a new kind of newspaper 04.04.2005, 11:50 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Dan Gillmor points to what might be the beginning of something big, exciting and a little scary: user-generated newspapers. Bluffton Today, a free daily serving the small, but rapidly growing, South Carolina town of Bluffton (10,000 households, expected to double in the next five years), hits the racks this morning, filled with news, local events listings, and classifieds, culled in large part from reader contributions on the paper's website. Bluffton Today.com is "a new kind of community website that joins with the Bluffton Today newspaper in a mission of helping Bluffton come together as a community." Run in Drupal, a popular open source "community plumbing" platform, Bluffton Today weaves together blogs, photo-sharing, discussion forums, and classified ads into the living picture of a community. Everyday, the editors will assemble the print edition from content generated on the website, proving they mean what they say in the paper's slogan, "It's what people are talking about!" Browsing through, I found photo galleries ranging across topics like the recent passing of Pope John Paul, graduating Marines on Parris Island, the local SWAT team in training, a bar mitzvah, and life guards. Bluffton blogs (this is where you go when you click "news") were discussing the Pope's death, local sports events, surveys of the night's television offerings, a golf story, and a plug for the Beaufort Humane Association.
Bluffton Today certainly seems like a powerful model for community reporting, but is there any potential here for serious journalism? So far, blogs have proven most effective as watchdogs for the mainstream media - calling out the bullshitters, filling in the gaps, refusing to let certain stories be buried or spun, and occasionally pulling off the dazzling revelation or exposé. They also paint an organic picture of how events ripple through society, registering, like a seismograph, the intensity, direction, and duration of a story. Recall the case of the tsunami, in which the million human voices crying out in the blogosphere balanced the monolithc coverage of the press. But this is not the same thing as providing consistent, exhaustive coverage of events. How could we get any reliable information without a professional class of journalists with the resources and training to extract truth from complex, hectic, or even dangerous circumstances? The blogs would largely dry up if they didn't have the professional news to feed off of. This is not to say the news is complete, fair, or immune to corruption. But without it, web-based discussions would become incoherent.
There was a time when the only way to publicly comment or complain about a newspaper was in the paper's own "letters to the editor" page. But we have entered an age in which readers have unprecedented opportunities to comment and even contribute to the news. Small communities like Bluffton might become entirely self-sufficient in the management of their information, while larger news outlets will probably have to evolve to incorporate grassroots journalism. Who knows? The New York Times might eventually establish a massive community portal on the Bluffton model to supplement its professionally generated news with contributions from community "stringers," redefining what is meant by a story's "source."
But amidst all this change, the ingredient that must not be lost is editors. Bluffton Today reserves editorial authority, and this is precisely what makes them so interesting. They are betting that their content will be more colorful, nuanced, and (hold your breath) accurate, if they open up the news gathering process to the community. But they also seem to understand that this makes the role of editors all the more crucial. It's an experiment worth watching.
Another recently launched initiative worth keeping an eye on (and participating in) is Our Media, a community-generated, community-maintained "home-brew" media warehouse, hosted by the Internet Archive. They are experimenting with guest editors for assembling the archive's homepage, and with volunteer moderators for their various discussion forums. From the site:
"Ourmedia's goal is to expose, advance and preserve digital creativity at the grassroots level. The site serves as a central gathering spot where professionals and amateurs come together to share works, offer tips and tutorials, and interact in a combination community space and virtual library that will preserve these works for future generations. We want to enable people anywhere in the world to tap into this rich repository of media and create image albums, movie and music jukeboxes and more."
Posted by ben vershbow on April 4, 2005 11:50 AM
tags: Publishing, Broadcast, and the Press
Ken Rickard on April 5, 2005 2:17 PM:
[in reference to inaccurate population figures, now corrected. Thanks, Ken!]
Don't know where that 2,000 pop. figure came from.
Our newest survey data indicates more than 10,000 households in Bluffton, SC. And that's expected to double in the next five years. That's one of the major reasons we're there.
ben vershbow on April 5, 2005 2:58 PM:
Thanks for pointing that out - these are the perils of web research. I was going off of figures from the 2000 census that put the population at 1,275 - I found this on multiple sites, including this one. But given the incredible growth rates you mention, these numbers are clearly sorely outdated. I've fixed them accordingly.
What has led to this population boom? How did you guys end up in Bluffton? Would love to hear more...
Ken Rickard on April 5, 2005 4:12 PM:
I think the pop. numbers you cite are for Bluffton proper. There may be some difference between the county and the incorporated city that account for this in census data.
The population boom is this: coastal tropical property is in very high demand. Florida is (mostly) full. Coastal Georgia is largley swamp from Jacksonville to Savannah. Bluffton is just north of Savannah, in the Carolina "low country." So it's in a desirable location.
It may help to know its more famous neighbor is Hilton Head, which is across a bridge to the east. Hilton Head has seen phenominal growth and, being an island, is now full. No more room.
So the developers have moved inland, creating at least a dozen large gated communties around the sleepy old core of Bluffton.
We're involved as a newspaper company (Morris Communications) that owns the papers in Savannah, Jacksonville, and Augusta GA (among others).
This project is a natural evolution of the Savannah Morning News' now-defunct Carolina Mornin g News project, which BT replaced.
We think there's a real opportunity for a media company to help this new community grow together, and the project emphasizes that at every turn.
The project motto was "A community in conversation with itself," which has morphed into the zingier "It's what people are talking about!"
Of course, there's a profit motive, too, but one that should follow rather naturally by helping enable the community.
ben vershbow on April 5, 2005 4:49 PM:
It's so interesting to see techno-cultural development linked to real estate development. I guess it's all about spaces. Is Bluffton investing in any communication infrastructure that might further encourage this "conversation with itself"? i.e. municipal or commercial Wi-Fi projects? And is Bluffton Today going to be accessible by mobile devices like text messaging, moblogging, pix messages etc.?
Ken Rickard on April 9, 2005 12:45 PM:
We are investigating Wi-Fi options, actually, but that's on the QT.
As for techno-cultural, I think that may be where the big media plays will be made (at least in local markets). Find a place where the two intersect and go for it. Remeber that the Amazons of the world survived because they could improve efficiency by using the net. The same may work for cultural connections.