WIRED NEWS. By Daniel Terdiman
A small California newspaper has undertaken a first-of-its-kind experiment in participatory journalism in which nearly all the content published in a regularly updated online edition and a weekly print edition is submitted by community members. It's all free.
Following in the footsteps of past community journalism projects that sought to give individuals a voice in local news, as well as the growing trend in news-like blogs, The Northwest Voice is giving residents of Bakersfield's northwest neighborhoods near-total control of content. An editor is on hand largely to ensure that articles, letters and photographs submitted through the publication's Web-based content-management system adhere to a minimal set of standards, and to choose the best submissions for inclusion in the print edition.
"What's different about the Northwest Voice is that we're taking the explicit approach of asking people in the community to be the writers and photographers," said the Voice's publisher, Mary Lou Fulton. The people say what's important to them "rather than having a handful of journalists make those judgments on behalf of the community."
Fulton explained that any submission that meets the Voice's standards -- which effectively require that work be original, non-libelous, accurate and suitable for a family publication -- goes up immediately on its website. Then, a small editorial team decides what content the 22,000 households in the area will receive in the newspaper version each week.
For years, publications have been looking for ways to get community members more directly involved in the news process. Papers across the country have experimented with giving readers blogs, as well as other forms of community-contributed content. In Korea, OhmyNews has for several years relied on reader submissions. But according to several media experts, there has never been a project in the United States in which a newspaper company has turned the reins over to the community.
"I think it's a really good idea," said Paul Grabowicz, the new-media program director at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. "I think it's a good example of how a newspaper can re-establish connections with the community it's supposed to be serving. The media in general has evolved to the point where we started talking down to people. To me, this is re-establishing the connection that was there long ago."
Grabowicz also pointed out that while there have been varied attempts at getting readers more involved in reporting on the happenings in their communities, individuals have been slow to respond to such entreaties. Until now.
"Weblogs and social networking have kind of softened things up," he said, "and that will probably make it more successful this time."
Jonathan Dube, the publisher of CyberJournalist.net, agreed that increasingly easy-to-use technology is encouraging a new generation of community journalists.
"Participatory journalism, or citizen journalism -- the idea of people in the community actually gathering and porting information to other people -- is a new and evolving concept that increasingly is becoming more common with the rise of the Internet and, in particular, the rise of tools like weblogs."
Fulton sees the project as the first step in getting newspaper companies around the country to see the value of leveraging the observational and writing skills of their communities, all while making a profit.
As such, she has created a website in which she discusses the origins of the Northwest Voice, as well as how the business was built. On the one hand, she's trying to give other publishers the fodder for extending her experiment, and on the other she's evangelizing for the concept of what she calls "open source journalism."
The concept, she said, is based on "this idea that collectively, we know a lot more about what's going on in the community than any one person, an editor, possibly could."
In any case, while the print edition of the Voice is the flagship, everyone seems to agree that the Web version offers the true glimpse into the future of community journalism. That's because of the immediacy of the medium and the fact that any content that fits a publication's standards can be published, unlike in the paper edition.
"The website is key to this," said Dube, who wrote about the Voice project on CyberJournalist.net. "You could not possibly do something like this that involves the community without the Internet. It makes it extremely efficient to get all this information from these citizen reporters."
Meanwhile, some may be surprised that such a groundbreaking project is coming out of a rural area of Bakersfield and not, say, San Francisco or New York. But not Dube, who thinks that large cities are not ready for such projects -- and may never be.
"The whole idea of using the Internet to interact with the community better and to tap people as journalistic resources probably has the most potential not on the national level or even the regional level, but on the hyper-local level," he said. "Because there's such a keen interest among people who live in a small community for information about very, very local events, such as small school news, church news (and) youth sports scores. And those types of things are rarely covered well by mainstream media, primarily because mainstream media's aiming at a much wider market."
The Voice's coverage is very much as Dube describes. According to Fulton, 36 percent of the content is photographs, while 13 percent is school news, 11 percent is community events, 7 percent is youth sports and 2 percent is church news. Ten percent of coverage is columns written by locals selected by Fulton for their expertise on things like horses, cars, schools and outdoor life.
But because an editor is required to check submissions for accuracy and suitability, there is a limit to the number of submissions the Voice can handle. And that limit meshes well with a community the size of northwest Bakersfield.
However, a larger city, or even the entire Bakersfield area in the case of the Voice, could well prove to be too big for this kind of project, said Grabowicz.
The Voice isn't going to get bigger any time soon. Its print circulation is expected to stay steady, though Fulton does say the Web traffic is growing rapidly.
"If you think something in your community is worthy of attention, then it's incumbent on you to bring it to our attention," said Fulton. "It's also your responsibility to make sure what you submitted is accurate, so that the responsibility is not between the publisher and the reader, it's reader to reader. And that's really what we're going for here."