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November 14, 2005

If I Didn't Build it, They Wouldn't Come: Citizen Journalism is Discovered (Alive) in Watertown, MA

Guest writer Lisa Williams: "H2otown is written in the third person by a nerdy, self-absorbed, high-tech-gizmo-loving narrator. Writing in this persona allowed me one big thing the local newspaper wasn't allowed: to be funny. And in Watertown, being funny is being truthful."

After Jay Rosen returned from the BlogHer conference in July—we both attended—he sent me this note:

No one’s written an article yet on the pleasures and satisfactions and meaningful moments citizen journalists derive from what they are doing. People are constantly trying to get a fix on our friend CJ by describing it as “newsroom lite,” by how much of the professional discipline or system is missing. But your evidence suggests that this activity is developing a different reward system, not comparable to the system of goodies among professional newsies.

Just as participating in an open source software project offers different satisfactions, when compared to the scene inside the software industry, so does “doing citizen journalism” offer its own pleasures, thrills and learning paths. These may be fundamentally different from what drives professionals to do the work they do. You’re in a position to write the definitive post about all this. So what are you waiting for?

Jay sent this to me, I think, as the equivalent of a sourdough starter, in hopes that I would add the grist to it to make something fully baked out of my many fragmentary comments on citizen journalism.

I think Jay’s starter would still be in a jar in my mental pantry if I hadn’t started getting calls and emails from people working at newspaper chains, who wanted to ask me questions. These were serious people, and I was a stay-at-home mother with a very eccentric side project—a hyper-local newsblog—that kept growing. I didn’t know quite what to make of it, but I was delighted and obsessed by it, too. I saw 2AM a lot, still awake and adding stories to H2otown, sitting in the dark in a futon chair in my living room with my notebook computer in my lap while the TiVo showed replays of Town Council meetings recorded earlier off local access cable. I worked while my husband and our two kids - age 4 and one and a half - slept in our upstairs apartment in a two family house in densely populated Watertown, a suburb sharing a border with Boston.

It was one thing to be up late transcribing quotes from town council members and combing local blogs for content, but it was another thing entirely when talking to Serious People at Real Newspapers about the hot buzzword of the day: citizen journalism. I felt my lack of credentials — hell, lack of any observable job — rather keenly. I produced H2otown in my spare time. My coverage wasn’t dependent on news judgment: it was dependent on babysitting.

If newspapers do die, I will never hear the end of it. Some of my earliest memories are of seeing my mother’s manicured nails and the top of her hairdo, the rest of her hidden by a newspaper. She has read the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, front to back, including the classifieds, legal notices, and sports — even though she doesn’t care about sports — every day since she was a teenager. She frets about newsroom layoffs and knows more about Mike Barnicle than any human being should. Who knew if I could help a newspaper, but not trying was not going to fly at the weekly family dinner.

If I didn’t have credentials, I thought, I’d better have expertise; and the beginning of expertise is organization. Like a chef whose ability to make a perfect Hollendaise rests on her mise en place — the careful preparation and organization of ingredients prior to the start of cooking, placing everything that’s needed exactly at hand—I started to look at all the random ingredients I had in the pantry. And I grabbed Jay’s starter off the shelf.

The Death and Life of Great American Local Newspapers

Tuesday night after the polls closed I went to town hall and stared in befuddlement at the jumbled output of some Diebold voting machines. Election results were printed on several dozen long thin strips of paper like register tape, and scotch-taped to a concrete block wall in the basement next to the clerk’s office. Dan, the reporter for our local weekly, was also there. The paper wouldn’t hit the stands until Friday, but I would have results online by midnight Tuesday. I didn’t know things faster than Dan did, I just hit “Enter” faster. The next day I went to talk to a class of journalism students. I asked them, “Have we lived through a historical blip where a local newspaper could be operated as a successful commercial enterprise? What happens when the newspaper staff and pages are too thin to serve basic community functions? Will consolidation and cuts be enough to save the newspaper? Will online ventures save it? Will anything save it?”

