When Boulder, Colo., voters passed the nation’s first municipal “carbon tax” last fall, it was an engraved invitation for me and my partner Amy Gahran at citizen journalism outfit I, Reporter. As long-time veteran environmental journalists with years of online experience, we’ve been on the look-out for ways to explore participatory journalism’s potential on a tough eco-issue like global warming, especially given the local focus on a story that has national and international implications.
Then the Knight Foundation gave us our opportunity last May by funding our plan to build and launch our Boulder Carbon Tax Tracker citizen journalism web site. Since then, we’ve plunged ahead, learning as we go about what it takes to involve local citizens in such a complex, slow-breaking, but crucially important story.
With a flurry of activity over the intervening months, we’ve launched an attractive custom web site, Bouldercarbontax.org, populated it with some three dozen blog posts and images and drawn even wider attention by arranging for print distribution in well-known local publications, including the Denver Post’s reversed-published Your Hub weekly print edition and the Boulder County Business Report, as well as via an appearance on public radio.
We also reached out to numerous community leaders who are potential participants in the project, ranging from city officials administering the tax to local folks adjusting their greenhouse gas output. And we met with others in the private and non-profit sector who are carefully watching the tax program, as well as spread the word in local and national environmental journalism circles.
All the while, we’ve leveraged our time on the project by using a wide range of cheap or free web tools, including WordPress publishing tools, Basecamp’s web-based project sharing suite and, launching this week, vBulletin online forum software.
While we’re planning on using plenty of sophisticated technology tools, it’s the people in the community who are the most important aspect of this project. In essence, we’re covering a unfolding environmental issue while involving the people who are affected. If the technology makes that easy, it’s the human element that’s the most challenging. But in the end, if we’re successful, we’ll have found a model by which communities can set their own agendas more effectively by giving citizens the tools they need to cover themselves and talk to each other more easily.