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The Fifth Estate

Blogging and the Future of Citizen Journalism

Computers have undoubtedly changed the way we exchange information. While e-mail has forever altered person-to-person communication, other forms of electronic communication are revolutionizing the way we share not just words, but also sounds and images. Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, LinkedIn, and Orkut are some of the leading social-networking websites—places that allow you as an individual, artist, celebrity, or small business to connect with friends and/or clients. These social-networking websites are built on the notion of blogging—a portmanteau of the words web and log—as a form of day-to-day journaling in which ideas are shared and expressed with those of like mind, whether personal or professional.

If you've surfed the Huffington Post, Freakonomics, Politico or any of the estmated 70 million blogs on the Internet you know they are no longer strictly the domain of the techie elite. Even the venerable TIME Magazine has a dedicated blog page; they also cover annually the top 25 blogs. Perhaps even more pervasive than blogs nowadays are microblogging websites like Twitter, Plurk, and Jaiku, which allow short bursts of information to be conveyed to individuals or small groups of people, thereby encouraging connection and (albeit brief) conversation. Out of these microblogs have sprung websites like Dogster, Catster, or other specifically themed networking sites that are constructed around a singular idea or occupation (just try and guess what Catster is about).

But, no matter what the form, almost all of these social media websites begin and end with the concept of blogging. The term blog, defined by Webster's Dictionary as "a website that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer," has made its way into our everyday lexicon. Webster's also notes that blog is both noun and verb, referring to both the online manifestation of a web log and the act of adding—what's sometimes called posting—content. Content comes in just about every form, from a few words of typed commentary to photos, videos, songs, and other digitized media or applications.

Blogging seems to be a natural extension of something that we all do in some capacity: journaling. The act of recording our own thoughts and memories has been around since humans first learned to draw on cave walls, and the diary or personal journal is a way for us to organize our experiences and better understand the world around us by revisiting our past. In our culture today, many people use computers and the Internet to record their journals online, and some share them with the world. Like all diaries or creative efforts, these online journals range from highly personal teenage ramblings to by-the-minute political commentaries and onward to the stuff of scholars and sages.

This new wave of social media has washed over every part of our culture and the Internet is now as pervasive as the flu in winter (we all have it, or, if we don't, someone around us does). In the state of Wisconsin we have a full one-hundred percent penetration of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to all regions, reaching from the urban sprawl of Milwaukee to the most rural and wooded areas of the Great White North. No matter where you are in the state, there's an on-ramp that will lead you to directly to the information superhighway.

 

SUICIDE WATCH

If blogging is the emergent form of online social media, what does this mean for such traditional media as television or the many forms of print media on which we depend for news and information?

As we now know, the traditional newspaper model is under duress. I remember, in the 1980's, when we constantly heard about military "base closings" during grim nightly news reports; we now hear of newspaper closings with a similar frequency. Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper group and publisher of USA Today, has imposed week-long furloughs on their employees over the past year. Gannett-owned newspapers, including those that operate in central Wisconsin, are becoming more centralized in their news content, and less focused on local stories; instead relying on Associated Press coverage or recycled content for the bulk of their news.

In 2009, the Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times cut twelve full-time reporter positions, and last year the Milwaukee-based Journal Communications Group "separated" 39 employees at two if its newspapers. Since August of 2007, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has lost over 15% of its staff. As if to punctuate the point that the print industry is not keeping up with emergent forms of online media, there's a blog called Paper Cuts that tracks the over 25,000 U.S.-based newspaper layoffs since 2008.

On a national level, the New York Times recently worked out an agreement with the Boston Newspaper Guild, which represents the 600 employees of the Boston Globe, to cut $10 million dollars in order for the parent company just to keep Globe presses operating. Newspaper circulation numbers are way down and many cities in Wisconsin and across America are now without a daily newspaper.

What does this leave us with? According to a recent Frank Rich editorial in the New York Times, the American newspaper business is on a sort of "suicide watch." But is Rich inferring that the staff cuts and newspaper closings are of the industry's own making or are they just another bust-economy casualty? Perhaps it is a billion-dollar side effect of our crossing over into a new digital age, an age where those who are disillusioned with the traditional news media are seeking to create a new one.