“What happens the day after the local newspaper closes its doors?”

Their faces just fell. I felt surprised for a moment — and then like I had kicked a few dozen puppies. How many of these kids were going to get jobs in journalism? I paused for a minute and I said, “The web opens up entrepreneurial opportunities for journalists. It means you don’t have to work for someone else your whole life. It makes it much easier to start something-– no need to finance print runs, or dig up a few million for a radio or TV station.

I wanted to say to them, “If you really want to do this, don’t let a little thing like not getting a job stop you.”

I wanted to talk to them about ideas I thought might work – online, users didn’t seem to be willing to pay for content they didn’t yet have (subscriptions) but often gave generously to a blogger for what they had already gotten, donating to PayPal pledge drives. A few sites seemed to make money on Google ads, but the most successful ones I knew of didn’t depend on clickthrough-style ads but went directly to local businesses and asked for advertising rates that were comparable to a local newspaper’s, and were based on duration and space rather than clickthrough metrics.

It seemed to me that a successful newsblog might have a business model that looked more like public radio – periodic pledge drives and underwriters – than the subscription/advertising model that many news outlets were dragging into the online world. To make it work, they’d have to get over something I suspected they and many journalists had: hesitation about being directly involved with handling the money.

There are plenty of beats out there for them. It seems strange, in our day of multiple 24-7 news channels, the always-on Internet, and RSS to say that we don’t have enough news. But in most cities and towns that happen to be more than 500 feet outside a major media market, the local people suffer more from media anorexia than information overload. It’s hard to find good information about the place where you live.

The town I live in, Watertown, is a busy, densely populated city of four square miles with 32,000 residents and shares a border with Boston. Housing prices, while high, are significantly lower than most of the neighboring towns, yet it is still served by public transportation for people who work in Boston — skilled tradespeople, small business owners with clients downtown, and white collar workers at the area’s many universities, hospitals, and financial firms. It’s also close to the Route 128 technology corridor. Many people buying houses now see it as an alternative to a traditional suburb. In fact, Watertown is the kind of place Jane Jacobs envisioned: dense, walkable, with many locally-owned stores close to your house and adequate public transit.

It also has a weekly newspaper, the Watertown TAB, owned by Community News Company (CNC). CNC was created by mutual fund giant Fidelity, who bought many of suburban Boston’s local newspapers, at one time owning over 100 papers, mostly weeklies. They consolidated printing and editorial content; one Entertainment and classified section, for example, went in nearly all CNC papers.

By cutting costs on things like staff, office, and production costs, and combining this with one-stop shopping for advertisers in suburban Boston, they thought they’d turn a profit. CNC has never been public, so the company’s financial performance can only be guessed at. Today, CNC is owned by Herald Media, publisher of the Boston Herald.

The end result of this experiment for readers like me was a very thin newspaper. The main “news” section of our paper was usually 16 pages. I estimated that four pages of that were ads, and another two to three pages were event calendars and community bulletin board stuff. Very often, all the bylines on the front page were by one reporter. The remaining sections of the paper weren’t local in any true sense. If I picked up a copy of the Belmont Citizen, the last two thirds of the paper would be exactly the same as the Tab. Most didn’t have local offices in the towns they covered; instead, the papers were produced out of an office building in Needham. The company had stopped offering microfilm [UPDATE: Greg Reibman, Editor in Chief at CNC, contacted with additional info. See the After section below.] and expired their content off the site after a month. The “first rough draft of history” was getting stuffed down the memory hole.

I used to joke that the TAB was amazingly good considering it was all done with satellite photos and a small telescope on the roof of CNC’s headquarters in Needham. But I knew when I said it that the joke was unfair. In fact, I thought the reporter that almost singlehandedly produced all the content every week — a reporter named Dan Atkinson — was excellent. What he did with what he had amazed me. I just thought he didn’t have enough.

