One of the pleasures of living and teaching at MIT for the past 20 years has been the chance to build ongoing relations with a fascinating cast of characters, many of whom have been regulars at the MIT Communication Forum events that are run by my colleague, David Thorburn. These events have attracted people from across the campus, from neighboring universities, and from the greater Cambridge area, many of whom have been coming regularly for a decade or more to listen to smart, citizenly discussions about democracy, new media, and public life. The Center for Future Civic Media partners regularly with the Communication Forum to host events, including ones this coming semester on Popular Culture and the Political Imagination and on Race and the 2008 Elections. I met Jack Driscoll at one or another of these events. Our paths have criss-crossed off and on through the years. And for the past year or so, he’s been actively involved with our new Center for Future Civic Media, a joint CMS-Media Lab effort funded by the Knight Foundation.

Jack’s an amazing guy! He fully embodies the classic concept of a “gentleman of the press.” He spent forty years of his life working with the Boston Globe — that’s a newspaper for those of you who only get your information on line — and for seven of them, he was the editor. Many of his generation were confused, frustrated, even enraged by the growing competition digital media has posed to traditional forms of civic communication. But Jack was fascinated. He migrated to the MIT Media Lab where he’s been working to help construct the future of what he calls “community journalism” first through the News of the Future group and now through our Civic Media center. He’s been doing work on the ground with senior citizens in local communities in New Hampshire and with young people in a virtual community which spans the globe. He hasn’t just built prototypes to demonstrate the potentials of new tools and technologies; he’s helped to inspire and instruct, advise and mentor, and most importantly, sustain publications over extended periods of time.

Driscoll recently published a book, Couch Potatoes Sprout: The Rise of Online Community Journalism, which shares some of his experiences and offers sage advice about how and why community journalism may become an important part of the contemporary newscape. What I love about the book is its emphasis on journalism as a practice and a process rather than simply a product, since it is clear that working on these publications is empowering to those who become involved, changing the ways they think about themselves and their communities.

I was lucky enough to get a chance to pick Jack’s brain about community journalism and to be able to share his perspectives with you here. As you read this, you have to picture this ruddy faced man with gray hair, a sparkle in his eye, and a broad toothy smile. Jack represents what was best about the old style journalism and he represents a bridge to what may be most vital about the future of civic media.

You begin the book with the quotation, “now anyone with a computer is a newspaper.” So this begs the question — what is a “newspaper” and thus, what are the differences between individuals or communities publishing the news and the kind of work that has been performed by professional journalists.

The “computer-is-newspaper” analogy refers to each of them in their roles as vehicles for transmitting information to a wide audience. In the early days of the printing press there is evidence that citizens took advantage of the newspaper mechanism as a vehicle to spread their views in the form of flyers and pamphlets and then as periodicals that evolved into newspapers. When James Franklin started his weekly newspaper in 1721, he is said to have invited readers to contribute. One of those readers was his 16-year-old brother Benjamin, then a James’s typesetter, who thought that was a pretty good idea, so pretty soon he started writing essays under the name of “Silence Dogood”.

The flatbed press worked pretty well in those days, because the population was small and time was not of the essence. As the printing-press technology became more advanced, citizens played a lesser role, relegated to Letters to the Editor. Before email, we’d get more than 300 letters a day at the Boston Globe and print 10 or 12.

As time passed, citizens became receptacles for news and information. It was a one-way street. The computer changed all that.

Citizens have responded slowly for the most part, but we do have bloggers and we do have digital photos and video unfurled when there is a major news event, and we now have twittering.

The most lumbering form to arise is community journalism. Folks have the image of group publishing as being a really difficult process. The reason I wrote this book was to demystify the process. In short, it’s not that difficult, it’s rewarding and it’s fun.

Without sounding like a Harvard Business School professor, “mission” is the key word in describing the difference between individual and group publishing. Bloggers come in a variety of forms: In some cases they are voicing strongly held opinions, in others they are aggregators or instructors; some are champions of causes. You like to think their mission is to elevate the level of discussion either on a broad range of topics or a specialized field. For the most part I think they are succeeding.

