Schooled ya: Community Journalism Still Too Static

Media | Access/Network
In researching Maynard’s Radio Needs a Boost, I wondered how community journalism stacked up against traditional journalism in reporting and amplifying. If community journalism missing clear and present stories like this one, and is content in its own static, than it has a long ways to go.


As best as I can see, the Herald Media/Community Newspaper Company, which publishes the Boston Herald as well as papers in the suburban communities (like Maynard’s Beacon Villager and the MetroWest Daily News) broke the story last Wednesday. The Globe followed with an article the next day, and New England Cable News also aired a news segment. Steve Safran, whose day job is Digital Media Producer NECN, posted the link to the Globe on the LostRemote blog. The other night I happened to wander over to LostRemote for some odd reason– ok, I was tracking the posts about the Citizen’s Media summit at the University of Maryland, where Safran was a participant. I scrolled down past ten mercifully short brief on the content, two by LR founder Cory Bergman of Seattle’s NorthWest Cable News regarding the Florida Hurricane (makes sense to me), one giving good wishes to Terry Heaton, another old media hand now blogging with LR, and then, boom, the headline FCC stupidity means high school may lose radio station. Fybush mentioned in his newsletter that Living Proof, Inc., made Keith Olberman’s hyperbolic Countdown segment on “Worst Person on the World” last week, but I missed it, and it’s not to be on the Countdown website.

Now when I find something newsworthy in the blogs, I wonder, why didn’t I find this earlier? I can understand not catching something in the paper. Sunday’s Globe, as it’s still sitting unread on the couch. But the blogs, favoring a more compact format and lots of links, should in theory lead readers to many more stories. Something’s the matter when it appears like it’s all up to me to amplify a story like this– in an area where I’m hardly the expert. Some people might get the the thrill out of being a key player in a news chain. Nine times out of ten, I’ll pass a quiet tip along to to the appropriate blogger or journalist without making a big fuss about it. This is the tenth time. I’m going to let loose on all that is broken with the supposed counter-revolution of new media.

In the Hub, if something doesn’t get covered by the daily papers, it wouldn’t go completely unnoticed. The Phoenix, Boston’s weekly alternative newspaper, has excelled in covering some of the abandoned and hidden news stories (their reporter Kristen Lombardi was first to break the story about Cardinal Law’s complicitness in the clergy sex abuse scandal back in 2001). Dan Kennedy, their longtime media reporter for the last decade, wrote a weekly column and also kept an online Media Log for the last few years. He recently moved on to teaching at Northeastern, and created a new blog Media Nation. The job of Phoenix media critic and the new Media Log caretaker returned to Mark Jurkowitz, who was Kennedy’s predecessor before stepping up to the Globe for the interegnum. In their blogs, neither had apparently mentioned WAVM-FM, but were all over the New York Times and Judith Miller (Since the account was published Saturday night the 15th: Kennedy: 5 of 15; Jurkowitz: 5 of 18). How about the nonprofessional citizen bloggers? Blue Mass Group, which has taken community journalism to the extreme in covering the 2006 Democratic Primary for Lieutentant Governor, is also fixated on the Times, writing numerous exegieses on about their columnists. Last night, they broke the news– well, the New York Times broke it, but they did offer a link–

Wait a minute. Why are these guys acting as local gatekeepers for a story their readers most certainly have heard of? I get the friggin’ Times myself, I don’t need people to interpret what’s happening in the paper! I check it the first thing in the morning, and before I go to bed. I check before I have my lunch, in case there’s a case of mad cow poisoning I should know about. I’m waiting for Yogi Berra to start a blog and explain that everybody blogs about the Times because nobody reads it anymore.

Now, if there were ever a journalist who would know what to do with this story, it would be Eric Boehlert. As a writer for Salon, Boehlert delivered an award-winning series of articles on Clear Channels Communications, explaining how they gobbled up local radio stations following the 1996 Telecom deregulation act, and exposing the new payola schema in radio. But I let my subscription run out, and Boehlert ran out as well, this summer, decamping to the Huffington Post while finishing on a book. What’s he been huffing about lately? Nine of ten pieces in the month of October have been about Judith Miller and the Times. It’s one thing if people have lower expectations for unedited, unassigned blogging than reporting. But it’s not another thing when talented reporters stoop to that level.