I knew it could be different, because I had grown up in Woburn, one of Boston’s northwestern suburbs. Woburn, with a population similar to Watertown’s at 35,000, had (and has) what I now recognize as an excellent daily newspaper, the Woburn Daily Times & Chronicle. (You’ll have to trust me on this one, as the Daily Times’ web presence is scant). While Watertown made do with 12 pages a week, Woburn had as many as thirty pages a day, six days a week. I started to feel that Watertown was a surprisingly closed community. It’s often said that the world is run by people who show up: but what if only three people know when the meeting is?

This year the Globe announced layoffs. The Herald announced layoffs (CNC and the Herald have the same corporate parent). Circulation figures nationwide dropped like a rock.

My original question, “What happens the day after the local newspaper closes its doors?” seemed more urgent than ever.

Escape Hatches

In 2003, all I had was a gripe and a big reading list of blogs. I still hadn’t started H2otown. Stumbling on a weekly bloggers’ group run by blogging pioneer Dave Winer opened my eyes to bloggers like Jeff Jarvis. Jay Rosen, and Susan Mernit started pointing to examples of citizen journalism sites. I was completely obsessed with Baristanet, a newsblog about three towns in Northern New Jersey. Baristanet was a constant stream of newsbits — but what was really a revelation was the writing: it was funny. Debbie Galant, who I later got to talk to, said, “We differ from the local newspaper in point of view: we have one.”

Around the same time, I discovered Universal Hub (which at the time was called Boston Common). Universal Hub collected snippets from a huge collection of Metro-Boston area blogs, providing one-stop shopping for the local blogosphere. Creator Adam Gaffin had an unfailingly good eye for the funniest pull quote out of every blog from every corner of the region.

In a way, Baristanet and Universal Hub were opposites: Nearly every post on Baristanet was written by Galant, in her persona of The Barista of Bloomfield Avenue. Gaffin, by contrast, rarely wrote in his own voice at Universal Hub. H2otown ultimately ended up being a hybrid of these two different approaches.

For more than a year, I read Baristanet, Universal Hub, and a growing number of other local news blogs, and griped about my local newspaper’s understaffing. “It’s easier to find out about what’s going on in Indonesia than the East End,” I quipped. But I still didn’t get off my butt and do anything.

Then one day I read a blog post by blogfriend Richard Eriksson about a startup called Bryght; he was working at with Roland Tanglao, whose blog I also read. Bryght was a hosting service for the open-source community management software Drupal. It was “Typepad for Drupal”— a hosting platform for people who wanted to start a community site but didn’t want the hassle of setting up and maintaining a web server, database, and content management application. They were having a special— the whole service was free until they got out of beta. I signed up right then and opened H2otown that day.

The Magical Mythical Self-Assembling News Source

When I read about citizen journalism, I often see people envisioning a magical, self-organizing newspaper that comes together through hundreds of contributed blog posts and phonecam snaps. Adam Smith’s invisible hand takes a turn as managing editor, whipping it all into a free-market perfection. Other articles then debunk this notion by pointing out that no such thing exists (and opining that if it did, it wouldn’t be any good).

Neither vision is accurate, I think. Even Wikipedia, the most commonly cited example of the Magically Self-Assembling Information Source, still requires a lot of work from a relatively small number of dedicated people to make it possible for more casual users to have something to contribute to. Hearing newspaper execs talk about having citizen contributors strikes me as similar to Tom Sawyer getting everybody else to whitewash the fence for him. My gut tells me that today, a successful citizen journalism outlet— commercial or noncommercial— still needs one or more people to push the rock uphill.

I worry that people who open a citizen journalism site and simply wait for people to populate it will end up with a thin selection of stories that are essentially random. I think this is true both for new startups and for existing newspapers who open up their website to allow contributions from “the people formerly known as the audience.” There’s no way to avoid the hard work of building these sites. They’ve got to have good content, unique content, and they have to have it frequently and regularly. (I listened to a podcast of a panel discussion with Ana Marie Cox, who said she was required to post to Wonkette 12 times a day. That’s very smart.) Also, there should be someone who’s both encouraging and moderating the conversation on particular stories, which means checking in several times a day.

