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Community Beat: A New Model for Neighborhood News?

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Mike Doyle

Since 2005 scribe of the local blog, Chicago Carless. I invite you to visit.

lisccommunitybeatIn answer to the question posed in the headline, not necessarily, but a great effort nonetheless. Community Beat is the group blog put together by the citywide community development teams from the MacArthur Foundation-financed Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) New Communities Program (NCP). (Did you get all that?)

Since 1998, NCP has rolled out resident-centric planning initiatives in 16 challenged neighborhoods on the Northwest, West, and South Sides of Chicago. Community Beat is a forum for LISC staffers to share news and updates about those NCP neighborhoods, and it works wonderfully in that regard. But, as its organizers claim, is it really a better model than plain old "citizen journalism"?

In the year since its inception, Community Beat has covered topics you might not find on other community news sites or local blogs, for example:

This week, I interviewed NCP "scribe coordinator" (and you thought I was the only blogger to use the "s" word) Patrick Barry via email. Barry told me posts are written by a paid team of contract writers, informed with best practices provided by Chicago's leading grassroots media-training organization Community Media Workshop (CMW). A paid writing staff and professional insight from the likes of CMW definitely add to the depth and breadth of the issues covered on Community Beat.

One thing Barry told me gave me pause, though. He wrote, "We reject the citizen journalist concept as unsustainable and unprofessional, but think nonprofits including community organizations can play a major role in filling the gap left by the newspapers in terms of local coverage."

I agree with the last part of that comment. Community organizations can, should, and of course in this instance do have a role to play in providing localized news coverage in the stead of the former primacy of printed news media.

But it's a bit early in the game to call citizen journalism unsustainable. For one thing, that assumes that Community Beat's philanthropy-financed model is sustainable, and that remains to be seen. It also remains to learn whether Chicago's existing community news and blogging sites like Gapers Block, Windy Citizen, Chi-Town Daily News (admittedly foundation-funded, itself), Beachwood Reporter, and good old ChicagoNow--to name a few--will have a long and healthy life or founder on the shoals of economic or journalistic bankruptcy. With no hard answers yet, it's a little early for hubris.

Moreover, the charge of unprofessionalism has been the heretofore favored rallying cry of traditional media, itself, when faced with the very concept of Internet-based news models--nonprofit or otherwise. Given how fast our collective news landscape continues to change, that's a charge no media professional should make lightly, no matter how entrenched they perceive themselves of their platforms to be.

I'm willing to bet the truly sustainable community news model that finally emerges will be a mélange of the best parts of all of us. While we continue to try and figure out what tomorrow's media landscape is going to look like, right now there some great work going on at Community Beat.

It's worth your time to take a look.
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mmcbadge.jpgSpeaking of community news-gathering, I will be moderating the "Neighborhood News 2.0" panel at Community Media Workshop's annual Making Media Connections conference next Thursday (June 11th) at 2:00 p.m. with panelists Daniel X. O'Neil of Everyblock.com, Geoff Dougherty of the Chi-Town Daily News, Silvana Tabares of Extra Bilingual News, and Dan Weissmann of Vocalo.org.

Both panel and conference should provide a lot to ponder regarding the future of journalism in the Windy City--citizen or otherwise. Follow the conference link, above, to register or learn more.

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6 Comments

Patrick Barry said:

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Bravo, Mike, for your spirited defense of citizen journalists, and of course thank you for writing about our work at Community Beat.

The problem with e-mail interviews is that they don’t allow real discussion of complex questions, which is why phone calls and on-site observation have always been the basics of the old-fashioned journalism that has been collapsing around us. I suggested that you give me a call so that we could talk about the questions you asked (including the sustainability of new journalism models), but you didn’t call.

So while I “reject the citizen journalist concept as unsustainable and unprofessional,” I wasn’t saying there are no good volunteer journalists out there. I suppose you are one of them, but I notice that you’ve just taken a paying gig with the Tribune. Because you have to eat, right?

That’s the crux of it. Volunteers aren’t sustainable for professional news gathering, editing and distribution, not on the scale needed to keep communities and cities (and nations) healthy.

What we’ve seen at LISC/Chicago, over seven years of serious effort in 16 neighborhoods, is that it is extremely difficult to get volunteers to create a steady stream of information about what’s going on in the community. Even Geoff Dougherty at Chi-Town Daily News, which was initially based on a citizen-journalist approach (one in every neighborhood!) would have to acknowledge that the vast majority of his stories are now produced by paid staff members and free-lancers.