Community groups so far seem to be the product of a spirit of public service and frustration. The youth I worked with from around the world were bursting to have their voices heard. They were not happy with the way their world was being run, but the adults in their lives had pretty much kept a thumb on them. The Junior Journal was an outlet to let ‘er rip. To their credit they didn’t just pontificate. They did research and reporting. They had their own experiences to speak from. I remember one vivid story about a child soldier, age 12, who was used as a spy by his Sierra Leone unit, because he could slip in and out of enemy camps easily. When I asked how the writer could know so much detail, the editor responded, “Because he was the child soldier.”

With adults there seems to be a feeling that their communities are not being covered in the media. Newspaper staff cutbacks have exacerbated the problem. It’s not just the institutional news, but the stories about the fabric of the community, the personalities, the achievements of groups of individuals, the problems, the culture.

The Melrose SilverStringers have been around for 13 years but rarely write about their local government. They seem to leave that to the local weekly newspaper. Rye, N.H., on the other hand, tries to keep up with the local boards while at the same time writing about issues, trends and people. Community groups enhance the ability to cover issues, because of the variety of amateur interests in the group: the history buff, the energy enthusiast, the horticulturist, the climatologist, the expert cook, etc.

One member of the Rye group is a former operator of a small ski slope in the next state. There is absolutely no place to ski in Rye, a flat seacoast town, but he has a strong readership whether he is writing about Stowe, Vermont, or Vail, Colorado. He writes from experience, not just because of his business background but also because at age 80 he still skis. And lots of residents of Rye go skiing, too. So he has developed a following.

Community groups have found that the word “localized” refers to stories of high interest in their local community. Travel is one of those topics. An early Melrose story described a local couple’s adventures traveling in the Northwest of the U.S. in an Airstream trailer. One of the highest number of hits in Rye was for a story about a trip to Quebec City. That was 18 months ago, and the story still is getting hits.

And so in community groups, if you have enough diversity, you can reflect the range of special interests of a city or town over time.

I’m deliberately sticking with the three communities featured in the book, but when we look at the spectrum of community groups now sprouting elsewhere, you see the local news/feature groups but you also see more and more communities of interest. A lot of them center around health and self-help issues. They tend to be experiential, and their stories react to the news about new treatments, new medications. Their mission is to share, hoping to improve the lives of others.

Finally, I would suggest that community groups tend to do more original reporting than bloggers. The best bloggers, like the best mainstream media columnists, tend to build their blogs around research and reporting; the good bloggers do a lot of research; then there are large numbers who simply are expressing their views with maybe a few links thrown in from time to time.

Can you explain the concept of “community journalism” as you outline it in the book? Do you see this as a specific kind of “citizen journalism”? What difference does it make that the projects you describe involve many people in a community working together as opposed to the model of the lone blogger?

The other day five of us were in the throes of publishing the January edition of Rye Reflections. It could be done by one person, but we divvy up the responsibilities and turn it into an enjoyable 60 or 90 minute exercise. That’s community at work.

As we were finishing up, another member of our group wandered into the room we were working in at the Rye Public Library and was clearly excited. He wanted to tell us of an interview he had had that morning with a blind man who is well known in the town for his upbeat attitude and willingness to get out and about, with help. He shared that the man had spent a couple of hours before the 9 a.m. interview cutting wood outdoors. It was 5 degrees that day.

Someone in the group suggested he interview a longtime elected official who takes the blind man to the bank and the Post Office and the local coffee shop. Someone else suggested he talk to one of the regulars on the 10-seat van that takes seniors food shopping, because the blind man is known for entertaining the other passengers, often quoting poetry and telling stories. That’s community helping to add dimensions to a story that one person might not scope out alone.

When the Junior Journal editors—of which there were 12, one for each month—planned their editions, they tried to come up with a theme each month that would resonate throughout their global community. Issues ranged from AIDs, war and peace, and protecting the environment; to children-specific issues such as child workers, child soldiers, suicide; to cultural issues such as wedding customs or celebrations of holidays. They did this as a collaboration, via email, with a certain amount of give-and-take involved as they shaped the idea and more give-and-take as they shaped individual stories with their reporters. Again, it is people working together to enhance the quality of what they are presenting.

