Monday, May 26, 2008

The barrier to community site contributors

Catching up on my reading, I see Adam Glenn has an interesting post at I, Reporter about the difficulties he and Amy Gahran have had getting conversation going on their community site focusing on Boulder's carbon tax.

I think there are two good insights relevant to community news/journalism sites:

But while we got enthusiastic feedback, no one seemed to be stepping forward. We came to believe this had mostly to do with the psychological barrier of become a (capital "J") journalist, a daunting prospect for folks with little to no background in reporting and writing skills (something we hoped to address through training). ...

Many of those we've approached in recent months to participate in the forums have been very interested. But at the same time, they've started to make it clearer to us that the barrier is not the technological one of having to post to a forum or blog. Rather, it's a political barrier -- there are just too many interests at stake in a small city to so publicly voice their views.

By expressing themselves on the controversial carbon tax topic in an open forum -- rather than in more private and safer listservs or face-to-face conversations - they expose themselves to controversy, possibly even career harm.

We've run into both at Hartsville Today -- the Big-J journalism fear and the concern that in a small town retaliation can be likely and swift.

The difference for us has been that HVTD is not single-topic, so there have been some pretty newsworthy efforts (although, as with that one, they don't always start out with the "story" form we employ as journalists). But we do know that some things are just not spoken of because it's a small town, etc.

I bring this up because there was this hope -- almost hype -- when "citizen journalism" burst on the scene a few years ago that such sites would become hotbeds of local coverage of government and institutions. Research and experience shows this isn't likely in most cases. That's not a bad thing because, as we've found in Hartsville, there are many other things important to people's lives that needed an outlet.

But it's something to remember when we start envisioning the latest digital way to supposedly get people involved in their democracy -- sometimes their democracy isn't what we media types see. And in this multichannel world, sometimes those overlooked channels (like listservs) take on significance. something newsrooms should not forget.

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