I’d like to try to push beyond the numerous “citizen journalism, threat or menace?” articles; regular readers of Pressthink have heard all that already. Let’s talk about newsgathering practices at a local news weblog, how the form shapes attitudes towards corrections and accuracy, and how the finished results– covering the same story – differ for a newspaper and a newsblog.

H2otown: We Watch Local Access Cable So You Don’t Have To

Many of the things I put on H2otown would not make it into a newspaper where space is at a premium, and my newsgathering techniques (I TiVo local access cable of town meetings) would not pass muster. But in many cases, there’s no one else covering this stuff in any way, in person or otherwise.

I realize that my newsgathering techniques aren’t professional grade; in fact, some people might laugh at them. I’m willing to be humble and to be humbled about that. I’m also completely upfront with readers and anyone who asks about how I get material; jokes about my TiVo are standard fare at H2otown. Nonetheless, the site now gets 1,200 page views a day in a town where the local weekly newspaper’s circulation is around 4,300. My challenge was to put together something useful with my spare time, a pocket digital camera/digital videocam and a voice recorder from Best Buy, and a $40 a month account to rent community site/blogging software. Consider the following a recipe.

I have five basic newsgathering avenues:

One invaluable source that I don’t have is a townwide or neighborhood email lists. These are a great source of tips and participants. Watertown doesn’t have one with any significant user base, but in Arlington, Massachusetts, the thriving townwide email list helped give rise to Live From Arlington.

When people who are interested in the idea of citizen journalism look at H2otown, they point out that almost all of the content is written by me, and ask if I’m disappointed that more people haven’t contributed.

The answer is: No. I was, and am, perfectly happy to produce H2otown as a standalone venture. What I wanted to do was leave the doors open to people if they did come to contribute, in whatever number or shape they came in. The end result is that H2otown looks a little like a newspaper where the Letters to the Editor section has stormed out of the ghetto below the fold in Op-Ed and taken ground on the front page.

I knew that if I simply opened the site and waited for other people to populate it for me, I’d end up with a derelict site (See Tom Grubisch on this subject). There wasn’t a readymade audience for H2otown — if I didn’t build it, they wouldn’t come.

Early on, I realized H2otown looked and felt very different than the Watertown TAB, even when we were covering the same story, and not just because H2otown was a blog and not on paper. A good example was the story of how the town decided where to put the new police station. Debate on the topic became very bitter, and dominated Town Council meetings for months. Both the TAB and H2otown devoted significant coverage to the story.

At the TAB, a week’s news about the police station appeared as one big chunk. At H2otown, the same story was less a chunk than a stream of short items— long quotes, links to and pictures of public buildings by the architect bidding for the job, information about the cost of the project, and, occasionally, a post containing my own perspective on the story. In the TAB, all these items would be consolidated into a single story. My sense of what happened and what it meant – which would ordinarily be used as the framing elements or the lead graf for a newspaper story – were published as a separate post.

The end result was a journalistic product that looked significantly different than what I was used to reading in a newspaper. In a sense, I was giving the readers the raw material a journalist would usually use to compile and condense into a story; they were putting it together themselves.

I provide this example for reference, but it’s more common for H2otown to cover things that are not covered by the TAB, or by anyone. Stories about “important” issues like school performance appeared alongside bingo game notices and quips from local bloggers; every item got its chance to be A1, above the fold. There was a huge, subterranean life in the town, and H2otown was my drill rig. The life of the place is in its quirky startup businesses, the mix of lunchbucket hangouts with low-key hipster locales like the Town Diner. It’s about the cult of off-street parking, and the large — and largely self-contained — Armenian community that was so much of what made Watertown Watertown. But you wouldn’t “get” this by reading the paper. Unlike a newspaper, I had infinite space.

It’s one of the joys of doing this: H2otown allowed me to redefine what was “important enough to cover.”

The other big and obvious difference between the TAB and H2otown was voice. Cribbing from Baristanet, H2otown is written in the third person by a nerdy, self-absorbed, high-tech-gizmo-loving narrator. Writing in this persona allowed me one big thing the local newspaper wasn’t allowed: to be be funny. And in Watertown, being funny is being truthful.

