Monday, February 20, 2006

The MoJos are coming

I think the folks at the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press may have taken a big step toward getting this micro-local/citizen journalism thing right.

The paper has deployed "MoJos" -- mobile journalists with digital cameras, MP3 recorders and wireless laptops -- into the neighborhoods both to gather news and to get people interested and skilled in filing to the newspaper's Web site. Executive Editor Kate Marymont detailed the efforts in a recent Gannett News Watch. Here's a sample neighborhood page and a sample exchange between a poster and reporter.

Marymont says the message from corporate is clear: give more attention to online, but don't expect new resources (or in her coorporate-speak: "make hard, strategic trade-offs." The paper took two reporters out of its Lifestyle section and turned them into MoJos.

Some other key observations from Marymont:

  • Reporters have to be willing to redefine news. Many of these stories would never make it into the general-interest daily newspaper but are important to a neighborhood. We have to be willing -- eager, even -- to write about someone's cat in a tree. The cat-in-the-tree story doesn't replace traditional coverage of community issues. It supplements the coverage with an extra layer of ultra-local community news.
  • Make it as easy as possible for a new reader of the Web site to understand what's what. This kind of ultra-local news is new to our readers, and we must explain it prominently and in detail on our Web site.
  • The most critical need is the ability to file material to online quickly and regularly.
  • We believe that most reporters will soon be mojos, producing information seamlessly across platforms.
  • As reporters and editors produce journalism for multiple uses, they will have to think about those uses in the front-end editing of stories. A single conversation between editor and reporter should decide deadlines and lengths for a story's online, daily and weekly versions.
There's been a lot of hand-wringing over the future of citizen-journalism lately -- laments about how Backfence in suburban Washington is hardly catching fire, the near-implosion of Bayosphere (Business Week's take, and OJR's. Here is Dan Gillmore's original post and a follow-up. Some of the comments are quite insightful.) Our own Hartsville Today limps along, experiment as it is, slowly attracting contributors but not yet forming the community necessary to become viable. Much of its early success has been due to the support and contributions of Dick Puffer, a professor at Coker College and avid supporter of community and citizen journalism and empowerment. On the ground in Hartsville, he can do things we can't do from 50 miles away and that our newspaper partner is still working to bring to fruition (which, I hasten to add, was the point of that project -- to see what a small newspaper could do with it within its personnel and publishing constraints).

The rethinking of citizen journalism is well under way, departing from any early models of "throw it open and they will come" (although I'm not sure that was ever really the model of most early sites, which appear to have been more the product of a few committed organizers, ala WestportNow). Sites like Northwest Voice, one of the originals and one of the first to assign an editor specifically to look after it, continue on, although not always with the vibrancy I would have hoped by now. Morris has proved with BlufftonToday that it is possible to have a vibrant site -- but it also is investing substantial resources in staff to help keep the operation seeded (although in the process it has built up a vibrant citizen blogging community as an adjunct to its news stories). The (Columbia) State is trying, with its to build a site by using a core of bloggers. So far the results are mixed, with relatively few others joining the conversation.

These are only to suggest the range out there; there clearly are many other successful sites and as many that are limping along. But the consensus clearly is forming that successful citizen journalism sites are like other online communities: "What's necessary for any participatory project is a sense of ownership," said Mini Kahlon, a Bayosphere participant in the BusinessWeek article. There also has to be a sense of reward, not necessarily pecuniary.

And that's what excites me about the Fort Myers idea. Unlike BlufftonToday, which re-formed itself as Web-focused operation (although it also has print), Fort Myers is clearly rooted in print. So the way it deploys resources says a lot about its commitment to getting the community online. Its effort is not half-hearted, yet neither is it whole hog. It's an attempt find a balanced way to integrate the staff more into the community and the community, in turn, into the news operation. It's a recognition that any success will require ongoing, continual community contact and the willingness to take time to explain the technology, time and time again, if necessary, to make it more inviting for many potential contributors.

It promises rewards of a different kind -- a newsroom that listens and responds quickly to residents' postings. That may well be a more powerful reward and attaction for participants than money.

And it's a system that seeks to inject some excitement into the process by "breaking" news, even if it's first word of that traffic light's being out and causing a neighborhood traffic jam. In the process, the paper will also, as Marymount notes, have to be willing to change its own culture.

It bears watching.

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