I’ve been thinking a lot about citizen journalism, and I know Mike has as well. There’s a website in Brattleboro, VT called iBrattleboro.com that might be doing something similar to what we might eventually want to see in Worcester.
Christopher Grotke of iBrattleboro.com was kind enough to answer some of my questions about citizen journalism and the virtual assignment desk on the website.
Why did you start your website? Did you feel that there was a void in local coverage that you could fill?
1. The local newspaper is part of a poorly run chain, and it was depressing. We love local news and newspapers, and thought regular people could probably do better if given the chance.
2. Media consolidation was in the air. It was Feb 2003, just before the Iraq war began and we knew the media wasn’t telling the full story fairly. The FCC wanted to let media companies own more media in a region. We wanted to start an alternative, in case all of our news started coming from one or two huge companies.
3. We’re web developers. We’re online all day. We wanted to do a site for our town, but it was too big of a project to do well on our own. We noticed content management systems coming of age and thought that is we customized some open source software, we could invent a way to use the world-wide web for something incredibly local and give people in town the ability to both write their own news and opinions as well as read it.
There was no name for it, but about 6 months in we heard of a place in Korea called Oh My News that someone described as citizen journalism. We liked that and stuck with it.
How active is the local blogging scene in Brattleboro? Do the bloggers who write about local issues also contribute to your site?
We’re not aware of many significant blogs in Brattleboro. The few people I know that have blogs have been registered users of iBrattleboro for years… they may have started with us, then branched out to start their own blogs. It would be an interesting question to ask our contributors directly.
How many contributions/tips do you get to your site a week? How much editing is involved before you post something?
It’s between 200-300 per month, so about 50-75 a week? We look at every story submission before it goes up, to make sure it fits with our Policies. We delete a bit of spam. We don’t edit any contributions, except to make the title match our style, and occasional fix a spelling error by a known contributor who missed it themselves.
We check in in the morning, around lunch, mid-afternoon, before and after dinner, and later at night. It takes some time just to approve things.
How is the virtual assignment desk coordinated? How many off-schedule meetings (press conferences, etc.) do you try to cover in a year? Do you have a lot of involvement from newer members, or is it mostly a core of people who contribute with meeting reports, etc.?
It hasn’t worked as well as I thought. We have regular contributors who write on topics, though. We’ve gotten them going not through the Assignment Desk, but by personal contact and asking them to do something. We have food columns, Selectboard coverage, Ask-a-Cop by the local police, submissions from the DPW when roads will be closed or opened, stories about music, new businesses, sports, car repair, health care, etc.
Sometimes people step up for a while, then find it takes too much of their time. Long meetings are hard on people. : )
How well has your virtual assignment desk worked? What recommendations would you make for people who are trying to coordinate one?
I like ours but I’d take the names of people off and add even more tips about how to write stories (we’ve done stories on this, but haven’t added links to them yet). We try to be non-professional, so meetings would be low on our priority list, but I’d suggest them for something aiming to be more pro. (Whereas we might do better by trying a weekly lunch…)
People involved need to:
– love town news
– feel a need to contribute and share their expertise, time and energy.
– feel some reward for their work
Right now, I’m impressed by Arianna Huffington – she asks everyone to write for her. Anyone debating her, anyone on a panel with her…
Are there any lessons learned — things you did really well from the get-go, or areas that you wish could improve, etc. — that you would like to pass on to other groups?
We’ve spent nothing on advertising and have gone for a slow and steady growth. Our plan is actually a 10 year plan – we think we’ll be able to make a living off of the site in 10 years, figuring it takes a while to become established, build up a reputation and readership, then advertising numbers.
We’ve watched many get investment income and grants, then whither away when those wells run dry or expectations could not be met.
A small region works best – Brattleboro is much better suited for this than NYC. If we were in NYC we’d think “neighborhood!”
Staying focused is good. There are other sites for other topics – ours is Brattleboro and the people who live here. Occasionally there are issues beyond our borders that make it to the site, but we try to keep it focused – local, local, local…
We’re up to 13,800 stories, 4,700 events, and over 2,000 people have registered to contribute something at some point or another since 2003. Brattleboro has 12,000 residents and about 40,000 in the surrounding area.
We have endless advice, so if there are other questions, let us know…