And so in community journalism you get a collaborative effort, a sharing of wisdom and experience, that hones the final output. And, almost as a by-product, you experience a form of social networking in the process.

Then there is the critiquing process. It exhibits itself in the editing process but it tends to go beyond that as members develop trust in the group and learn to be open and honest about commenting on the works of others.

Media literacy? As community journalists they better understand the basics that go into creating a story, they become much more astute in analyzing the work of mainstream media.

In Rye we actually engage in community-building activities that have evolved rather than being imposed. At our weekly meetings we start off by going around the table and giving each person a chance to share whatever they wish. It might be about a family matter, an amusing experience, a comment on national politics. Like many periodicals, Rye Reflections prides itself on its recipes, so occasionally a writer will cook up one of her (occasionally his) creations and bring it to the meeting to share. An annual potluck dinner at the seashore has evolved with some members putting on a skit and it now looks as though there will be an annual end-of-year home gathering, because one couple in the group went to Sweden last year, raved about the glugg and invited the Rye “Surfers” to their house for a meeting followed by some goodies washed down with glugg (not too strong, I should add).

At one level you could say that community journalism proves that two minds are better than one. But there also is the diversity of minds that enriches the publication. It may show up in the form of liberal, conservative, libertarian or whatever; it may show up in knowledge about the history or ethos of a community; it may show up in the form specialities (gardening, climatology, sports, culture, etc.) or in the forms of photographic or videographic expertise…

When some of these special-interest members combine, you sometimes get fascinating results. Whoever thought that a massive email conflict among several members of the Junior Journal over Kashmir, would evolve into a marvelous article co-authored by a Pakistani girl and an Indian girl or that two writers, one an Israeli and the other Palestinian would call for cooler heads in the Middle East or that an article about a lesbian being harassed in school would be published, because a passionate online discussion over the incident resulted in a consensus that it was a story that needed to be heard.

Much of the book assumes that traditional journalism style, ethics, and practices provide the best models for community practices. Yet, there are many other possible models for what community journalism might look like and the circumstances of producing community journalism is very different from a professional newsroom. What do you see as the advantages or disadvantages of modeling community journalism after established news practices?

I feel a little like the circus barker: “You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.”

Citizens haven’t begun to tap the potential of community activity that will soon take on much more of an advocacy mantel, in my opinion. And, I’d guess, it’ll take off in directions we haven’t imagined.

The traditional approach has been adopted so far, because most average citizens prefer to walk before they run. They are tending to ape mainstream media. But the most important reason is because they seem themselves filling a vacuum that is coincident with the sudden rise of online computing. Most localized groups see themselves as supplementing traditional media, picking up the slack.

We’ve seen blogging take on a major role in politics, especially on the national level. Community sites won’t be far behind. And not far behind that will be special-interest groups within local communities and regions.

Still, there are some advantages to the traditional model. It promotes diversity of interests and opinions. Much like academia. Participants tend to keep each other honest but at the same time learn from one another. The model will have longevity, whereas advocacy models will tend to either splinter over issues or die out as the issue becomes less cutting-edge.

The disadvantage is that checks-and-balances make story generation hard work. Stories need to reflect all sides. They need to stand up to peer review.

It’s a busy world, it seems. More hectic than I remember my parents experiencing, even with ten children in the family. So there is a question as to how much time adults will be willing to spare for community journalism, whatever form it takes. (There are, of course, commercial forms appearing here and there. They, of course, tend to be traditional in approach.)

For teenagers, however, I see a lot of possibilities. I have a bias, but my experience tells me that online youth groups would function best outside of the school framework, which tends to stultify their creativity. They have a lot to offer, and the future is theirs. Libraries, girls and boys clubs, etc., would be ideal settings.

John S. (Jack) Driscoll has been Editor-in-Residence at the MIT Media Laboratory since 1995. Previously he was at the Boston Globe newspaper for nearly 40 years, seven as Editor. He is the author of Couch Potatoes Sprout: The Rise of Online Community Journalism.

Related