Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Citizen Journalism in Tennessee

Another citizen journalism site emerges. BlountCountyVoice.com is serving the Alcoa-Maryville area south of Knoxville, Tenn.

Like BlufftonToday.com and NorthwestVoice.com, (and the grandaddy: lawrence.com) this one also is producing a print product out of the online contributions.

In Colorado, the Boulder Daily Camera has begun Mytown.dailycamera.com, and Denver's Rocky Mountain News is promoting the May launch of YourHub.

Amy Gahran is not particularly impressed with the Colorado efforts. In a post on Poynter's E-tidbits, she says the sites are three to five years behind and calls for more innovation based on leveraging "the content, energy, and ideas" of contributors.

Since mainstream media typically is two to five years lagging, I suspect we'll see a lot of these sites pop up this year. Citizen journalism is the new "in" thing. As Gahran notes, however, most online communities are evolving quickly beyond these basic early models -- and most are not based on geography but on communities of interest.

It's the mindset that will count. Papers that look on these as ways to produce Neighbors sections on the cheap will stagnate, and we'll be back in the same place two years from now -- dropping viewership and readership.
The Camera, for instance, says it will publish the best contributions in the paper, while the Rocky is planning separate weekly YourHub sections. But if a person is going to the Internet to submit news to you, will he or she be impressed that you're deigning to print it in the paper? Will he or she even care?

Innovation online is what will count, blending that into the print side as appropriate.
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Howard Owens of the Ventura County Star had a good comment on this post. Unfortunately, Blogger's comment function was on the fritz, so I 'm posting it here:

I think there are reasons to be skeptical of these community-based citizen journalism efforts ... like any experiment, there are bound to be flaws in the initial plans. My background is in virtual community building and strongly believe in communities of interest, but that doesn't mean there isn't a place for communities of geography.
One of the greatest strengths of any geography-based newspaper is its sense of place and its ties to communities. I believe newspaper Web sites should sink or swim playing to its strengths first. We need to see if we can succeed building on our strengths before venturing out into creating more esoteric business and content models.
Our strength is local, local, local. I, for one, plan to exploit that strength for all its worth in all facets of what we do, including citizen journalism. That's what I was doing in 1995 with East County Online and it's what I still believe in today.
As for publishing the best in the paper -- the dismissive tone of the idea strikes me as bit myopic. Most of our core audience does not yet live online as you and I do and most people who pontificate on new media topics. There is a large segment of our population that still thinks the printed newspaper is a big deal and those people will be the ones who help these citizen journalism efforts because they will want to tell their friends about getting their byline in print. I wouldn't be too quick to discount the idea that there is still power in print.

And my response:
Local, local, local I agree with entirely. And I don't disagree that there is a place for communities of geography. My concern is that we don't yet again become so geographically myopic that we fashion everything that way -- even within a geography there are going to be other communities of interest that are going to be vibrant and innovative we need to tap into, but sometimes in this business we get so geographically tied we miss that stuff (think about the struggles and debates we often have in trying to come up with workable, responsive structures in our newsrooms).

I think there is power in print, but my point isn't so much print versus electronic as the mindset: In conversations with too many editors and execs., the underlying tone has been more of let's move our intake to the Web because it's cheaper, rather than seeing it for what it is and can be, as you have. I guess I find the Camera's tone a little dismissive, too, esentially saying that if it's good enough, we'll put it in print. How about the other way around? :)

My concern becomes how do we make sure these efforts become both broad and deep. In that, I agree with Amy Gahran that it will be necessary to not just transfer our existing models as extension of geography and medium somehow made electronic, but to tap the innovative power of the contributors and let them help try to shape it

I think it will be fascinating to study how many and what types of people write for these sites. Will it just be the power structure in another form? After watching my volunteer students on the J-year blog -- some of whom begged to be on it -- fail to post, I think Pareto's Principle is firmly in play.

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