Traditionally, newspaper reporters were dispatched to cover the mundane proceedings of a local government in action: the city council meeting. But as the mainstream media grapples with its survival in the Internet era, the seats in the audience once occupied by full-time reporters are sometimes being filled by local bloggers and other citizen media outfits. They’re using blogs and social media technologies like Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about important decisions, or to inspire action within their communities.
“It’s the time for the group formerly known as the readers to come out and do our part,” said Chuck Welch, the editor of Lakeland Local, a citizen journalism site in Lakeland, Fla.
Welch is a former journalist at a local weekly in Louisville who’s now a stay-at-home dad. He created Lakeland Local after his wife took a job in Lakeland and the family relocated. Welch wanted to get to know his new city, and soon grew dissatisfied with how the local newspaper, the Ledger (owned by The New York Times Co.), was covering a big story in the area.
“I thought the only way I could ensure that the story was being covered the way I wanted was just to go do it myself,” Welch said.
Mobilizing the Community
Paul Roberts, editor of the site Blogging Belmont in Belmont, Mass., has also stepped up to cover and mobilize his community. He recently used Facebook and Twitter in tandem with his blog to get people to the polls in support of a debt exclusion school funding measure.
“[The voter drive] got us some media attention, which was helpful in creating awareness about what was happening,” Roberts said. “The exclusion passed by a wide margin. I don’t think the social networking piece was decisive, but they are powerful tools.”
Roberts, like Welch, is a former journalist. He currently works at a technology analyst firm, and was recently elected to serve as a school committee member. He created Blogging Belmont to establish a source of real-time information about everything that’s going on in the Belmont political sphere, and as a resource for a community where the local media is comprised of a single two-person newspaper.
Roberts said he would like to integrate technologies with Blogging Belmont that allow visitors to the site to use their Facebook or Twitter account to log-in, making it easier to participate.
“There is a huge amount of potential there, but as of yet, my integration between the blog and other media are pretty loose,” Roberts said. “I talk to a lot of folks that are pretty frequent readers of the blog and they are still trying to wrap their brain around what Twitter is and why it exists. So I’m not sure the urgent need is there to build the bridges to Facebook and Twitter as it might be if my audience was different.”
Political Leaders Taking Notice
Technology is making citizen journalism easier, but of course there is currently little, if any, money in covering local government. Without any financial incentive, how do you get the average citizen to spend their time live blogging or sending out tweets during a public meeting? And unlike the inclination to tweet about an accident on the highway, school board and city council meetings just aren’t that sexy, despite their importance.
“I think that it is good for a democracy, but the trouble is that it is an awful waste of time and there’s not a whole lot of ways to pay for it,” said Tommy Duncan, a Tampa, Fla. blogger and editor of Sticks of Fire. “Live blogging would probably be helpful in many cases, but I don’t know if it can be justified financially.”
There is some reward in the fact that politicians are beginning to notice the presence of local bloggers. Cincinnati Councilman Chris Bortz said citizen journalists can offer communities additional access to political leaders.
“I know a few of the bloggers fairly well and it’s nice because it is a good source for me as well,” Bortz said. “If I feel like I’d like to get something out and maybe it’s too difficult to get in the local paper, I can often email the bloggers and ask them if I can post a guest blog, and they are often eager to do it.”
Perhaps the biggest potential for citizen journalists who are focused on local government is the interactivity promised by Twitter or Facebook. They can receive instant feedback and encouragement from readers and fellow citizens.
“I’ve gotten questions from the readers because they might have more experience or they might have an insight that I didn’t have,” Chuck Welch said. “In the past it was thought that a story had to be completely finished before you printed it in the newspaper. Today you put the information out there and you update and add to it as you learn more. News is a process. You put it out there and let the audience help you build on it. It’s more fun to work back and forth with the readers.”
He said the end result is that local government officials know they’re still being held accountable.
“I think there are cases now where city council or city staff might be more cognizant that just because the newspaper reporter is not in the room it doesn’t mean the community is not going to learn about whatever it is they are doing,” Welch said.
Steven Davy is a freelance journalist, and freelance radio reporter/producer. He regularly covers the defense industry and security related issues for UPI. Additionally he hosts a current affairs news magazine radio show called the Nonchalant Café Hour which broadcasts live in Kalamazoo, Mich. Steven recently created Exploring Conversations as a multimedia website examining the language of music for his graduate thesis project at Michigan State University.