Like most functional small cities and large towns, Watertown is a comic opera with real estate taxes. But a newspaper isn’t allowed to say so. In a small town, The Newspaper is an authority figure, and there’s a word for someone in a position of power who makes wisecracks about others: bully. Being “just a blogger” — and emphasizing my total lack of credentials or authority other than being a Watertown resident with a blog— meant that I could convey the fun and joy of where I lived without being mean.

Aside from a bad attitude, one of my other journalistic sins is my lack of objectivity. I live in Watertown. I love it, and I’m an unapologetic booster. I’m not in bed with the subject, but as it happens, my bed is in the subject. I’m not shy about my agenda, which is to make Watertown a better place to live (and I’m also not shy about what I think “better” means).

This Is What You Call Fun?

Jay’s original question, though, was about reward systems. Why is this fun? Why do I do it, essentially for free? And why haven’t I gotten bored and gone away?

A nerd is a person who can sustain attention in something long after a normal person has lapsed into a coma. Patiently, the nerd sits, until the object of its attention cracks and reveals its strange and fantastic inner life.

Small towns are boring – but only on the outside. Inside, they are gnarled and lively as any Russian village ever to grace the pages of Dostoyevsky. I confess that I used to find Watertown boring until I started to really pay attention. But then I had children and had to put away youthful fancies of taking off for San Francisco or the emerging Silicon Valley of India.

As others leave for work in the morning, or hop a plane to parts unknown, I must, for the moment, stay put. H2otown allows me to substitute traveling deeper for traveling farther. The effect is strangely like entering a child’s mind – like the time when my street was my entire universe, each segment of sidewalk a small and distinct republic.

I have the pleasure of sharing this with others who can now play along; the pleasure of being able to produce something from beginning to end, rare in our modern industrialized world where most of us are a small part of a large machine; the joy of craftsmanship that comes from being allowed to stick at something long enough to get better over time.

There aren’t any trees that can be planted where I live that can live 1,000 years, the way a giant sequoia can; if I am very, very lucky, enough people will find H2otown useful, and that might mean it is still going after I am long gone. H2otown is a ticket to the longevity lottery. You can’t win if you don’t play.

After Matter: Notes, reaction & links…

UPDATE: I spoke with Greg Reibman, Editor in Chief at CNC today. CNC stopped offering microfilm of its papers a few years ago, but Reibman had good news: the company had selected a vendor to offer a digital archiving product that would offer not only searchable full text but photos and advertisements; it may be ready as soon as December.

Jemima Kiss reports that the UK’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has drafted a code of conduct for citizen journalists:

A wider debate through many union branches and industry sectors has generated a draft code of practice for citizen journalists, based on both the NUJ and Press Complaints Commission codes of practice.

Uh oh, someone trying to tell bloggers what to do. That’s gonna go over well. Cue the Wonderchicken:

It is the rising current of feeling that weblogs aren’t a party (or aren’t journalism, or aren’t a floor wax, or aren’t a dessert topping), that they’re something important and serious, that is seriously harshing my buzz. “Let’s all take this more seriously”, is the message I get from far too many these days, “because then, well, what I do must be Serious Stuff, right? We’re all adults here, aren’t we?”

Stop it, you [bleeeeep].

Bloggers have developed a wide variety of blog policies, codes of conduct, and statements of ethics — but efforts to impose those on others have been singularly unsuccessful. See We’re Making The Rules Around Here: Blogger-Developed Blog Policies.

Just-released transcripts of a conversation with Dan Gillmor, Neil Chase, and Charles Lewis, on trust in the media (via PJ Net). Questions and framing by Jay Rosen. A snippet from Jay’s intro:

In the standard story that we hear, we find trust in the media declining…we go down our list of factors and one of the factors is the recent spate of scandals like Jayson Blair and Dan Rather and other high-profile screw-ups, which must have done something to trust…We talk about the loss of energy and initiative to bloggers, who are kind of nipping at the heels of the mass media.

