Monday, November 26, 2007 • 10:06 AM Comments (9)

The Invested Voice

posted by Heather Brandon

Around the foundation of my new house this fall, I discovered buried, immense, handsome flagstones near a back door, underneath layers of displaced gravel and sod that had evidently developed over a period of years. The layers of dirt had likely drifted downhill along with water that naturally flows into my back yard from other yards, contributing to a flooding problem around the house's 100-plus-year-old foundation.

Working to uncover the flagstones, I reflected on the nature of locally specific work capturing the essence of more global issues. My back yard erosion, below-grade foundation, and proliferating poison ivy in the lawn may signify something instructive about the environment and old housing stock, but it doesn't necessarily make specific information about those conditions an interesting commodity.

Mine is merely one anecdote among many. I tell my neighbors, and they are sometimes keen to hear.

This is similar to the blog work I carry out, in which I write about local concerns and events and get the sense that only neighbors would have much interest in such tales. I cover a range of political and municipal issues in Springfield and recently also Hartford, especially planning and development, and I believe these topics need better coverage than they typically get.

Citizens benefit from detailed information about their local community; more progress can occur when a community is better-informed about itself, its opportunities and challenges. Traditional media outlets can have a sustained role in that growth, if they so choose, but regardless of their help, the significance of the local story has only expanded since the proliferation of the Internet and the growing trend toward an increasingly complex, connected world.

Surmising the situation at my flagstones, I thought about how treating a place like garbage tends to bring on more of the same, until the place-as-garbage attitude almost takes on a life of its own. In this case, increased silt caused more water to accumulate at a higher elevation and pour into the basement.

When I write for my blog about the underdog city, there are times when I feel like a brick in that foundation wall, overwhelmed by natural forces seemingly out of the realm of anyone's control. It's as though the best I can do as a “citizen journalist” is chronicle the flow of water. The plight of cities is so obviously dire and easy to pinpoint, attack and disparage that it seems much easier to dwell on the problem rather that look for sustainable solutions.

The dirt around the back door of my house needs to be graded so water flows away from the house instead of into it. This involves a lot of digging and discovery under the sediment, apparently left neglected for quite a while. A previous owner laid down gravel, but it appeared to have been picked up by water and moved and spread elsewhere while no one noticed. To cope with the flooding, another owner drilled holes in the cement basement floor.

I understand that approach to a problem that seems too big to amend. As cities with seemingly untenable economies and overwhelmingly poor populations, Springfield and Hartford have seen many come and go who have attempted patch-like fixes.

I believe the future of journalism is about the task, if you will, of getting involved to help make the foundation wall of the house above grade. A responsible citizen doesn't just stand there and tell everyone how awful the flooding is, and then walk away. Journalists aren't immune to what the world is around us, merely hoping to chronicle tales of demise. When reporters are invested, the tone of their work changes.

Solutions can come about when people take the time to examine problems more closely, as Springfield's Finance Control Board and staff have managed to do. Mundane local stories about that progress offer nuggets of true societal change, and are where the broader public benefits from enhanced journalistic efforts.

Traditional newsrooms face a challenge in figuring out how to make local stories work as a commodity. I practice civic participation through a type of journalism, lending a woman-on-the-street perspective as a city-dweller. As discourse about citizen journalism came onto my radar, I understood that I was part of a larger conversation, but rather than being interested in citizens as journalists, I'm interested in journalists as citizens, taking ownership of a civic role based less on a paycheck and more on being a member. I believe it's possible to do this and still maintain a degree of detachment from outcomes, which is why my blog strives to avoid being partisan.

When we examine where we live, we learn examples about everywhere else as well, and there is increasing detail. Just one community contains it all; the same patterns are present; the experience of humanity is all right there. So much is manifest in the act of walking down the street, including signs of where our struggles lie as a nation and region, as well as a city, or a neighborhood. In their short film "Powers of Ten," Charles and Ray Eames demonstrated such parallels in broad strokes, like the similarities between atoms circulating in molecules and planets orbiting suns.

We do our cities a disservice in not telling stories that are here, looking into our own back yards to learn important lessons about critical issues. Cities have many lessons to teach about how the world can improve, and many tales of heroism, competence and sacrifice.

When we had a landscaper look at our flooding problem before we bought our house, we asked for a rough idea of the work required. He said, "This isn't going to be expensive, but it is going to be time consuming." The same can be said for journalism work that considers today's urban conditions.

--Heather Brandon, Writer, Urban Compass

Comments (9)
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Journalists as citizens. Yes. And this approach lends itself to some positive stories of real gains. Instead of worrying about climate change, armed conflicts and genocide, it's at times useful to read about a successful public meeting or the improvement of a neglected gem of a building. These things ought to engage and inspire us as well.
Posted by Hayley on 11.26.07 at 9:14
I'm curious about this concept -- "figuring out how to make local stories work as a commodity." On the one hand, it's obviously the model, broadly speaking, on which most local papers were founded. On the other hand, it seems, judging by the decrease in local coverage, as though it's not working anymore as a financial model.

