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December 18, 2004

More Undercurrent: Action in Greensboro on Open Source Journalism

With the local blogging scene rapidy coalescing on its own, the local newspaper, led by a blogging boss, decides to act. He wants to remake the site as "an online community or public square." E-mail from the Greensboro newsroom " many ways we've waited 10 years to do this and aren't going to wait any longer. My report is due next Friday."

(UPDATE, Dec. 21: See my new post, Greensboro Newspaper Goes Open Source: A Follow Up.)

If you care about such things, there’s a recognition moment underway right now among the bloggers in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the strange thing is we can follow it, even though it’s a very local development— bound to a particular plot of earth, which is also a place in the American South.

One of their own, Ed Cone, in whose nature it is to push things, pushed things when he asked: what are the defining traits of Greensboro’s blog culture? Great question. First, check in with the direct answers to Cone at his blog. There’s also Greensboro101, the local aggregator site, and Greensboro Is Talking, which gives you a flavor of the “scene.” I found effective GSO Live with up to the minute feeds.

One of the best of the Greensboro posse is “David Hoggard’s take on local politics and life in general.” The most fascinating from a political point of view is Jeff Thigpen, the duly elected Register of Deeds, explaining to his readers (citizens) how his office works and what he’s doing to be worthy of their confidence in him. Billy the blogging poet of Greensboro, wrote in comments here:

As a member of that group in Greensboro I’d just like to add that blogging is empowering the citizens of Greensboro like no other tool we’ve ever had. We now have the eyes and the ears of not only our local media outlets (and all our local TV. Radio, and print publications read many of us daily as we are the pulse of the community) but we also have access to local politicians in ways never before possible. Our group represents the entire economic, racial, and religious spectrum left to right. By joining together we are strong. By blogging about it we become stronger.

Responding to Billy and others in Greensboro is PressThink reader Jude Nagurney Camwell, who also does a political blog for the Syracuse newspaper, where she’s The Rational Liberal, and the nervy intelligence flows from her posts. This is from her personal blog, equally fine. Her observation tells us a lot about blogging and its strange sense of place. Remember, she’s getting this from reading the blogs…

The people in Greensboro have such talent - and such heart! I wonder - is it something in the drinking water? Whatever it is, it makes you wish you were there.

It makes you wish you were there. Which suggets a connection between blogging and longing. If you were “there” in August you might have been invited to their local blogging conference. Or you would be hearing discussion of who else should be blogging in Greensboro. This is from a summary of their last meet-up:

Among the people mentioned where Mayor Keith Holliday, County Commissioner Skip Alston, City Manager Ed Kitchen, Jim Melvin and the man in charge of the buses for the County Schools. The consensus seemed to be that the most-likely-to-blog is Ed Kitchen and that the schools’ transportation director would do it only if he is a bona fide masochist.

In my last post, Undercurrent: Nation, Region, Weblog, Home I touched on the Greensboro bloggers as one point on a global map. In my mind I compare this group to a gang—small, agile—hanging out on the fringes of The Media, looking to add members, expand their territory. Maybe make a raid or two on The Local Fortress.

One thing that distinguishes this gang—not the only one, but critical for my purposes—is that the town’s newspaper editor is thinking about riding with the outlaws. Weird, because he’s supposed to be The Local Fortress, to “have” the news franchise in town.

John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News-Record, writes a blog (and he’s getting better and better as he does it.) He says he into creating a culture of blogging at his newspaper. Not only that, he’s on record wanting to co-exist with a strong blogging culture in town. As far as I can tell there is no one to stop him from either of those two things.

Members of the Greensboro gang are not entirely comfortable with this. Why should they be? The newspaper is still a powerful beast, with an out-of-town owner (Landmark Communications). Its editor could try to bigfoot everyone. But we haven’t had many editors—lo, many journalists—who choose to learn about blogging by blogging. It’s a good sign. Not only that, The Editor’s Log has comments. He’s two way, and trying to walk-the-walk.