Certainly this is a big story, but the problems of three Times people (Miller, Keller, Suzlberger) won’t amount to a hill of beans once the Plame leak case grand jury finishes up this week, with the possible indictments of senior White House officials coming down. What is the point to writing a riff on a spin on a steal of a leak at this point in the game? This is pack journalism at its worst. Everybody’s repeating the same speculation. And it hasn’t gone away in the new media world! I said as much in 14,000 words in The New Gatekeepers series, and no one has delivered a serious challenge to it. I concede pack journalism is a natural behavior. But the real fault of blogging-as-journalism is that the force of feedback feedback. How many comments from users can be as strong as those from an editor saying: is this really something you need to write about? Over and over?

There was one last refuge to check out, which is mercifully a Miller-free zone. I looked up UniversalHub, which is a blog aggregator of Boston-regional blogs. The publisher of the site, Adam Gaffin, finds the most interesting posts and puts them on the front page. This evening, Adam found a post by lawyer and journalist Robert Ambrogi, who helped draft a shield law that was filed today in the Massachusetts. (Both had assured their readers that bloggers and freelancers would be covered.) But the UniversalHub postings are a mixed bag, to put it delicately. Yesterday the “top” post was a picture of birds bandying around a fake owl on the roof of one of the Turnpike rest stops, capping off another day’s worth of griping about the MBTA. Nothing about WAVM-FM.

I was in touch with Adam Gaffin when he launched the site earlier in the year. My post at the time reflected my ambivalence: do I help out, by applying my research, my software handiwork, and editorial content? Or do I maintain my Liebling-esque semi-detachment and stick to the genre of journalistic research? Ultimately, I just didn’t think I’d be able to put my heart into community reporting. I contributed one account of a my time at a meeting of the Boston Writer’s Union, and a haiku about a visit to the MFA. “Not all sites aspire to become the next Boston Globe, nor should they,” Adam posted in comments to an article in the Online Journalism Review recently.

With aspirations like that, why bother? The advantage of online media– if it raises to the level of what I call constructive media— is that it can keep stories current without having to report on something new each day. The editors can keep a headline up for a period of time. They can post a story and improve it as new facts come in. They can throttle the number of subway complaints that are displayed.

Well, they could. UniversalHub continues the fundamental design flaw of blogs in giving prominence to the most recent post. Earlier this spring I explained why this is a mistake, and why smart publications are running away from it towards the webzine format. To be fair, the software that UH uses is Drupal, and the Drupal squad, to my knowledge, is waiting on me to deliver the webzine module. (Maybe I do too much analysis). But that’s just the first step. Once the top issues are given prominence, there should be a visual structure to indicate the key newsworthy facets: “What’s the gist of the issue? What are the updates? Where can background information be found?” There was a good example mentioned in Jay Rosen’s 1999 book What are Journalists For?— I believe it was the Wichita Eagle for their election coverage, but I will check.

The point of this exercise in visual structures is to help move beyond the largely solitary act of blogging. If community journalism is remains stuck on the reverse-chronological format, it will be stuck as newspaper journalism is with the mindset of another-day-another-story. Anyone who wants to contribute to the community conversation should recognize the importance of priorititzing their news stories. Community journalists could also step up and ask for volunteers in assembling stories, rather than expecting them to magically coalesce via automated aggregation.

The priority today may just be to help out a local community hang on to their old, one-to-many analog broadcast medium. It’s a dear old relic in the age of corporate consolidation, satellite radio, and the iPod infatuation. We just shouldn’t abandon our old ways of thought and our old systems of shared media so quickly as we rush forward.

Update, August 6, 2006: Dan Kennedy, the well-known Boston media critic, has given this story justice in a 2,300-word article Still on the Air in the summer 2006 issue of CommonWealth magazine. We finally met for the first time at the UMass-Amhert MediaGiraffe conference, so I sent him a brief note of gratitude. His response: "Thanks, and it was you who put me up to it." Nice to see the circle complete– and it’s nice to see that WAVM is still on the air. Lacking a visible "citizen media" campaign, I suppose their success fell on a good letter-writing effort plus able negotiating.
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  • Response summary: 1 comments, 0 Viewpoints
    Some excellent points, but … adamg Oct 26 ’05 4:08PM
    . What is news Jon Garfunkel Oct 26 ’05 9:30PM