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April 11, 2005

Are You Ready for a Brand New Beat?

"'s clear that Debbie Galant, Lisa Williams, Jim Zellmer, Karl Martino and Weldon Berger would be quite as good or better than a panel with Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, Jason Calacanis, Ana Marie Cox and Mickey Kaus, to name some names. Galant and company have local knowledge..."

“We are faced with defining ourselves neither by distancing others as counterpoles nor by drawing them close as facsimiles, but by locating ourselves among them.”

— Clifford Geertz in Local Knowledge (1983)

Jesse Oxfeld, online editor for Editor and Publisher, wrote that he couldn’t wait for Tuesday night’s blogging panel at Reuters to end. “Simply because it’s wearying listening to pretty much the same people saying pretty much the same things: Blogs are great. They’re changing media. They’re taking the corporate media to account. They’re self-regulating. There’s no barrier to entry.”

We know all that, Oxfeld says.

“Debating” whether blogs belong in the journalism is debating whether the genie should have left the bottle: Whether you like it or not — and most do like it — it’s done. And it’s time to stop discussing it at panel after panel.

I wasn’t there, so I don’t know how accurate his account is. But I said something similar in Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over (January 15.) “We have to ask different questions now because events have moved the story forward,” I wrote. Oxfeld: “There can be real debate, and interesting panels, if instead they look at how this new news environment can function as a business.”

The search for the next business model is important. But future panels should inquire into how the new news environment is working, whether it’s working as a business or not. The experts in that are the people doing the work.

One I would certainly invite is Debbie Galant, the Barista of Bloomfield Ave, who can tell us how it’s working in the New Jersey towns—Glen Ridge, Montclair, and Bloomfield—where she’s synthesizing the formula for hyper-local blog-style news coverage and comment.

Galant was Jersey columnist for The New York Times for five years; she’s done Big Journalism and now she’s gone small and independent. Baristanet is doing well on growth. It has a second writer (journalist and NYU grad Liz George) and a business manager. And ads. It has a columnist, some classifieds, and listings. It knows when the Superintendent of Schools is about to be dumped, and when there’s a car fire around the corner. Galant e-mailed me about the economy of the site:

Baristanet still has to prove itself as a valid business model, but we’re encouraged and we feel like we’re picking up momentum. We now have close to 20 display advertisers, and we probably get two inquiries from potential advertisers each week.

There are three of us now working on this (two writers, one business manager), and it really requires all of us to run the site well. But of course a three-way split means that we have to generate more income. We made several thousand dollars over expenses for the first quarter. As a wage, it’s not much— we still need to freelance to supplement our incomes. Our goal is to double our net next quarter.

I’ve been getting a lot of e-mail lately from people around the country who are doing similar things, so maybe it’s time to band together and see if we can get a national ad buy.

For the next panel, I’d dump Rosen, add Galant, and for openers ask her what she’s figured out so far:

It’s hard when you’re dealing with the local police departments. They never seem to know who you are. It was always easy to call someone up and identify yourself as being with The New York Times. You never had to explain it. I miss that, but as we become more of a local institution, I have to explain it less.

I’m still enough of a journalist to hate it when I’m scooped. Big institutions have procedures in place. They make regular calls to police departments, and they have lots of clerks and assistants. My worst moment was reading a story in the Star Ledger about a date rape that had taken place in a deserted house on my street. That was awful.

In competing with Big Media, Baristanet has the blogger’s options:

I compete editorially against five local weeklies and one regional paper. There’s no way I won’t get scooped. On the other hand, as a blogger I can be useful as an aggregator. So I can link to the reporters who’ve scooped me. I even have one category, “Scooped by Phil Read, Again.” Phil Read is a very good reporter for the Star Ledger.

On the other hand, when something big happens in town, people automatically turn us on to see what’s going on. They also send us tips at our tip e-mail, which goes to all three of us. That’s gratifying.

