As I think I’ve demonstrated here in the past, I’m intrigued by what’s going on around the United States in the emerging field of citizen journalism. I like the idea of regular people rising up, motivated by the ever-decreasing quality of local reportage, and launching their own online news communities. As some of you may recall, a few readers and I even kicked around the idea of launching something ourselves here in Ypsi a few years back. Nothing came of it, but I’ve remained interested in the subject, and I’m always curious to learn about the new models for community journalism that are arising. And, with that in mind, I recently reached out to Bonnie Bucqueroux, who, in addition to being a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, is also co-publisher of the Lansing Online News, which is produced exclusively by volunteers… Here’s our discussion.
MARK: If you wouldn’t mind taking me back a bit, I’m curious as to how the Lansing Online News (LON) came together… What was the impetus? How many people did it take to get it launched? And how long did it take from that first meeting until you went live?
BONNIE: Bill Castanier and I are notorious contrarians who love new media. We also benefit from being retired (Bill) and semi-retired (me), which allows us more time for mischief. Our first venture was to do a live webcast together from the Gone Wired Cafe in Lansing each week, using what is now the Livestream network, to showcase all the fascinating folks in town who don’t always make it to the microphone. Over time, we decided that we needed a companion website, so I built one. Then, a year later, we moved it to WordPress.
Later, we discovered that Lansing Community College would allow us to have a weekly show on their FM station, WLNZ 89.7. And, eventually, we added back a webcast of the live radio show, doing this new one on Ustream.tv, which is now embedded on the LON website.
MARK: It’s been a while since I’ve looked into the possibility of starting a community news site. I was, however, quite interested in the idea about a half dozen years ago. I did quite a bit of work, holding public meetings and the like, but ultimately I decided, even though we’d assembled a good volunteer base, that I couldn’t manage a second full-time job. If you don’t mind my asking, how are you holding up?
BONNIE: I continue to teach at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, so that means I often find students who want to build a portfolio by interning with us (Caron Creighton, Jonah Maygar, Dana Casadei) or who just provide content as a labor of love (Frank Feska has been remarkable as our TV critic for two years now). We also have fellow retirees who add to the mix. The hardest group to recruit are those in between, because the demands of real life are so enormous these days. Many surface and want to contribute, but discover they do not have the time.
MARK: Can you tell us a bit about the division of labor? I’m assuming that you personally are out recruiting and training the citizen journalists, for instance. Do you also have an editorial board that fact-checks their submissions? Do you have someone who makes story assignments?
BONNIE: You give us credit for a higher level of organization than we actually have. We have a mission statement, a training website with free online tutorials, and we meet once a week at Gone Wired, though the get-togethers are more social than organizational. As you can tell by visiting the site, I am as likely to pontificate on the rising costs of education in China, as an example of wrong-headed educational policies around the world, as I am to write about local development. Our content depends on the interests of our contributors, though we periodically put out a plea on Facebook to see if there are others out there who might want to contribute, and make the publication more community focused. I also hold occasional free workshops – on WordPress, on photography and videography, on blogging. My latest passion is ebook publishing, so I am trying to persuade some of our regular columnists to collect their pieces into self-published books (and Clarice Thompson is doing so).
MARK: What kinds of tools, online and otherwise, do you use to keep things moving forward? Is there open source software made especially for community reporting websites such as your own? I’m wondering, for instance, how you assign reporters to go to different meetings? Or, do you even make assignments?
BONNIE: We use WordPress with the Hybrid News theme. Theme creator Justin Tadlock (who teaches in Japan) has been helpful in working with me to make the most of our design. Some people post directly. Others email me, and I post for them.
Our niche is not really breaking news. We are more likely to be the contrarians talking about the evils of downtown development rather than we are to report on the latest news coming out of Mayor Bernero’s office on the proposed casino… Our goal is not to compete in covering breaking news and essential news, but to provide various forums for us and folks we know to explore issues and activities we care about.
Bill (Mittenlit.com) is passionate about books, the arts, the Sixties. I am a progressive survivalist (SurvivingToughTimes.com) who loves to shoot video and spew lefty opinions on almost anything. Therese Dawe explores spiritual issues related to death and dying. The aforementioned Clarice has a lovely touch in illuminating things she has learned throughout her life. Erin Slayter is our resident expert n greening. Dana Casadei writes for us even without earning credit, and she loves reviewing plays. Todd Heywood, who writes for the American Independent on AIDS issues, occasionally writes for us about issues related to dogs.
Now that the Lansing State Journal is going behind a pay-wall, we are considering whether we should do more to contribute to the pool of free online local news. However, if we do so, I would prefer to explore a model more like an alternative newspaper (more like the old L.A. Free Press – I was a subscriber back in the Seventies, when I lived outside Jackson, Michigan, and always looked forward to each new issue). I love Detroitblogger John in the Metro Times. It would be great to find a counterpart here who would produce material for us.
