When Norman Mailer, Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher founded the Village Voice in 1955, they probably envisioned their alternative publication as the voice of the people. Yeah, right. Nearly 50 years later, the American revolution in people -- ordinary citizens -- having their voices heard in the media is taking place in what big-city folk call the flyover zones, with hyperlocal online publications that promise to publish nearly every article, opinion and photo that any Joe Blow might submit.
In a small corner of small Bakersfield, California, a bold publisher launched the Northwest Voice online and in print in May and has already had nearly 500 people submit articles or photos. In Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, students at Northwestern University launched GoSkokie to study how citizen media sites might operate with little editorial oversight. In Columbia, Missouri, students at the University of Missouri launched MyMissourian in affiliation with the student-run daily newspaper and with a miracle budget near $0.
These efforts all gained inspiration from South Korea, where OhMyNews has been a wildly successful -- and profitable -- pioneer in participatory journalism online. Plus, these newbies build on the suburban efforts of BeniciaNews.com and the network of do-it-yourself news sites run by GetLocalNews.com, as well as the clean design of iBrattleboro, a local site in Brattleboro, Vermont, run by a local Web site development and graphics team since February 2003.
And there's more to come. Advance.net, which sponsored the effort at Northwestern, plans to launch town blogs in three small hamlets in New Jersey. And the J-Lab at the University of Maryland recently announced $1 million in seed money for 20 startups doing micro-local news projects. The name of the grants? "New Voices," of course.
Newspaper readers have always had their little "letters to the editor" section, if they can get in. But cheap online tools have given anyone with a Net connection the chance to start a publication, a Weblog, a chat room, a bulletin board. Citizen media sites focused on tiny communities give journalists a role as content shepherds, whipping the chaos of reader-generated content into a manageable morass.
Mary Lou Fulton is the publisher of the Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, which is owned by the daily newspaper, the Bakersfield Californian. Launched just last May, the Voice has been groundbreaking in the industry, taking the best of its Web site and putting it in print every other Thursday, delivering it to every household in the northwest part of Bakersfield.
"We are the traditional journalism model turned upside down," Fulton told me via e-mail. "Instead of being the gatekeeper, telling people that what's important to them 'isn't news,' we're just opening up the gates and letting people come on in. We are a better community newspaper for having thousands of readers who serve as the eyes and ears for the Voice, rather than having everything filtered through the views of a small group of reporters and editors."
The Northwest Voice site is an embarrassment of riches. The front page recently highlighted Bulldog Day at middle school, when parents attend a day of school with students; a profile of a restaurant at a Shell gas station; and a photo of a nine-year-old girl dressed up like a cat for Halloween. Someone go wake the Pulitzer Prize board.
Now all that might bore you, but if it was a school where you teach, or a gas station where you eat, or your nine-year-old daughter, you'd be rapt with attention.
Clyde Bentley, associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and the driving force behind MyMissourian, explains how people often connect to the news. "Your success comes from what we call the 'Refrigerator Award,' those little [clippings] that you find on somebody's refrigerator," he told me. "They're seldom front-page items. You start seeing that the community has this real sense of pride in getting recognition from what seems like personal things. At larger newspapers, they say 'this is bush league.'"
People-powered or student-powered?
But if these nascent efforts bring more people into the editorial process and help the media cover smaller communities better, the so-called bush league content might just bring in major league revenues, at least in aggregate. The idea is to tap into smaller advertisers who hadn't considered newspaper ads before.
The Northwest Voice has had growing revenues, and Fulton expects to hit consistent profitability by the end of the year, just seven months after launch. The publication has three full-time staffers -- just one editorial person -- and one part-time production person. Its site includes little Google-like text ads that link to site-hosted ads for small businesses, often repurposed from print ads. The real money so far is in the print publication because it has a controlled circulation that includes every community household.
Fulton says that it's not just advertisers who prefer the print publication. "The print edition is the product readers prefer," Fulton said. "Readers say they like the tangibility of print and also like the tabloid format because our design is very visual and uses lots of pictures. Over time, I believe more readership will shift to the Web. I imagine the print edition will eventually become a Web index of sorts in which we'll publish excerpts of articles in print and direct readers to the Web for the rest."
Jeff Jarvis, president at Advance.net and blogger at BuzzMachine.com, is a big believer in hyperlocal citizen content and helped fund the experiment at GoSkokie. But when it comes to making profits, he isn't a ranting throwback to the dot-com hype era.
"The business strategy and hope -- quite unproven still -- is that with a critical mass of very local content we will attract a critical mass of local audience," Jarvis said via e-mail. "And because we can target advertising down to a town level, and because we will use automated tools to reduce the cost of sale and production, we can finally attract and serve a new population of small local advertisers. Again, this is unproven; we are testing the thesis."
Bentley says that MyMissourian cost nearly nothing to build and operate -- just the domain registration fee -- as it uses free open source software. But he also relies on free labor, with 20 students in an online journalism class pitching in, writing and overseeing sections. For business models, the biggest variable in cost is probably the labor necessary to prod and coax -- and lightly filter -- content.