I asked Galant what stood out in the switch from Big Journalism to hyper-local operator. “I’m learning that when you set yourself up as a public news utility, it’s pretty exhausting. Everybody wants their little charity or art show mentioned. This is what you want, of course, to be indispensible, but sometimes it feels like a lot of children tugging at your arm.”

Other lessons: “It is fun to be a big fish in a small bowl. You don’t need anyone’s permission (or any capital) to become a publisher. You can create value from nothing.”

Value from nothing. There’s a specific reason why this is so. For a long time there were levels of the news & advertising business that were essentially untapped, unserved, off the map. It was the corner store or small business market on the advertising side, and enriched news of the neighborhood around such stores on the journalism end.

Today the Net is opening up these lost levels. They’re coming on line as miniature publics and viable markets for advertising. The people who know about the new markets are people like Debbie Galant, who is creating one “from nothing.”

So next time dump Jeff Jarvis—who tells us he’s part of “another frigging panel” this week—and add citizen journalist and blogger Lisa Williams, part of the Thursday night group run by the Berkman Center. The other day she left this progress report in the comments:

I run a site,, for Watertown, MA. It’s set up so that anybody can sign up for an account and send in news reports or add things to the events calendar.

The big surprise to me is as I’ve started covering things that our local paper doesn’t cover is that I’m starting to see national and international stories play out on the very small stage of our four square mile, 35,000 resident town. I see the company that shipped metal detectors to Iraq for use in the recent election. I see the units of childcare and eldercare companies who are publically traded hiring like crazy and stock going through the roof as work and family life changes in the US.

We’re a small, dense suburb of Boston. A chain, Community News Corp (CNC) bought in the neighborhood of 80 local weeklies in a 50 mile radius of Boston and consolidated their operations. The end result is a town of 35,000 with one reporter, and lots of neighboring towns in the same situation.

I don’t have any problems with the paper on quality — I think the reporter they have now is actually really good. I have problems with quantity and variety of coverage.

I don’t see H2otown as competition to or a replacement for our local paper. It’s more and different, and it’s an experiment; I don’t know what’s going to happen, and that’s the best part.

Wait a minute: International stories start to emerge from intensely local coverage? Lisa Williams meet Doug McGill, who believes in that too. (And he has results.) When Williams, a good writer, wrote about her creed, the result was The Blogger as Citizen Journalist, one of the clearest statements we have for why sites like h2otown and Barista are necessary. (For more of them see this series.)

Right beside Williams and Galant I would place Jim Zellmer, creator of School Information System. It’s a weblog about hot topics in the local schools of Madison, WI, written by citizen contributors and Zellmer. Among other innovations, SIS has the most voter-centered site for school board elections, including video of candidates giving answers to key questions facing the schools. Zellmer e-mails:

The epiphany for me was a 2004 Madison School board Candidate Forum where one of the three local tv stations was present. The result on that evening’s news was a 10 second clip— “There was a school board candidate forum.” No substance. The newspaper folks generally cover these, but they remain encumbered by the traditional 300-500 words with no media, or perhaps a photo.

SIS gives voice to parents, teachers, taxpayers and citizens. Further, SIS uses the latest tools to provide depth (links, video, mp3 audio, surveys) to important issues such as boundary changes, budgets, referendums, curriculum, local elections and events (protests, fine arts rallies, election events).

The site has “given voice to activists,” he says, “many of whom are now discovering the power of the Internet.” The local school board had operated in a vaccum of public information. “This has changed,” Zellmer wrote. There is more oversight of the board because there are interested citizens who can actually follow what it’s doing.

There was always a school system. But not a School Information System for parents and taxpayers and citizens— the public that is supposed to own the public schools. Now there is one, and it’s a factor.

Dump Jason Calacanis from the next panel, add Jim Zellmer. Grill him about what it takes to keep these efforts going; what makes them sustainable. Guaranteed to be interesting and different.