Do you think blogging is a key part of re-inventing local coverage?
Posted by Dan on 11.27.07 at 5:54
There was quite a bit of talk about the failing economic model of the print daily at MFH's "No News is Bad News" symposium that was held a week ago Saturday. (For lineup of panelists, see: http://www.mfh.org/specialprojects/symposium/index.html). John Carroll, the former editor of the LA Times, had much to say about this obviously--the corporate ownership of local (and internationally recognized) dailies was discussed as a culprit--the expectation that a newspaper earn double digit profits each quarter is crippling. One guest, Neil Brown, the editor of the St. Petersburg Times, described an alternate model: his paper is owned by a non-profit institute.
Posted by Hayley on 11.27.07 at 6:30
I think a key aspect of reinventing local coverage is less about the format and more about the ownership model, as Hayley indicates. With blogging, the ownership model can be hierarchically flattened, since it's a very affordable publishing platform. So, to the extent that blogs help generate new ownership models and foster inexpensive methods for publishing, then yes they're key. Blogs in and of themselves don't necessarily constitute a reinvention of local coverage, since they are sometimes merely personal, or used by marketers to push products/services, or, as I have seen first hand, also by traditional media outlets simply working toward a stronger online presence. But where people are using blogs to do local reporting, it can be quite compelling, especially when you then compare that to the professional reporting on the same topic or in the same region. I favor the non-profit model, which can work for a online (including blog) format, perhaps independent from or in combination with a print format.
Posted by Heather B on 11.27.07 at 18:10
On a related note, I just ran across an Editor & Publisher article about working with grassroots media, and the importance of making published pieces high-quality. In other words, it doesn't work (as an economic model, at least) to publish "local, grassroots news" coming from citizens as though the mere fact of its geo-specificity will make that news relevant and consumable. http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/columns/stopthepresses_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003677395
Posted by Heather B on 11.28.07 at 5:22
The non-profit thing makes sense, but I wonder where the initial money's going to come from. I can imagine universities, for instance, funding papers in the same way that many of them do so with literary journals. Ideally, i guess, once you get the non-profit paper up and running it would pay for itself.

do you see this happening in some way, Heather. i.e. are you optimistic or pessimistic?
Posted by Dan on 11.28.07 at 5:54
I'm very optimistic about the future of journalism's sustainability because the need for it is still with us, and perhaps it could be said the need is with us more strongly than ever. I just happen to think that the currently established economic models and methods, and even certain best practices, are crumbling around our feet, even while new models and approaches are developing and growing into a thriving reality (sometimes slowly) in the very same spot where the old models existed. Where does the money come from? If I knew that, I'd be getting paid with it. The model Paul Bass used in establishing the New Haven Independent is one of the most effective I've seen so far on the staying-local front. He approached businesses and asked for grant funding in exchange for coverage of certain topics, for instance health issues. Accumulated grant funding got him to the point where he could pay himself and hire some staff and launch the project. He refused to launch until he could pay for it. He had the wisdom/experience to know that the news would always be there, and he could wait it out until the right conditions were met, rather than rushing forward to meet the perceived need without creating a stable situation to keep doing it (finger pointing at self). There is potential for other private benefactors who really care about local news to come forward and donate money to support a local-news project, and sure, educational institutions might do that as well, but the questions of whether such a project is high-quality and sustainable would be utmost on people's minds, I think. Such ventures are often very speculative at these early stages, but that's part of the beginnings of new movements anyway. Many times I have thought I should just have an electronic "tip jar" on my blog site so people reading can donate a bit of money, but I've brushed that off as not worth it. I'm so allergic to the idea of being "owned" by anyone, even the readers, that I'd rather do it for "free" and thus be able to make my own decisions about what to cover and how. Then again, there are benefits to being paid for work, and even doing it for free hasn't stopped some people from feeling as though they might have a sort of ownership stake, for better or for worse. When something is truly valuable to a community, sometimes it will pay for it, and sometimes it won't; maybe that's a marketing task more than anything else. (I'm reminded of Springfield's trash fee.)
Posted by Heather B on 11.28.07 at 6:30
Some of the journalists at the "No News is Bad News" symposium referred to an older model of newspaper ownership, in which a newspaper was just one of a portfolio of businesses (as is the case now) owned by an individual or corporation. In this model, however, the newspaper was not expected to yield a high profit--the other business ventures (soap, for instance) did the financial heavy lifting. The newspaper was seen as more of a trophy-business--laudable and important, but not a high earner. I should also note that the St. Petersburg Times is owned by a non-profit institute, but it still makes money and the editorial staff works to keep the venture profitable.
Posted by Hayley on 11.28.07 at 7:33
I think the New Yorker is essentially a trophy business for Conde Nast, and a lot of the opinion journals (The Nation, for instance, and I think the Weekly Standard) are supported by people who believe in their mission (and politics, of course). One problem with that model, with most newspaper, is that they've gotten so lousy that it's hard to imagine anyone would envision them as bringing prestige to anything. I mean, what kind of soap would want to be affiliated with the Springfield Republican?
Posted by Dan on 11.28.07 at 18:09
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