calls Open Source Journalism. "Folks are very familiar with the Internet, we have rapid broadband penetration, and everyone has a digital camera… all of these things have come together at a time and a place in Bakersfield," she says. Fulton calls her writers "community contributors," who she describes as "people who self-select and say they want to do this. We're not 40 acres and a blog here. If people want to participate, there's a way for them to do so. We are making the opportunity available for everyone to participate."

Often called participatory journalism, Fulton likens her approach to open source software development, in which collaboration is open to all and the results (source code, in the case of software) are freely shared with others. The Northwest Voice is applying this philosophy to community journalism by inviting local residents to participate in the collective creation of a newspaper and Web site. She offers a how-to guide for publishers or individuals seeking to replicate this model.

But despite likening her philosophy to that of the open source software movement, Fulton didn't find the technology part of her equation in open source solutions. "We started looking for open source stuff, but there isn't anything out there that quite does this" (though she believes that if they'd had the right technical team they could have created an open source solution). To start her search, Fulton wrote a wish list for the paper's contribution method: "We needed the ability to contribute content in a non-technical way, with an easy, non-intimidating interface; registration so we understand who is sending stuff and for users of our site; we needed to be able to manage the content, review and categorize it; communicate with our contributors; and have administrative controls like who could post to the site directly; discussion forums, an events calendar… I had a very long wish list."

Despite the enthusiastic backing of The Northwest Voice's parent organization, The Bakersfield Californian, price was also an issue, which ruled out the CM majors, and Fulton also felt strongly that it was important to work with someone who "gets what we're doing; people who can take your idea and make it better." She selected iUpload in large part because of the ease of its user interface, "I was very impressed by the interface, which is really easy and consumer friendly. It told me that this was a company that had a consumer sensibility about it." In discussing her objectives with iUpload, they settled on the company's blogging platform, Personal Publisher, as the underlying foundation of the solution.

"Blogging is a powerful technology for driving participatory journalism," according to iUpload president Robin Hopper, "because it acts as an engine or metaphor for turning members of the community into journalists without any learning curve."

Hopper points out that "there already is a lot of awareness and interest in participatory journalism, now the technologies are following. We've seen a surge of interest from people who are promoting this type of journalism. We have no doubt that we'll see a wave of adoption, because the technology implements quickly, is fairly inexpensive, and creates a significant competitive advantage for these news organizations."

The Northwest Voice began implementing iUpload's solution in March, 2004 and had it fully operational by May. With six print issues and a 28K circulation under its belt, Fulton says she expects The Northwest Voice to break even by October of this year. As Fulton describes it, "We're a little bit of a Petri dish in that people are watching and waiting, but there is a business here. We are almost to break even after just a few months, which gives an indication of the power of the idea and the business opportunity."