Check out the sky above downtown Philadelphia. Right next to Zellmer I would put Karl Martino, chooser of that sky and proprietor of Philly Future, subtitled The News YOU Write. “A compendium of the best online writers, narrators, blogs, and commentators in the greater Philadelphia area.” As I said in my last post, sites like this are potential platforms for Journalism 2.0. I am interested in what happens to them.

In the comments Martino relayed some news: “Our part time, all volunteer labor-of-love has, I think, achieved a milestone this week - we have a press pass empowered writer covering the Philadelphia Film Festival.” It’s a small thing (though exciting) to be covering a film festival with your own credentialed writer. But it shows that sites like Philly Future are plausible as aggregators and creators of content— and as local “press.”

I say dump Wonkette. Instead invite Martino, who used to work in software for the Philadelphia newspapers. Let him explain his philosophy. And his software. (See Ed Cone’s interview with Martino.) Ask him about the connections among Philly Future’s mission, the Wireless Philadelphia plan, and that sky.

Next to Martino, I’d put blogger and PressThink contributor Weldon Berger, who runs BTC News, the first independent, “grassoots” weblog with its own White House correspondent, Eric Brewer. Last week Brewer made it into Dan Froomkin’s White Housing Briefing column in the Washington Post, not for any “first,” but because of the question he asked Scott McClellan:

Eric Brewer, a scientist by trade and one of a handful of contributors to a small, liberal blog called BTC News, got his chance toward the end of Friday’s briefing.

The question he asked was a good one, on a topic that’s probably of great interest to an awful lot of people.

It’s also precisely the kind of question your typical full-time White House correspondent doesn’t ask anymore — because there’s simply no point. You’re not going to get an answer.

The genius of having citizen reporters is evident: they don’t know what not to ask about. This can be good. Brewer’s question was: “Back to the report on the botched WMD intelligence, have the massive intelligence failures documented in the report caused the President to rethink his policy of preventive war?”

Froomkin’s analysis is priceless. But so too is BTC’s participation in the White House press corps— priceless. Dump Mickey Kaus. Put Weldon Berger on the next panel, and ask him what he thinks he’s doing. (A: “About a month after Gannon-Guckert became a news item, it occurred to me that he had so damaged the entry bar that it might be possible to get one of my contributors in because we’d look like Edward R. Murrow in contrast.”)

Even from these short takes, it’s clear that Debbie Galant, Lisa Williams, Jim Zellmer, Karl Martino and Weldon Berger would be quite as good or better than a panel with Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, Jason Calacanis, Ana Marie Cox and Mickey Kaus, to name some names. This is because Galant and company have local knowledge of the new environment for news; they’re doing the work.

Jesse Oxfeld said that when he moderates a panel at Editor & Publisher’s Interactive Media Conference in June it will “consider what a bloggy news business model will look like.” This, he thinks, will be the perfect antidote to the “complete blog boosterism” he moped through at the Reuters event. (I wonder if others who were there agree with his portrait.)

Oxfeld ought to ask himself: does “business model” amount to a “reality check?” Sometimes it works that way. One of the realities of citizen’s media, however, is that a lot of activity native to the field has no business logic at all. And even the parts that are supposed to be a businesss may be small scale— craft rather than industrial capitalism, meant to generate a good free lance income and create another stand alone journalist.

“As a wage, it’s not much— we still need to freelance to supplement our incomes. Our goal is to double our net next quarter.” Galant, I’m sure, would love to get rich from Barista. But her immediate goal is to have fun and make a living as a writer: sustainability drives the enterprise.

That’s the stand alone journalist model— and she’s among those who are testing it. We should be interested in any way of supporting their growth and development. A business model with private investment is one. A craft industry approach another. There’s the fundraising route. The nonprofit route. The “find a civic patron” route. Maybe some stand alones affiliate with a university. Or with a think tank. Or with MSNBC. Lots of combinations are possible.