But now Robinson has gone further. He may have been radicalized. Here’s what I mean. Friday I get an email from Lex Alexander, PressThink supporter—so loyal he once taped Sinclair Broadcasting’s Kerry program and sent it snail mail to me for blogging purposes—who is also a writer/editor and blogger for the News- Record. He works for John Robinson. This is what he sent me— and others.

Our editor and M.E. have asked me to figure out how we might change our Web site into more of an online community or public square. I have some ideas of my own and already have blogged about this project to solicit suggestions from readers. But I’d be interested in your thoughts — on the philosophy of such a site as well as any specific suggestions you have for content or organization, and any pitfalls you can think of.

I’ve been waiting for this. So have many others. The organization willing to be a little radical. Maybe you can’t change the newspaper and its ideas overnight, but you can change the website and its underlying ideas overnight.

If (to take one simple example) you put a discussion forum after every article that might warrant it, and make the writer of the story check in with the forum, because his piece isn’t done until it’s been discussed by readers (new definition of done…) then, yes, you’ve changed “overnight.” Lex said the newspaper had been building up to this. He said it was a “no looking back” moment.

…in many ways we’ve waited 10 years to do this and aren’t going to wait any longer. My report is due next Friday, and we intend to begin changing things on Jan. 3. And my editor has made it clear that even though this effort will have to come out of existing resources, he’s willing to divert to make this happen. He’s not looking for marginal, incremental change, but transformative, revolutionary change.

It’s all there at his Dec. 17 post, If all of us build it, where you can add comments. (At his own blog, Robinson lets us know that Alexander isn’t freelancing. “Help him out,” he says.)

Here’s my initial round of advice:

Those are a few of my ideas. What are yours? Hit the comment button and tell us. It might also be good to advise the News-Record directly.

“It’s a sad sight,” wrote Larry Pryor, executive editor of Online Journalism Review, “watching newspapers stand by as digital technology explodes, capital shifts to new media ventures and the world awakens to this powerful tool for communication and trade.” John Robinson and Lex Alexander seem determined to not just stand by. They’re ready to rebel. Dan Gillmor did that: He rebelled against the slow pace of change when he quit the San Jose Mercury News for an undefined citizen journalism start-up.

Tim Porter of First Draft, who has been on this story (“watching newspapers stand by”) tells us how Roger Karraker asked him in comments last week, “Tim, do you ever feel as if you’re talking to a wall?” This is Porter’s reply:

the answer is yes, Roger, I do because I feel like the message—delivered not just by me, but by so many other lovers of journalism more capable than I—isn’t taking hold: Adapt or disappear.

But in Greensboro the message is taking hold. They have a newspaper that has chosen to adapt. It’s not time to play, “People get ready, there’s a train comin” but it is time to take notice. The News-Record has actually invited what Chris Lydon calls “the transformation.” That’s news.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

PressThink’s follow up post: Greensboro Newspaper Goes Open Source (Dec. 21)

Okay, people: what do you advise for the transformation of the News-Record online? This link will take you to the PressThink comment thread.

Pegasus News: “Everyone I talk to in the industry says that change will never come from within. That’s why we’re here.”

San Diego Blog: “Starting a Sense of Community: But are we Greensboro Yet?”

Ed Cone: “Nothing we’ve done here can’t be done elsewhere.”

Writer and blogger Matt Welch in the comments to this post reports that his wife, a French journalist “was looking through the website of the News-Record on behalf of her very interested editors of the French daily Liberation, who want to ramp up their blogging possibilities.”

Dan Gillmor on the action in Greensboro: “This is a big deal.”

Joe Gandelsman at The Moderate Voice agrees: “Greensboro could indeed be the start of a revolution, especially when you read how this newspaper is taking and quickly reacting to readers’ comments on how they’d like to see the paper create a web presence in the 21st century.” (Dec. 20)

David Hoggard, Greensboro blogger: “To me, it doesn’t feel like any kind of a revolution, it simply feels like a natural - albeit accelerated - evolution.”