The current crisis which threatens our Fourth Estate can be arguably traced back to the actions of journalist George Seldes and the first wave of Big Tobacco advertising in newspapers. In the early twentieth century, tobacco companies were allowed to advertise their products as they saw fit, even going so far as to proclaim the health benefits of cigarettes. These companies were huge print advertisers and, as such, could control any references to their products in the media. Certainly we have large multinational corporations that influence—and, in many cases, own—our news media today, but for most people back then newspapers, along with radio, spoke with the voice of authority. There weren't many ways in which a citizen could circumvent traditional media outlets in order to bring the truth to the public.

The movement in citizen journalism, a form of reportage in which citizens play an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating of news and information, began with a political newsletter called, In Fact. From 1940 to 1950 a former investigative reporter-turned-freelancer named George Seldes published In Fact, a series of newsletters which were the first pieces of citizen journalism to make explicit the link between cigarettes and cancer—a link that had been heretofore suppressed in the mainstream media by the tobacco industry. "The tobacco stories were suppressed by every major newspaper," said Seldes, who once famously wrote that you could no longer trust the press because

it has become big business. The big city press and the big magazines have become commercialized or big business organizations, run with no other motive than profit for owner or stockholder (although hypocritically still maintaining the old American tradition of guiding and enlightening the people). The big press cannot exist a day without advertising. Advertising means money from big business.

At this height of its popularity, In Fact had a circulation of 176,000 (more than three times that of the Wausau Daily Herald's Sunday edition). Speaking about his newsletter reportage on the links between smoking and cancer, Seldes noted how he wasn't afraid to speak his mind-even though others were: "The Nation, The New Republic, The Progressive … none of those magazines were writing about it," he said. "For ten years we pounded on tobacco as being one of the only legal poisons you could buy in America."

Finding its roots in the work of Seldes and other like him who strove to be, in the words of Denver Rocky Mountain Herald founder Thomas Gibson, an "advocate of the right and denouncer of the wrong," citizen journalism isn't a necessarily a new concept. Major newspapers have always had some sort of backpack journalism or mobile journalist program. Typically these programs were either mobile units—replete with backpacks, laptops, digital cameras, and satellite uplinks—that roamed about, seeking out stories or quickly mobilizing when a story broke. Today's backpack journalist has been liberated from the corporate apparatus with the aid of inexpensive audiovisual equipment and the new, free tools of the Internet.

Websites like Blogger, Wordpress, Typepad all make self publishing remarkably easy. It is possible now for an individual to report a local story first, without traditional media's perennial concern of upsetting editors or advertisers. You can be at an event, snap a photo with your digital camera, write a quick description on your laptop, and, using a laptop with wireless card or a mobile phone, upload it to your website. If the news item is of immediate interest, within minutes it can be circulated throughout the world. With this the citizen journalist scoops the traditional media outlets, because they have the tools to respond instantly. We've seen recent models of this during times of war or in an election cycle. In the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, bloggers were given the same access to pressrooms and spin chambers as were traditional journalists. With the additional resources available to the blogger, and the instant connection to a receptive community, facts and newsworthy items can be circulated at the speed of light.

 

THE CHANGING FACE OF JOURNALISM

In the areas where traditional media is faltering, people like Jeff Williams are stepping in. Williams is the founder of Voice of Wisconsin Rapids, a community blog/citizen journalism website that covers Wisconsin Rapids and the surrounding communities.
&nWilliams bounced around the newspaper industry as an editor and reporter in his home state of Texas and, later, in Illinois. Williams ended up in Wisconsin Rapids because he "fell in love with a Wisconsin woman." "I love it here," he says, "and being close to family is important to my wife."

With a grant from the Knight Foundation, Williams launched Voice of Wisconsin Rapids in February of 2009. "We want to cover local events, with local voices," says Williams, who left his job as city editor of theWisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune in order to try to find a way to "provide the basic news that people need." Voice of Wisconsin Rapids features articles, forums for online discussion, community calendars, and advertisements for local businesses. Williams recently moved his one-man shop to an office, and has begun to reach out to the community in an effort to source news stories. He notes that with Voice of Wisconsin Rapids he is "still doing journalism, but the delivery system has changed."

Robert Mentzer is the Community Conversation reporter for the Wausau Daily Herald, a Gannett paper in Wausau. "My job is pretty unusual," says Mentzer. "I am tasked with covering the [Herald's] blogs and the sort of conversation the community is having through our blogs and forums." Mentzer represents a new trend in journalism, whereby traditional media outlets comb the blogosphere-the collective community of blogs that exist on the Internet-in search of newsworthy items.