The more stand alone journalists we have, the better for innovation and development. “We are seeing grassroots journalism gaining a foothold,” wrote Roch Smith, Jr. in comments. He’s from the Greensboro Squadron, founder of a local blog portal. In Canada, Mark on Media has a similar take. “Given the huge amount of experimentation going on, we’re starting to see some vague shapes emerging from the fog of the future.”

From the Bay area, the mighty Dan Gillmor is calling Bluffton, South Carolina to tell the crew down there they have a breakthrough site, He looks in the camera and says to us, “This is big news, folks.”

Out in the Rocky Mountains—Missoula, Montana—Jonathan Weber has up and running, an exercise in regional pro-am journalism. It has spawned local pages in Boulder, Salt Lake, Northern Idaho. He told Editorsweblog about doing the work:

Our full-time editorial staff is tiny (2 people) but we have a number of contributors on contracts of various kinds (currently around 8 people). On top of that we have a growing number of readers and others who are contributing. It’s a mix of professional journalists, aspiring journalists, and people who just like to write.

It’s a mix because “nobody knows yet how to build this new kind of media and these new methods of practicing journalism.” One conclusion: “a lot of what online & blogs have brought to the conversation—participation, linking, immediacy, point of view—will become permanent fixtures of how journalism is done in the future.”

Some of the lines are coming up on a new grid for news and commentary. Journalism 2.0 is this spring a little bit less of an abstraction. One of the most important signs of growth, from my point of view, surfaced April 3rd from Josh Marshall, the most successful stand alone journalist we have at the moment.

Back on Nov. 19, I wrote about what Marshall was doing at his blog, Talking Points Memo:

Josh Marshall is engaged in distributed fact-gathering. He’s having readers of his blog call their Republican Congress person to ask if they voted for the Delay rule exempting Rep. Tom Delay from loss of his leadership position if he’s indicted. The vote was a voice vote with a handful of no’s, according to Republican honchos in the House. But the votes were not recorded. So Marshall is trying to get them recorded. When constituents call, it’s more effective than the national press.

Here’s how Marshall had explained it to readers (Nov. 17):

Not a journalist? Afraid you can’t play? Fuggetaboutit… You can play too.

Just pick a Republican member of Congress, call the number on their website and ask. Don’t be rude or confrontational. Just a simple question: Did Congressperson such-and-such support the DeLay Rule in the GOP caucus meeting on Wednesday. After you get your answer, drop us a line and let us know what you hear. Did they vote for the DeLay Rule or are they members of the Shays Handful?

They refused to answer? We wanna know that too.

Now Josh Marshall has made plans. He’s beginning to extend himself:

Another reason for launching the site is something that only became clear to me in the last six months or so. And that is, the way that blogs can facilitate what amounts to a sort of distributed or open-source journalism. Perhaps, you might even call it open-source muck-raking.

I began to sense the possibilities of this during the whole Sinclair Broadcasting debacle last fall, again with the ‘DeLay Rule’, and then on a larger scale with President Bush’s jihad against Social Security. When people guest-blog on TPM, they never fail to be amazed at just how much quality information comes in from readers. And in this case, I don’t just mean solid thinking and analysis, but concrete factual data. (Link)

“Open source muckraking.” Potentially a big deal. But not a big business deal. Marshall has the traffic, the user interest and the political savvy to make it all work. He’s a talented journalist, and he plots his moves carefully. It’s been fascinating to watch him discover what TPM can do.

In fact the bond Josh Marshall has with users, the way he has located himself among them, potentially makes him many times better than he ever thought “a” journalist could be. His imagination is starting to go open source. He’s like a reporter with a brand new beat, and a lot of local knowledge.