Greesboro blogger Chewie: “Blogs are not letters to the editor; they are letters to the world.”

Chewie links to a study from research firm Media Audit (pdf) with this lead: “the percentage of adults who spend at least an hour a day on the Internet is significantly greater than the percentage of adults who spend an hour a day with the print edition of a daily newspaper.”

Take a look at this chart. It tells most of the story.

Greensboro is Talking on the tricky subject of paying bloggers if they are incorporated into the News-Record. (And a response from Ed Cone, who is a paid columnist for the paper.)

Andy Wismar, tech guy and blogger in the better known “research triangle” area of North Carolina, reacts:

How can Greensboro, often described as “Raleigh without the PhD’s,” be this onto the scene, while myself, 50K other geeks at RTP tech companies, and umpteen thousands of NCSU, UNC, and Duke college students sit by idly? Whenever I’m there and surrounded by locals and not lawyers, I expect a spontaneous NASCAR race to materialize. If that town can get together and make peoples lives better through improved communication, imagine what would happen if a real city got motivated? It boggles the mind.

Yeah, imagine.

Global Voices Dept: In “all eyes on Greensboro,” Guardian web editor Simon Waldman points to this page of stats about Greensboro and this map to tell you where it is. Cool.

Billy the Blogging Poet: “While it may be that other cities have a higher percentage of egg-heads (those with PHDs and other advanced degrees) the egg-heads here in Greensboro arenít so uppity that they exclude those of us who might not be egg-heads or just happen to be cracked.”

Plus: Greensboro has a new upstart alternative weekly. One blogger says: “They get it from the git go.”, the hyper-local start up in the DC area, has fixed up its website since “coming out” at PressThink Dec. 2. There’s now a “what we’re doing” and “who we are” section.

From the Chomsky wing of the left, a new entrant in online journalism. It’s called The New Standard. Aiming at a combination of radical politics, brutally factual journalism and total independence from the corporation, from commercialism itself. (User supported.) The site, which is beautifully realized, has up-to-date thinking built into it everywhere. They pay writers. (And are flooded with inquiries.) They are only interested right now in hard news. They aspire to tough, “show me the proof” standards in editing. And they seem to know what they’re doing. I’m not endorsing the quality of their reporting, by the way. Check out this page: Content Contributors: Getting Involved. It’s an interesting page.

Via my politically aware niece, Julia Rosen, who has a blog, comes this detailed and interesting profile of the Daily Kos community in the East Bay Express.

Michael Kinsley, columnist, founding editor of Slate, opinion page editor of the Los Angeles Times, discovers distributed knowledge, or, as Dan Gillmor puts it, “my readers know more than I do.”

Some of my best friends are bloggers. Still, it’s different when you purposely drop an idea into this bubbling cauldron and watch the reaction. What floored me was not just the volume and speed of the feedback but its seriousness and sophistication. Sure, there were some simpletons and some name-calling nasties echoing rote-learned propa- ganda. But we get those in letters to the editor. What we don’t get, nearly as much, is smart and sincere intellectual engagement — mostly from people who are not intellectuals by profes- sion — with obscure and tedious, but important, issues.

New blog on point: Alan Mutter (“perhaps the only CEO in Silicon Valley who knows how to set type one letter at a time”) has started Reflections of a Newsosaur, which will offer: “Musings and (occasional urgent warnings) of a veteran media executive, who fears our news-gathering companies are stumbling to extinction.” Sample of his advice for newspapers: “Here’s a radical idea: Why not partner with some of the online guys who are eating your lunch?” Pertinent. So check into it.

John C. Dvorak’s guide to using blogs: Understanding and Reading a Blog (for Newcomers).

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 18, 2004 6:37 AM