And that’s why neighborhood organizations have started managing information themselves. They are developing web sites, creating directories of local businesses, posting calendar items, writing stories, taking photos and putting up videos of what’s going on.

Is Community Beat a new model for neighborhood news? By itself, no. But it is part of an evolving “ecosystem” of web sites, blogs, photo-sharing pages and social networks that is beginning to fill the void left by newspapers. I’d like to see citizen journalists in the mix, but in most neighborhoods we aren’t there yet. There’s that question of sustainability . . .

Mike Doyle said:

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Thanks for the thoughtful response, Patrick. Indeed, you suggested we talk more in-depth on the phone at the end of our email correspondence, during which you provided several emails of detailed information regarding the Community Beat project, as well as background attachments.

Throughout our correspondence I made it clear I would be writing about Community Beat at the end of the week. Given the information you provided, I felt I had an adequate picture of the blog in order to present it to readers. This comment thread is the forum to openly discuss differences of opinion, and I'm glad you're here doing so.

While the details of my ChicagoNow compensation are confidential, I wouldn't feed myself very well in the box I'd be living in if this were my only gig. It's not, by a longshot. My primary byline is my personal blog, CHICAGO CARLESS, and I work with a variety of clients as a strategic public relations consultant to keep my ISP turned on so I can continue writing it.

Wrangled together as a group (say, Huffington Post-style), I don't think volunteer news gatherers are sustainable either. On the other hand, content from individual, uncompensated local bloggers covering happenings in their communities aggregated together in less formal way has its merits.

And, as I recently told a member of the Tribune newsroom, I'm not a journalist. Don't plan to be. Don't want to be. I'm a long-form blogger scribing my observations of the world around me. If I were doing so in newsprint, you'd call me a columnist.

In the future, as news dissemination shifts to the Internet, you're going to see a far higher ratio of columnists to journalists. The onus is going to be on the reader to decide for themselves what's news and what's bluster. That's the way it worked until the early 1900s. The whole idea of an ivory-tower journalism as society's only viable arbiter of truth and justice is what is waning. Has waned. I wrote about this here, but Newspaper Death Watch does so on a daily basis.

You say, "...we aren't there yet." I wholeheartedly agree. If any one of us knew the silver-bullet model of sustainability for news media on the Internet, we wouldn't be bothering to debate it in a comment thread on ChicagoNow.

We'd more likely be cleaning up on the lecture circuit, making a mint consulting for Gannett, or teasing Rupert Murdoch mercilessly.

Ya know?

Patrick Barry said:

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Beautiful! With enough long-form bloggers who write as elegantly as you do, I think we'll be okay.

Mike Doyle said:

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Thanks, Patrick.

Readers can find a full and thoughtful explanation from Patrick regarding the need for a better-than-voluntary model of community news gathering on Community Beat here.

Maritza said:

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As an uncompensated citizen blogger with a background in journalism, I've got to say I see the limits of citizen journalism in terms of keeping up with the news. When I'm busy with paid projects, my unpaid work takes a back seat. And am I as dogged in the pursuit of information as an unpaid blogger as I was when I was a paid reporter? No, I'm not.

And Mike, it's all well and good to say that readers will have to take responsibility for sifting the news out of the commentary here in the blogosphere, but what about the news that doesn't get reported because no one was getting paid to dig it out?

That said, I obviously think there's a role for citizen journalists to play, especially in a place like Back of the Yards, where I live, and where most mainstream news coming out of here is pretty one-dimensional (the latest shooting).

Mike Doyle said:

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If it weren't for the "t" in your name, I'd ask if you were the famous Portuguese fadista. So, what about the "news that doesn't get reported because no one was getting paid to dig it out"?

Your guess is as good as mine. But just because a cause is a good one doesn't mean anyone will actually pay for it. That's a magical assumption a lot of people seem to make when trying to justify paid online news staff--and content, for that matter.

Trouble is, there are plenty of worthy causes in this world that remain underfunded. If people won't pony up adequately to help house homeless families, feed hungry children, or find a cure for [enter name of your favorite malady here], what makes you think anyone is going to pay for localized news content out of Avondale or Englewood?

There's at least one major funded community news site in this town with a questionable future once current grant monies expire. What happens then?

The point is not whether citizen journalism is better than paid journalism. The point is how do we make community news sustainable? The answer may or may not involve paid staff. It could just involve neighborhood residents taking the volunteer initiative once the major dailies and underfunded online news sites finally keel over.

As I made clear in the post, no one has an answer to that yet. I share your belief that funding localized news content is a good cause.

But I simply can't make the leap of faith into considering a paid model a foregone conclusion.

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