The best cure for blog boosterism is to go calling out around the world for people who are doing something different, inventive. The business model is not the reality check. It’s the people doing the work, whether it’s stand alone, citizen, or open source journalism. Put them together with their best ideas and you have a blazing start.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Jonathan Weber, founder of, Citizen Journalism Takes the Stage. Weber tries to locate NewWest on the new terrain:

We’re trying to create a new kind of journalism that features both a trusted brand (New West) and enables broad participation in the process of reporting and writing about what’s happening in our world. We have professional contributors (whom we don’t pay enough), we have semi-professional contributors, and we have non-professional contributors. We encourage voice and point of view in our writing, because it’s more honest (we all have a point of view, after all). Yet we are also very committed to fairness and accuracy, and to the value of reporting (i.e. finding stuff out) as opposed to simple opinion.

Examine the rest. It’s cautious and progressive at the same time. Like this statement about the term citizen journalism. “We’re honestly not even sure it’s the right term – but we are persuaded that the thing the term refers to is important and interesting, and will have a big impact on both the creation and the consumption of journalism.”

Hypergene Media Blog has an absorbing interview with Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC Global News Division. Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis write, “2005 could be the year that the BBC emerges as the world leader in participatory media and citizen journalism.” I think that is correct. Snippet from Sambrook:

I believe there will always be a place for editorial judgement to be applied — the essence of the brand value of major news operations — but participation from our audience or users is increasingly important in terms of earning trust and respect. Transparency about the newsgathering and selection process is as important as the journalism itself in retaining that trust.

Read more. The BBC is way ahead in thinking about how to sustain a public that participates in the news.

Wall Street Journal: “For newspapers to acknowledge that readers might make good reporters is an unusual — and risky — move. After all, editors often say their unbiased writing and professionally trained staff set them apart from blogs.” And check out from the Rocky Mountain News.

Geeta Dayal in the Village Voice: PH.Dotcom: “What if professors could lecture 24-7? Blog culture invades academia.” PressThink is featured, along with other academics blogging.

Blogher, world’s first bloggers’ conference for women has a date and locale—July 30, Santa Clara, CA—and a mission. Register here.

Strangely, Jesse Oxfeld’s account listed who was who on the Reuters panel, but he left off Halley Suitt. Unclear whether she’s one of the usual suspects or not.

Oxfeld e-mails: “The quick and honest answer is that, no, she didn’t strike me quite as usual-suspecty as the others (which perhaps says more about me than about her). Re: your point on business model vs. reality check. Remember my audience. I work for E&P, not CJR. Folks at our convention, for which I’ve been dragooned into moderating, want to know about the business of newspapers. With circulation declining, can they somehow make money from these blogs? Ken Sands, for one, says they can.”

See this on Sands, of the Spokesman-Review’s blog project. And see his post at Morph: “… the experiments to date are making significant—albeit incremental—advances.”

Mister Sugar gets it: “At tomorrow’s bloggers meetup, I’ll ask about ways we can create more citizen journalism here in the Triangle.”

Rebecca Blood reminds me in comments that I could have added Christopher Frankonis, founder of Portland Communique, to my replacement panel. Quite true. Frankonis, doing business as One True b!x, is one of the most determined people in citizen’s media. The projects and struggles of his site are always worth following. Williamette Week recently included Portland Communique in its fundraising drive. See Kevin Hayden on it.

“More launches of hyperlocal citizen-journalism/interactive sites.” Steve Yelvington’s round-up.

Amy Gahran, ‘Citizen Journalism War’ in Colorado? I Doubt It.

Mark on Media: “With all this activity we’re getting close to being able to designate 2005 as the year newspapers reinvented themselves.”

Jeff Jarvis reacts to being dumped from all those panels.

Dan Gillmor reacts to going unnamed: “He unaccountably doesn’t include me in the list of usual suspects. I don’t know whether to be flattered or horrified…” Dan: You’re too valuable to take off the circuit. Mystery solved.

Tom Watson likes this post: The (Much) Wider Web.

Chris Lydon begins thinking out loud about his new radio show, Open Source, which is meant to be radio, but more… Netified. Boston Phoenix: Lydon Returns.

The Berkman Center bloggers group will be conducting a live “discussion tour” of citizen journalism Thursday night (April 14), and remote participation is encouraged. Details here.