To search and compose their blogs the Wausau Daily Herald, like most Gannett newspaper outlets, uses a connectivity software package called Pluck. Pluck is used to customize the online version of a newspaper, allowing for different features like community blogs and forums—which are two vastly different things, according to Mentzer. "A community blog gives someone a sense of ownership," he says. "These blogs allow people to stake out a sense of identity, and use this platform to talk about the things they want to. Others can find them, and comment or not, and network with the blog author. It is, in technical terms, a blog hosted by the newspaper and falling under the terms of service of Gannett."

Mentzer is quick to distinguish how blogs differ from forums. "Typically forums are tied to comments about online stories or incidents around town," he says. "These are purely comment-driven, and are often seen as reactionary in the sense […] that they are reacting to what stories are on the site that day. Forums are the places where things can deteriorate quickly into what is called a flame war, and people called trolls just show up to start trouble."

"We like the forums [because] there is a real sense of urgency," says Mentzer, adding "the story comments are great." Mentzer thinks that this is the place where an online community can be cultivated. But, like any garden, the forums require maintenance and a little bit of weeding to keep them healthy. "Our editorial staff monitors the forums, and from time to time has to take action, but that is just how communities are," he says.

Take a glance at any of Wisconsin's surviving newspapers that have an online presence (as with most media outlets today—including television) and you'll find blog or forum features on their websites. But is it community demand that dictates newspapers must now have these citizen response features, or are blogs just the next step in media evolution?

 

BLOGGING IN WAUSAU: ACT I

As if to contribute to the national movement toward sustainability, Wausau has in the past few years become a sort of hotbed of citizen-produced content. Take, for instance, WNRB, a locally owned, low-power FM radio station, or buylocalcentralwisconsin.com, a website to advocate for and support locally owned, independent businesses and organizations in Central Wisconsin. My own website, citizenwausau.com, has contributed to the local flavor of Wausau and is a primary platform for engaged, online community conversation.

Community blogging in Wausau can trace its genesis to Bill Coady and the 2005 creation of Wausau Blog. Coady, a stay-at-home dad with a passion for photography, found that he had an urge to write about his adopted hometown. As his two children grew older, Coady was able to spend more time in the community, recording what he saw during his time out and about the town. From this simple journal came a larger idea: a weekly photo study of the construction of the Dudley Building and restored riverwalk area in downtown Wausau. In a city of almost 40,000 people, the construction was a big deal and Coady set out to record the event. An entire city block was to be destroyed to construct a multistory parking garage. Local businessman Richard Dudley decided he was going to build an office building across the street from the new garage as well. The building was to be the tallest in Wausau, the crown jewel in a remade city skyline.

Coady took one photo per week of the construction and posted the photo, along with commentary, on Wausau Blog. The photos garnered local attention, and with that attention came a desire to contribute to the blog. I became a writer for Wausau Blog, as did local rental property owner John Fischer and several others, including Wausau City Councilman Jim Rosenberg. Rosenberg's presence brought things into sharp contrast, and led to some rather controversial exchanges. The most controversial of these was when Rosenberg compared the act of public graffiti to rape: "Comparing this to a building owner who requests a mural is like to comparing rape to consensual sex, in my view." The community responded negatively to the comment, and a flood of posts poured into the website. Rosenberg refused to apologize for his comment, and, as Wausau Blog editor, Coady had to step in and redirect the conversation back to the topic at hand.

Throughout the construction of the Dudley Building and the attendant controversy surrounding it, Coady facilitated engaged discussions on Wausau Blog as a free service to the community. Eventually, Wausau Blog outgrew itself by demanding more and more of Coady's time and resources; he was forced to shelve the project for good in September of 2008. [Editor's Note: Under a CopyLeft agreement with Creative Commons, Wausau Blog can still be read in its entirety online at wausaublog.wordpress.com.]

