Wednesday, November 02, 2005

ASSIGNMENT: Read story about iBrattleboro for Tuesday


On Tuesday, Nov. 8, we will be visited by the husband-wife team which
founded "iBrattleboro.COM", a community "citizen journalism" website
serving Brattleboro, Vt. Chris Grotke and Lise PePage should arrive about
8:30 a.m. This will be an opportunity to learn about the sort of
community, part-time journalism which can flourish via the web.

For background, see:

Please come prepared for class with at least one question to ask. Try to
come up with questions which related to some of the things we've discussed
in the last seven weeks.


-- bill

Bill Densmore, director/editor
The Media Giraffe Project
Journalism Program / Communication Studies
108 Bartlett Hall / Univ. of Mass.
Amherst MA 01003
OFF: 413-577-4370 / CELL: 413-458-8001
ATTEND: "Democracy and Independence: Sharing News in a Connected World"
Conference: June 29-July 2, 2006 /


Citizen Journalism Finds A Niche: iBrattleboro at the ONA

Wednesday, November 02 2005 @ 09:06 PM EST

Contributed by: Lise LePage

Who could have known, less than three short years ago, that
little iBrattleboro would find itself at the center of a new media
phenomenon worthy of panel discussion at a professional journalism
conference? And yet, it has happened. This weekend, Chris and I were
panelists in the Participatory Journalism discussion at the Online News
Association conference in New York City, representing and
citizen journalism to a sophisticated audience of real journalists.
I must say, it was almost intimidating. There we were amongst reporters and
editors from places like USA Today, ABC News, and Reuters, and for some
reason, they all wanted to know about us. But apparently, participatory
journalism is a media buzzword right now, and everyone is trying to figure
out how to incorporate it into their online news operations. In any event,
the room was packed.
Our panel consisted of Will Femia, manager of MSNBC blogs, Robert Niles,
editor of Online Journalism Review, and yours truly, as founders of
iBrattleboro. The dapper Kinsey Wilson, VP and Editor-In-Chief of, was the moderator. The focus of the discussion was on citizen
journalism, and the problems and rewards of using it in the context of
online news.
Pretty quickly, it emerged that scale was a big issue. Chris remarked that
our site gets about 3-5,000 unique visitors a week on average. Will Femia
replied that gets a million unique visitors a day. iBrattleboro
gets 10 stories on a high volume day MSNBC gets thousands. Clearly
incorporating participatory journalism into a national news site is a whole
different kettle of fish than running a community news site in a town of
Femia, who works in a somewhat understaffed department of two people
(including himself), underscored the problems of implementing participatory
journalism on a large scale. High on his list of issues were volume, low
quality of submissions, stories that were reaction rather than reporting,
and plagiarism, especially of photos. keeps its citizen
participation in one section, and directs submission content by assigning
specific story topics.
Although his remarks tended to highlight the difficulties, Femia said he
liked the authenticity of some of the better stories and the sense of
realism they conveyed. He also cited the Katrina missing persons list that
the site put up as an example of a participatory effort that worked the
names were published directly to the site and only a small number of obvious
fakes (Mike Brown, George W. Bush, and the like) had to be deleted.
Up next was Robert Niles, who had the added distinction (at least for us) of
being the publisher of Theme Park Insider. He manages somewhat lower volume
sites, but had good advice for citizen journalist wannabes all the same.
First off, he suggested that no matter how big or small the site, that you
hire a good developer to implement it. He also recommended requiring
registration under real names in order to post. Finally, he made it clear
that for large sites especially, citizen journalism works best when topics
are assigned or when the site focuses on a single niche topic rather than
trying to host a free-for-all (like iBrattleboro).
Nevertheless, Niles, whose assigned topic was wikis, was strongly supportive
of participatory journalism in all its forms. Trust your audience, he said,
sometimes, they know more than you do. (Wikis are information sites, such as, that get their content directly from users.)
Chris and I came up last, without a prepared presentation, but luck was on
our side and we managed to remember almost everything we wanted to say.
Chris described the not-so-glorious beginnings of iBrattleboro the open
source software, the $5 advertising effort (remember the i-word flyers?),
the first hundred registered users. He talked about how great it is to be
able to get up in the morning and read what our neighbors have to say about
things on our own local news site.
We talked about how iBrattleboro was able to take on issues that might not
make it into our Media News-owned newspaper things like the union drive at
the Reformer or the Wilder Fire which happened on a weekend, after the
weekend Reformer had already hit the newstands. We talked at length about
how different it is to run a community news site in a small market.
Countering Femias claim that real news stories are few and far between in
citizen journalism, we stressed that despite the chaotic nature of this
medium, a lot of valuable information does come out. It may not be
grammatically perfect, spelled right, or formulated in the form of a news
story, but its useful information all the same.
We received quite a few questions from members of the audience both during
and after the discussion. Most of their questions dealt with revenue (do we
make any money off this), libel and liability, how much time we spend on the
site, what stories weve refused to publish, what software we use, and the
like. Our moderator asked an excellent question about citizen journalism and
community, which I dont think we really answered (the answer is Yes, citizen
journalism fosters community). And one savvy intern even asked about the
democracy angle which we were delighted to expound upon.
We closed our bit with a summation of our philosophy on citizen journalism
and major media dont try it. It wont work, not on a national scale, not with
millions of unique site visitors a day. But we did (after a timely reminder)
remember to trot out a few suggestions for how a big media outlet can do
participatory journalism. They were, to wit: celebrity chats like the
Washington Post does and selective commenting on major stories. Weve since,
of course, thought up more suggestions, but thats always the way of things
your best ideas come too late.
For me, the best part was realizing how legitimizing this event was for
citizen journalists in general, both ourselves and others at the conference
who, like us, had probably been feeling a little small. It made us realize
that we have a place in the media world, and that we havent gone unnoticed.
In fact, just this evening, on Jim Lehrers News Hour, we heard the term
citizen journalist three times, by various commentators on the role of media
in the Valerie Plame leak case. In short, it seems as if citizen journalism
has come into its own. In that regard, all of us at iBrattleboro should feel
really proud of the role weve played in making that happen. Real journalists
have had to acknowledge that sometimes, citizens have something to say too,
and it behooves them to listen. Even if we bury the lead or screw up our
By way of a footnote, we have to tell you that at the cocktail party that
evening (open bar! sponsored by Reuters and the NY Times), a photographer
went around taking our pictures. We smiled and thought nothing of it. Later,
someone from Reuters grabbed the mic and announced that from 10 to midnight
that evening, our pictures would be shown on the 22-story Reuters sign in
Times Square. For the citizen journalists in the room, this was surely the
icing on the cake of a very unusual day.

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