The once anonymous founder of the Daily Peg and Pegasus News revealed who he is recently: Mike Orren, until recently publisher of Texas Lawyer weekly. He quit to devote himself to the start up.

Envelope, please… PressThink is honored to be nominated by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières) for a Freedom of Expression Blog Award. The other finalists are Dan Gillmor on Grassroots Journalism, which is a must-have for PressThink readers, and Declan McCullagh’s Politech, which began as a mailing list on law, culture, technology, and politics. Congratulations to them. Information is here. You can vote for PressThink, Dan or Declan here.

Debbie Galant in comments: “I don’t know if I like the term ‘citizen journalism.’ It sounds a little comrade-ish to me. What we are is a blog-format local paper — combination wire service, snarkiness and a chorus of online yentas. People feel part of it by sending us tips, pictures and joining in threads.”

In my previous post I wrote about Roch Smith, Jr., of the Greensboro squad. He owns, which begat similar sites in Charlotte and Nashville. Smith wants to offer soon a citizen journalism turn key system—blog portal and grand central station, in a box—and find takers in local markets to create a string of 101’s. (See the local newspaper’s profile of him.)

I had breakfast last week with blogger and venture capitalist Fred Wilson. He lives in my neighborhood and has an interest in “the intersection of citizen’s media and the newspaper business,” to use his words. When I told him about Smith’s plan, he said Roch should not try to license the 101 system to one operator per town, but instead let many sites compete to become the local 101, so that the best one wins. He also said start simple: just adapt Google AdSense to local clusters like Greensboro 101.

Tim Porter:

Newspapers invest about one-third of the money in the professional growth (only 0.7 percent of payroll) of their staffs as do all U.S. industries on average. In an industry whose business and readership model is under grave and growing threat on several fronts, it is going to need more than Starbucks-level salaries and unfulfilled promises of professional development to attract and keep the bright young minds its needs to survive - minds that come wrapped in any color.

Also see his New Values for a New Age of Journalism.

Dave Winer: “Now the former audience is part of the news, as it should be, and not as numbers in polls, but as people with ideas.”

This is one of the coolest newspaper blogs going.

A newspaper editor asks: where are all the great local blogs? and Doc Searls answers him with a few links.

Derek Rose of the New York Daily News at his blog: “Why shouldn’t newspapers correct even small and inconsequential mistakes? Bloggers do.”

Rebecca Blood, Blogging 101: “10 tips to set you ahead of the pack, starting with your first post.” (MSN Spaces)

I’ve joined with other bloggers and assorted cyber luminaries in an amici curiae brief filed with the California State Court of Appeals in the Apple v. Does case. (Here’s a FAQ about the case.) The pdf for our brief is here. Ours runs parallel to the media companies brief in the same case. The pdf for that is here.

The signers are Jack M. Balkin, The Center for Individual Freedom, Julian Dibbell, Feedster, Inc., The First Amendment Project, A. Michael Froomkin, Gawker Media, Inc., Gothamist, LLC, Groklaw, Happy Mutants, LLC (Boing Boing), Ben Hammersley, Joi Ito, Joel Johnson, Kimberly A. Kralowec, LawMeme, Rebecca MacKinnon, Josh Marshall, The Media Bloggers Association, Markos Moulitsas (Daily Kos), Reporters Without Borders, Glenn Reynolds, Peter Rojas, Jay Rosen, Scott Rosenberg, Doc Searls, Silicon Valley Watcher, Kevin Sites and Eugene Volokh. We “urge the court to adopt a functional test to determine who qualifies for the newsgatherers’ privilege, recognized by both the federal and California Constitutions,” to quote from the brief.

All praise and steep thanks to Lauren Gelman of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, who wrote the brief and worked with all the bloggers.

See Electronic Frontier Foundation, Bloggers Speak Up in Apple Case.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof: “In our society, public support for the news media has all but evaporated.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 11, 2005 12:27 PM