MARK: My initial interest in community journalism, as I recall, was fueled in part by the closing of the Ann Arbor News’s Ypsilanti office, and their subsequent paring down of non-crime-related coverage in our community. Is it safe to assume that local coverage in Lansing has been following that same trajectory, with seasoned journalists being cut loose, and non-sports/crime coverage being trimmed, in hopes of protecting profit margins? And, assuming that is the case, are there others jumping into the void? You’ve mentioned that, as a rule, you don’t cover the activities of local government, and the like, but do others?
BONNIE: MLive is becoming the largest purveyor of public affairs reporting on Lansing online, and Lansing City Pulse does so in its weekly print publication. Lansing Area Capital Gains is an online business publication that covers development from a pro-development point of view.
Remember that we live in an era when Lansing residents can watch city council meetings on public access TV. The issue isn’t always whether people have access to the information but whether there is someone who can distill it and make sense of it for busy people, who don’t want to sit down and watch hours of the proceedings. LON hopes to find folks with specific perspectives who can contribute their views on the passing parade.
At the state level, we are so fortunate to have Chris Savage and his Eclectablog. I did two videos of him at Gone Wired recently. He has helped bring our state issues to national attention on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. I like his take-no-prisoners approach.
MARK: How seriously are you considering the possibility of morphing into a print publication, if that’s what you meant by wanting to emulate the L.A. Free Press? Have you thought about what it would take, in terms of seed capital, additional reporters, and the like? I know very little about the L.A. Free Press. What kind of model did they operate under? Did they have a staff, pay their contributors, etc? Did they accept advertising? Or were they supported strictly by subscriptions?
BONNIE: The L.A. Free Press was published in the Seventies, long before the advent of the Internet. We have no desire to become a print publication. I was one of the 1,000 people personally trained by former Vice President Al Gore through The Climate Project. I am someone who feels strongly that print is unsustainable in this era when you look at the trail of pollution and waste it leaves behind.
MARK: How do you address the digital divide? Providing content online is incredible, and it’s a huge step forward, but have you thought about how to get that content into the hands of those without access? I’d been thinking, for instance, of shoehorning a few stories a week into a PDF and making it available on our site… which we’d intended to call the Ypsilanti Spitting Cat… in hopes that store owners and others in the community would print a few copies out and leave them around for people. At any rate, I still like that idea, and thought that I’d mention it, in case you could make use of it. Of course, it contributes to that trail of pollution and waste, but the tradeoff, I think, might be acceptable.
BONNIE: I love that idea. We will definitely try to steal it. Santos Ramos, who has since moved to attend graduate school elsewhere, produced some great YouTube videos for us of protests downtown. He also produced his citizen journalism PDF publication The Citizens’ Communique, with printing support from the Traveler’s Club restaurant in Okemos where he was also a wait person. I also admire the Broadside folks in Flint (who sometimes reprint some of my screeds), who are dedicated to publishing on paper only as often as they can afford to do so. The internet provides us new opportunities – wouldn’t it be fun to have a local business like our Biggby’s print out a few of our articles along with a coupon as a sort of open-source newspaper? However, in our town, local libraries offer free internet access, which makes it easier for people with few resources to get online, so the digital divide is not as stark as it might be elsewhere.
I am currently teaching a course at MSU on inventing new digital media, so your approach really makes me think that we could treat our content as a open-source supply. You might also be interested in a project I am working on with a genius local developer (Samuel Rose) called BSQUEAKY. It resembles Yelp! It will allow you to rate local businesses, but our ratings will tell you whether the business embraces progressive values. I will write the national blog, and we hope to have a working demo of the phone app available for the local Lansing trial ready to go within six weeks.
MARK: I’m intrigued by this project. The task sounds daunting, though. I mean, there are so many criteria you could judge a place by… With Yelp, it’s just food quality, taste, price, service and ambiance. With this, though, you could look at everything from a business’s hiring practices, to whether or not its owners contributed to the Santorum campaign. And, in some cases, it’s complicated stuff to get at. For instance, do you suggest that people not patronize Starbucks, because so much of the money spent there leaves the community, or do you support them because they’re more likely to insure their employees than other coffee shops, and support gay marriage? Do you perceive that complexity as a risk?
BONNIE: The goal is to give consumers the information to make their own informed choices. Complexity is good. Decisions are not always easy. Sam is creating a unique grading scale, and the goal is to encourage dialogue between consumers and retailers so that the comments give people the information they need. It is the farmers’ market model. I have watched someone ask a grower whether their produce is organic, and the grower then explains that he uses a natural pesticide like Bs to control tomato worms. So it is up to the consumer to decide whether to trust the farmer’s judgment or not.
MARK: I think it’s safe to say that the Lansing Online News is relatively progressive in its viewpoint… What challenges does that present when it comes to managing an all-volunteer workforce, and ensuring consistency relative to editorial voice? In other words, what do you say when a potential volunteer comes forward with a personal agenda that doesn’t match that of the publication?