What, no podcast of the session? No worries. Pressthink looks pretty good on a Sony Playstation Portable. A stunt? Well, maybe — until you look at the failure of newspapers to get younger readers and start thinking that Pogue’s Posts should be preloaded on every PSP. Sony and the makers of the XBox have already prepared the way: both platforms have RSS capability.

Paul Bass does just the right thing and writes in to remind us about his new venture, the New Haven Independent. I saw this when it first launched, and thought it looked great. Still does! Hey, Paul, do you cover the New Haven County Cutters baseball team? I’m a fan of another Can-Am league team here in Massachusetts called the North Shore Spirit.

Want to get a sense of local newsblogs? Here are a few to get started.

Lists are pernicious, aren’t they? So arbitrary, so many left out. I hate that. Help me fix it: add a link to your site on the Delicious online bookmarking service, and write “localnewsblog” in the tag field. Then we’ll have something really good.

Guest writer Lisa Williams (her bio) is a resident of Watertown, MA— a citizen, even. She has a background in both journalism and software. See her editor’s blog called Behind the Scenes at H2otown. Her personal blog has been around since 2000 and is at She also writes OPML Fan, a blog about turbocharging RSS, search, and exchanging worldview-based lists with OPML.

H2otown’s Greatest Hits take in podcasts of town events, including audio of a debate on a property tax increase ballot question; The House That Almost Launched 1,000 Zoning Regulations. My Citizen Journalism: The Movie! and The H2otown Restaurant Guide are the two areas of the site with the most all-time hits. Also topping the all-time hits list is a very early item — pictures I took of an art exhibit responding to the Iraq war, displayed in a local storefront. Each piece was labeled with the name of a soldier who had died. This being the Internet, the parents of those soldiers found the posts via Google. Diana Boye, mother of Noah Boye, commenting on the piece named after her son; Jim Mizener, father of Jesse Mizener, does the same.

Mark Jurkowitz and Dan Kennedy are the preeminent Metro-Boston media hounds. Here’s Jurkowitz, writing at the Globe on the Herald’s layoffs:

Boston Herald publisher Patrick J. Purcell said yesterday that he wants to eliminate nearly one-quarter of the 145 union newsroom jobs to save $2 million at the financially troubled paper.

Dan Kennedy, writing on the Herald cuts at the Phoenix’s Media Log:

HOW MUCH IS $7 MILLION? I didn’t get a chance to tend to Media Log yesterday - so, naturally, a poster accused me of ignoring the “Boston media story of the year … $7 million in painful cuts at the Boston Herald.” Well, now. Where to begin?

In a change-up, Jurkowitz, who once did the media beat at alt-weekly Boston Phoenix, has returned from a stint as ombudsman at the Globe and has taken over Media Log, where Kennedy wrote the post above (Small world, Boston). Kennedy is now a professor at Northeastern University, and has a new blog, Media Nation.

Both Jurkowitz and Kennedy have written a number of times about the strange beast that is CNC. Here’s a timeline of CNC’s history.

Baristanet now has more writers. Debbie Galant and Liz George both write under the Barista persona.

Adam Gaffin, who runs Universal Hub, now has a column in the Globe called Blog Log. To my frustration, the column doesn’t have a static URL with archives, like, well, a blog. (Psst! Boston Globe! Give adam a URL! Okay? Okay.)

I subscribe to a large number of local newsblogs. You can see a live-updated selection of what I read here. I post a weekly roundup of best posts on the Localnewsapalooza list.

The class I visited was for journalism graduate students at Emerson College. It was being taught by Janet Kolodzy, formerly of CNN and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She’s writing a book on convergence in media. Her co-teacher is Jerry Lanson, formerly of the San Jose Mercury News. Lanson has a blog.

The best thing? The TAB put Dan Atkinson’s election coverage on the paper’s website. On Wednesday. Before the paper came out. Excellent!

Posted by Lisa Williams at November 14, 2005 10:46 AM