August 28, 2006

Hyperlocal Handed Down From Above

Jeff Jarvis points to the site Hartsville Today. It’s a hyperlocal community site where anyone can post stories, but it’s run by the local newspaper so it’s not exactly a grassroots effort. A lot of people have their hands in this pot. The local paper, The Messenger; the School of Journalism at the University of South Carolina; and the New Voices project of the University of Maryland. That’s a lot of heavy firepower aimed at this little town of 7,500, and it makes the whole thing smell more like Journalism students carrying out an experiment on a town that they don’t live in rather than anything rising up from the community itself.

See also GoSkokie, or rather don’t see it, because it isn’t there anymore. You can read its story here. That site was also a class project by Journalism students, and they picked a small town on the outskirts of Chicago to build a website for. The site was built, a few contributors were recruited, and presumably all the students got passing grades. When the class was over, the founding students pulled out (because they didn’t have any affiliation with the town, so why should they care) and the site collapsed. Posting levels dropped near zero. The whole thing was hosted on University servers, and eventually the school pulled the plug. Presumably all the community’s work is gone now, maybe stored on a backup tape in a basement somewhere. Probably the most lasting thing about GoSkokie was the final report the students prepared (PDF) before they left it twisting in the wind.

Hartsville Today, coincidentally enough, also has a PDF file about its startup days. There’s a lot of info in there about building the site and going out into the community to spread the word and get contributors. There’s probably a lot I can learn from it. But just the existence of this report is troubling, like it’s a “final report” in the same sense as the GoSkokie project. How long will it be before the school pulls out of its involvement in the site, and leaves it to the community to keep it up? And the site lies fallow so the newspaper finally pulls the plug? The thing about these hyperlocal sites is that you’ve got to have somebody passionate at the center of the thing, at least until you hit a critical mass of contributors. And that person at the center can’t be a Journalism student from five towns over, and they can’t be an editor at the local newspaper that secretly thinks the whole project is doomed to fail. It has to be someone in the community, someone that wants the site to grow and thrive, and is willing to put in the work to make it happen. Like Baristanet and Debbie Galant. Like H2OTown and Lisa Williams. Like Reno and its Discontents and Myrna the Minx. And yes, like Around Carson and me. A community site is nothing without the community, and the best ones are ones that have sprung up from outside the universities, outside the newsrooms, by the people in the community who are being let down by the local papers and want something better, something more.

You’ll notice something else about those sites I pointed to; each one of them has a small number of contributors. In fact, they’re little more than personal blogs with just one or two authors. Maybe it’s because the founders are writers and tech people that have little know-how about going out and rounding up people to contribute. But the thing is that these sites, with their single authors, are still doing better than these sites with dozens of contributors that are birthed out of the hips of a J-school somewhere. That’s because the founders of those “projects” don’t care about the site, or the community it serves. They just care about their grade. Or about the ideal of citizen journalism as a whole, and using the site as a proof of concept. If the site succeeds it’s a trophy they can talk about in their thesis. If it fails, it doesn’t matter because it was just an experiment. Those rubes don’t know nothin’ about the Internet anyway. They can always move on to the next little town and try again.

Maybe that’s just me being cynical and thinking that grassroots media needs to spring up from the grassroots, not be handed down by the establishment. That these initiatives are more examples of Journalists thinking they control the news, and that they’re being nice by giving us permission to be reporters too. In our own little corner. Away from the “real” news happening in the paper.

But I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Filed under The Computer Vet Weblog

Comments (5)

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  1. Lisa Williams says:

    Hey, man! It’s Lisa Williams.
    I re-found your Around Carson site while I was working on my most recent project — I’m making a directory of placeblogs. So far I’ve found 500+. There’s a lot more of them than anyone thinks.

    I agree with you completely about having one person who wants to do the work for its own sake.

    I’m inviting a few people who run placeblogs to write some short inaugural essays that will be featured when we launch the placebloggers site. This is so good I’m just going to invite you now. If you want to talk about your experience with Around Carson, I’d love to get what you have to say out there to more people.

    Posted August 29, 2006 @ 9:31 am
  2. Lisa Williams says:

    Oh, and I have a theory about the small pool of contributors:

    Jimmy Wales gave a presentation that showed that 50% of Wikipedia’s edits came from .0072 of the users. I did the math, and that’s 615 people doing half the work.

    Then I applied it to a city the size of New Haven, which has a population of 130,000. If you say that 10% of the people know about and are looking at a new local site in its first year (which would be a huge success) then their pool of contributors would be 62.

    Having “user generated content” only works when you have truly massive numbers of users, literally millions.

    It doesn’t bother me that I don’t have huge numbers of contributors; I’m happy to do H2otown by myself indefinitely. It’s more of a philosophical position, that if people did come, I wanted to put the welcome mat out.

    Also, I don’t know what your local paper is like in Carson, but how many reporters are employed at it? Less than ten, I’d bet. It doesn’t take much to make a big impact. Watertown’s paper has one staff reporter, and they do an amazingly good job with what they’ve got. But that goes for weblogs, too: one or two people can make a big difference.

    Posted August 29, 2006 @ 9:37 am
  3. myrnatheminx says:

    Scott—UNR ournalism school is going to start up a tahoe site….mrjerz is working on it in his grad program.

    Posted August 29, 2006 @ 10:03 am
  4. Scott Schrantz says:

    Well, that’s kind of what I’m talking about. Why Tahoe? What UNR Journalism students should be doing is focusing on UNR. Start at home. Tear apart the Sagebrush and turn it into a participatory journalism site. Knock down the subscription wall, open the archives, and give every UNR student a blog. Write about what you know, which is the campus that you call home.

    Posted August 29, 2006 @ 11:40 pm
  5. mrjerz says:

    We’re doing Tahoe because we’re focusing on environmental issues and not just news. It’s about citizen participation in government, so we need something that people are fired up about. TRPA fires people up. At least, that’s how I see it. The Sagebrush is entirely its own entity, and despite the many shortcomings, it does well for itself, so they’re not exactly in the market to be overhauled.

    I see your point about the J-school sites. Two things here. First, one thing our program did was to bring in people who live in, work in, and care deeply about Tahoe. There are also old-school reporters, graphics people, photogs, and tech nerds like me. We’ll make this thing happen (and get our grades)! Second, we’re a graduate program dedicated to this website and this website alone, so I’d hope the interest is greater than a jerkaround three-credit prerequisite for the TV class.

    And how many people, exactly, call the campus home? I take issue with calling us out on UNR issues. The most impossible people to get involved, at least in my experience, are college kids. Ever seen the returns on an election up there? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 people vote. That’s under 10%. Why? Because way too many people have become accustomed to rolling onto campus, hitting their class or two, and immediately heading out. Nobody is on campus, it seems. So why talk about campus life when there really isn’t campus life?

    Posted September 4, 2006 @ 9:22 pm

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