BONNIE: Many voices, community concerns – that’s our motto. We want people with different perspectives and points of view. Early on, we had a wonderfully talented conservative blogger who contributed to us, but I think our relentlessly lefty views drove him away. (OK, I am pretty sure my ranting and raving about Sarah Palin was the reason.)
MARK: So, no fear of being hijacked by someone with a Tea Party agenda?
BONNIE: We are tougher than we look. And while we do not try to cover everything, I often go to the Capitol and shoot video when various groups show up. Here’s a video from the Tea Party protest in 2009 – then the following year. If they show up on tax day again this year, I will try to be there.
MARK: It’s been a while since I’ve looked, but, for a while, it seemed to me that there were grants available in the citizen journalism space. Have you attempted to get any? And, if you were successful in attracting funding, how would you spend the money? Paying interns? Establishing media literacy campaigns? Renting office space? Hiring professional staff? Buying cameras, computers and video recorders?
BONNIE: I have a separate publication called Sustainable Farmer that is a 501(c)3. When I fully retire, I hope to spend more time on that publication and more time writing grants proposals for it.
Our plan for LON is to stay as poor as possible to avoid any hint of corruption. We do LON with a total budget of $60 a year for domain and hosting. We have a policy against accepting ads – though we are thinking of changing that to provide rotating free ads to businesses we like. Advertising often constricts coverage, and we want the freedom to experiment. (I keep waiting for a magazine like Runner’s World to run a story on how to avoid shoes made in a sweatshop or how this $20 pair of shoes is as good as ones that cost $100. I expect that I will continue to keep waiting.)
I also hope that means no one tries to sue us. I can guarantee you that we not only do not have deep pockets, we have no pockets.
So far, we are getting along quite well without revenue. I built my first website in 1996, so I know enough tech to keep the site looking OK. I also love digital video (I have 1.5 million hits on YouTube), so I can produce slideshows and videos for the site. I work with young journalists on skill building using anything they have. Santos did great work for us with his $100 Flipcamera (sorry to see those gizmos go). An iPhone is a great tool.
It’s not the tools but the talent and dedication. Our commitment wanes and waxes depending on the time we have, but we feel that we make a valid contribution to the overall media mix.
MARK: I know I’m probably preaching to the choir, but it doesn’t seem possible to maintain a democracy in a society where there isn’t a tradition of aggressive investigative reporting. Blogs attempt, as best as they can, to keep up, but they don’t have the resources, bully power and expertise that our great regional newspapers once had. Are there limits as to what’s achievable with regard to citizen journalism?
BONNIE: I see more and better investigative work now than I ever have, and little of it is from traditional sources. Alternet, Truthout, Truth-dig, Raw Story, ZeroHedge. It means readers have to seek out their own sources and do their own vetting, but I think that’s healthy. Too much of what previously passed for investigative work did not really contribute to the dialogue about what kind of society we need to be. Yes, I was happy if the local paper found the mayor had his hand in the till – but in this era maybe it is even more important to use Facebook to prompt a discussion with the community about what to do to when a family-owned grocery chain folded, leaving neighborhoods struggling to maintain easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables. A group called Bringing the Thunder to Southwest Lansing used Facebook to deal with that issue, and I just saw a notice that good news may be coming. If the Arab spring proved anything, it doesn’t matter whether someone is making revenue from the clicks if the information helps people embrace democratic reforms.
MARK: I’d agree with you that there’s good investigative work taking place at the national level. I don’t think much of that, however, is trickling down to the cities of Michigan. My concern is that, without the local journalist, who has time to develop stories, resources to draw on, and sources to interrogate, local democracy is going to suffer. Sure, bloggers can do some of the heavy lifting – we can raise a stink online – but we can’t easily file FOIA requests, demand meetings with elected officials, invest the time necessary to see something through to its conclusion, etc. And maybe the solution is cultivating a army of retirees, who have the time, and passion… giving them the skills they need, and official looking business cards.
BONNIE: Let us not romanticize a past that was more complex than the picture that is often painted about local news. Yes, many publications did great work, and having time on a beat definitely has its benefits. However, it also leads to a kind of coziness between reporters and the official sources they must rely only. Reporters sometimes maintain access by colluding in covering up problems, consciously or unconsciously. I spent nine years training police as part of the community policing movement, and I was often surprised to see what an uncritical view crime reporters brought to the job of covering law enforcement. I was managing editor of a farm magazine at a time when industrial agriculture was gaining ascendancy. The pressure to avoid discussing non-industrial alternatives was significant, as was the prevailing wisdom that all changes that produced higher yields were unrelievedly good news. That’s why I think retirees are such a tremendous resource. We know where the bodies are buried and can whistleblow without risking our livelihood.