The Northwest Voice has about 80 percent of its content coming from the community, with the editor providing most of the rest. MyMissourian has a good number of articles from its student editors, and GoSkokie is about to get an influx of original reporting from Northwestern grad students.
Rich Gordon, chair of the New Media Department at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, said it took his class only four weeks to launch the site, but the hard part was populating it with content. The site also had a technical glitch where it became impossible to post to the site. Worse than that, GoSkokie has failed where sites like iBrattleboro have succeeded: being a dependable resource for community residents.
iBrattleboro has a nifty interactive map of the town, with points -- and businesses -- of interest. Plus, a quick look at iBrattleboro's Entertainment section brings up local events and even comments on current films playing. But at GoSkokie, the Culture section is outdated and lacks community involvement. My brother-in-law, who lives in Skokie, was upset that the site didn't have a "Best of Skokie" type section covering restaurants, cleaners and other businesses, and told me "most of the stuff is not relevant to my life."
To edit or not to edit
That's not to say that GoSkokie won't eventually succeed by reaching the tipping point of community involvement. It's just reaching that magic point that can be so difficult.
While it doesn't cover hyperlocal news, the tech site Slashdot is a model of citizen journalism, or at least citizen commentary. A cross between a group Weblog and a bulletin board, Slashdot depends on its community to rate -- and berate -- people who might make false statements.
While Fulton and Bentley like to call their sites "open source" journalism, Slashdot founder Rob Malda, a.k.a. Commander Taco, says that the software term should only apply if the sites allow anyone to distribute the content as well. MyMissourian does allow readers to retain secondary rights to publish their writing elsewhere, but Northwest Voice doesn't. Neither site uses the flexible Creative Commons copyright scheme.
Malda told me it takes time for a site to build the critical mass of a community that can police itself.
"Trust is something earned, and Slashdot today has that because we've been doing this for years," Malda said via e-mail. "But it's important that no piece of content is taken for granted ... A site like Slashdot needs to be read with a skeptical eye. No filtering system should be exempt from scrutiny. People forget that network news is a filtering system too, which is why we all freak out when CBS posts forged documents. Our moderation system is really no different fundamentally. We've just lowered the bar for participation on every level. The lowered bar might mean that more individuals make errors, but on a whole the community will act right."
At MyMissourian, there are four major rules for content: no nudity, no profanity, no personal attacks, and no attacks on race, creed or national origin. Bentley says his editors don't edit for Associated Press style, as they do for the newspaper, but take a lighter touch with an eye for readability. And when it comes to fact-checking, they largely rely on the community to uncover inaccuracies.
Bentley says that journalists underestimate the writing talent of the general public. "Most of us in journalism don't realize how intelligent people really are," he said. "We have a tendency to remember the people who can't write. By and large, not only are people good at the mechanics of writing, but they can tell a good story. It's not just journalists with pens and notepads out there. There's a lot of folks with the desire to write, they're just not journalists."
The editors at Northwest Voice and GoSkokie also have taken a more hands-off approach and were pleasantly surprised at how little they've had to edit. Gordon said his editors put minimal efforts into editing submissions at GoSkokie, but that people may have been put off from the lack of ground rules.
"What everyone was afraid of is that it would be a nest of porn or full of wild allegations, but that didn't happen," Gordon said. "But what may have happened was that the lack of editing and control may have inhibited people from contributing because they thought it wasn't going to be a well-regulated community."
Seeds of hope
One of the greatest byproducts of citizen journalism is a sense of civic involvement for people who have felt shut out of their own local politics and media. So while media companies such as Advance.net are planning ways to aggregate and sell its micro-sites, there's also a place for non-profits and civic organizations to boost community activism.
That's the thinking behind the $1 million "New Voices" grants being showered in the next two years on community news ventures by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and administered by the J-Lab at the University of Maryland. The J-Lab itself is a spin-off of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, which helped support 120 media projects at print and broadcast news organizations.
Jan Schaffer, executive director of the J-Lab, said she was inspired by the success of the Gotham Gazette, a non-profit site run by the Citizens Union Foundation. With just a handful of people running the site -- and many citizens participating -- the site has helped cover the local New York City elections better than any of the daily newspapers, Schaffer says. Initially, the "New Voices" grants will only go to sites affiliated with non-profits or educational institutions -- and only to startups as seed money.
"The question is can you create opportunities for citizens to get informed and inform others about micro-news that falls under the radar of news organizations who don't have the resources?" Schaffer told me. "And in the process you seed the interest in participating in community issues. Can you create a sense of news entrepreneurship that I think the industry needs? And in the process can you train a new generation of journalists in a new way of doing news and hopefully a much more diverse pool of journalists?"
The seed money will help, but Schaffer says that J-Lab will only consider proposals that include good business plans and ways of making revenues beyond the grants -- whether from advertising, subscriptions, e-commerce or other sources. Plus, they're open to funding more than just Web ventures and will consider low-frequency radio stations, satellite radio or even a local version of C-SPAN.
These are the types of projects that can allow journalists to serve the public in a way they never imagined in the past by helping them become less a community gatekeeper on high in an ivory tower and more of a community enabler and virtual talk show host, with time enough for everyone's voice to be heard.