 

BLOGGING IN WAUSAU: ACT II

With the demise of Wausau Blog, residents of southern Wood County no longer had a reliable online resource for community information. Like a phoenix from the ashes of Wausau Blog, Citizen Wausau was formed by three friends: Marcus Nelson, Andy Laub, and myself (of the three, only Laub and I remain with the organization). Citizen Wausau was an expansion of the work Wausau Blog had already begun, except with an emphasis on community blogging. Where Wausau Blog was one blog, with Coady as the main content contributor with an open floor for respondents, Citizen Wausau is an unlimited number of blogs, each with their own author. Individuals are encouraged to come to the site and operate their own blog, while, at the same time, interacting with other contributor's blogs. Citizen Wausau also has a front-page environment, edited and maintained by the founders and two staff members, that presents the site in a format similar to traditional newspaper websites.

The website subverts the top-down notion of traditional news media in that it is a grassroots organization, combining the concept of the old town hall meeting with citizen journalism in a web-based environment. Citizen Wausau seeks to empower contributors to speak their minds through these community blogs. Individuals are able to start and customize their own blogs, writing—without fear of censorship—about the things they feel are important. Spam, blogs that are simply advertisements, or adult content blogs are immediately removed as per the terms of agreement with the owners of the site.

Here in this non-physical space—this ethereal forum—is a blog from a local horse farm, a series of blogs from local musicians and artists, a blog maintained by an anarchist political activist, as well as many others, all highlighted chronologically on the front page of Citizen Wausau. As each blog is updated, it moves to the top of the list until the next update. Each of these blogs allows for the community that the Internet seeks to create, and at Citizen Wausau it is done around the idea of an interconnected Central Wisconsin. This is not to say that Citizen Wausau is a blissful utopia of ideas: we have experienced many hiccups along the way, from the departure of one of the founders to the everyday technical issues that come with the care and maintenance of electronic devices. Through it all, though, our community has been appreciative of the unique service we provide.

One might ask: How does all this activity actually contribute to the civic process beyond the Internet? A good example of how the connective community in Citizen Wausau can affect policy is in our city council's reversal of a skateboarding ban in downtown Wausau. I recently heard from a source that the city council was about to pass an ordinance that would make skateboarding illegal in downtown Wausau. On the surface, the issue with this was simple: skateboarding was already illegal downtown, and what this piece of law was actually doing was expanding this ban to include a larger area. As a skateboarder, I found this to be unacceptable; and, as a writer, I wrote about it. As a direct result of my blog posts on the subject, a slew of e-mails issued forth to city council members, demanding the ordinance be dropped. When the matter arrived on the floor, it was tabled, and, as such, eventually killed: a victory for Citizen Wausau.

More recently, Citizen Wausau participated in a discussion regarding a statue that a group of artists attempted to donate to the city. At the height of the discussion, some intimidating letters were sent to members of the city council. These letters were attributed by some to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Chapter. Citizen Wausau was able to place these letters online for the sake of public scrutiny, thus confirming through community discussion that these items did not come from the local VFW chapter. Our efforts allowed the city council to have a larger, more open discussion of the issue without the continued distraction of the letters.

 

THE FUTURE OF COMMUNITY BLOGGING

Perhaps the best way to talk about the future of community blogging in our state is to return to some of the places it started. Wausau Blog founder Bill Coady and his wife Lisa Stahl Coady recently launched a new blog called Buy Local Central Wisconsin. Their blog focuses exclusively on locally owned businesses and the items and services they offer, giving it a built-in marketing appeal. As a way of reaching an audience that is not yet Internet-savvy, Jeff Williams is releasing a print version of his online Voice of Wisconsin Rapids. With twelve bloggers and thousands of weekly visitors, Citizen Wausau continues to gain popularity.

As we look toward the future of journalism, labels and sites and formats can blur our vision. What we need to keep in focus is our very real desire for community. The desire to know our neighbors and to share our stories with people is timeless. With these blogs we have an opportunity to create real connections through a combination of social responsibility and accurate reportage. It is our duty to maintain, as Seldes says, "the old American tradition of guiding and enlightening the people." If in the past we looked to local newspapers or neighborhood community centers for our information, we can now go online and learn about our neighbors through community blogs like Citizen Wausau. At all these places the thing that ties us together is the stories. Our individual contributions to these blogs form a collective voice—a collective story. We used to gather around the water cooler and tell stories about our kids; now we can do it online.

BLOGGING AROUND THE STATE

Interested in exploring some independent community blogs in your area? Check out these hyperlocal blogs from around the state:

 

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Contributors

Dino Corvino has spent a lifetime working for the development of his community, as well as finding ways to give voice to the community at large.

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