Barcelona. Spencer Tunick.
Saving The World With Citizen Journalism
By Lise LePage

Ideas can be powerful, more powerful than bombs to affect change, as the saying goes. Last November, we saw proof of this when Americans turned out in large numbers to vote for Democrats, sweeping away the Republican majority in both houses of Congress. America changed its mind, and in so doing, changed its course.

Why did Americans change their minds? I would argue that it was fellow citizens, people like you and me who wouldn't stop talking about this stuff, who gradually chipped away at the lock major media had on the minds of Americans. Eventually, it stopped mattering so much what CNN said -- we were reading blogs, watching web videos, and subscribing to e-newsletters. In this last election, the people themselves were the engines of change, a small number to start with, but swelling to the tide that turned out on election day 2006 to vote out the ruling party.

In the past, mass media carried the message, and by and large, that message was whatever the ruling class wanted it to be. More recently, the Bush White House has controlled what gets out to the public, from the content to the spin. But over the last five years, something has happened to media. It's gotten cheaper to create and the tools to make it are now widely available. Low cost and easy access are always an attractive combination. Suddenly, it seems like everyone is participating in media whether it's commenting on a blog or submitting video to YouTube.

But it wasn't always so. Back in February of 2003, when my partner and I started, we were all but alone. Practically no one in America was doing 'geographically-based' citizen journalism wherein anyone -- not just trained reporters -- could report the news. While other citizen journalists were blogging the national scene, influencing Washington politics and getting called for television interviews, we were blogging Brattleboro, a town of 12,000 hardy and opinionated souls in southeastern Vermont.

At the time we launched, we didn't know there was a name for what we were doing. All we knew was that it was something we had wanted to do for a while -- create a real community space on the web where people could share stories, ideas, opinions, and breaking news with their neighbors. Living in Brattleboro, the so-called 'Berkeley of the East', gave us a natural community to serve. Watching the flabby mass media dutifully and relentlessly plugging the Iraq war gave us our sense of mission.

We already knew that doing your own media is tremendously empowering. Once you figure out that the mechanics aren't hard and that you actually have something to share, the rest is easy. In fact, doing media becomes addictive. Suddenly, you're getting feedback; you have readers, listeners, viewers...

Not surprisingly, regular people loved the iBrattleboro concept. Although it wasn't instantly popular -- the only promotion we did was a one-off printing of 4x6 flyers -- the site's readership grew steadily. By the end of the first year, 120 people had signed up as contributors to iBrattleboro, a full 1% of the town's population!

Almost four years later, the site has thousands of readers and hundreds of contributors who visit daily to see what their neighbors have to say. Town officials check it out to see what we're saying about them. Candidates use it as a forum to reach voters. And best of all, people are starting to get the hang of this 'journalism thing' and doing more real reporting. Whether they're covering the log truck spill over on Linden Street or the town's latest budget problems, it's always interesting to hear what people are thinking about.

New York Grand Central. Spencer Tunick.
Since 2003, Brattleboro has gained a number of new independent news outlets, including a new, licensed community radio station, a community newspaper called The Commons, a local AM talk radio show live weekdays, and a revived community access television station. Sparked perhaps by the sudden influx of media in Brattleboro, The Reformer, Brattleboro's 'paper of record', has itself undergone changes, making greater efforts to cover street-level stories and provide harder hitting coverage of town government.

All this news coverage has had the desirable effect of energizing the local citizenry as well as informing town government unequivocally of citizens' concerns. More people attend town meetings and watch them on community access TV. In addition, the town fathers seem more aware of public opinion and less knee-jerky in their decisions. Which brings me to the connection between journalism and democracy.

We all know that an informed citizenry is essential to democracy. But it's also true that being a citizen journalist will make you a better citizen. It changes your outlook -- you feel different when you're 'covering' something, rather than participating or simply observing. You know that soon you'll be sharing this experience with others, and you pay more attention. You realize that you need to know what's important, so you start to acquire the background information you need to present the story effectively. And best of all, you know that you'll be inspiring thought-provoking discussion, and at the very least, getting the word out about matters of importance to you. When a big meeting is coming up where important issues are at stake, you can alert people. When it comes time to vote in local elections, you'll know the candidates, often personally.

But for those whose interests go beyond the borders of their own municipality, even the most hyper-local citizen journalism can have an unexpectedly wide reach, as a recent incident here in Brattleboro illustrates. Back in July during a heat wave, some of the semi-anarchic kids who hang out in Harmony Parking Lot downtown took off all their clothes and wandered around, alarming at least one up-tight resident who complained to the Selectboard. The resident said that public nudity was wrong. The kids said that being nude is a basic human right. The next thing you know, Brattleboro had a bona fide tempest in a teapot and everyone had an opinion.
The Brattleboro nudists were covered initially on iBrattleboro, then in the local paper, and finally by the Associated Press. It was the AP article that boosted the story out of the region, prompting a wave of semi-humorous articles worldwide. The Brattleboro nudists became the highest-traffic issue ever covered on iBrattleboro, bar none, and also the one for which we received the most positive mail, mostly from people in Italy who said we gave them new faith in Americans.

The reason the story was such a hit, in my opinion, was not the nudity per se but the message behind it. Ultimately, it became a statement about peace and freedom that really resonated with people beleaguered by a summer of torture news. Had we not covered it on iBrattleboro (under the provocative headline "Town Lawyer Says It's OK To Be Nude"), would it have reached people in Italy that some people in America are freedom-loving peaceniks?

It's important to remember that media is about mass communication. When you make media, you have the potential to reach a lot of people, including people you didn't expect to reach, such as nudism fans in Italy.

In the case of web-based citizen journalism, you don't need to attend classes or get certified to participate. And in fact, starting a citizen journalism site in your own town or neighborhood is easier than you might think. Software to run citizen journalism sites and blogs is available free on the Internet, and maintaining a site is easy using a simple web-based control panel. If you allow yourself a long enough timeline, you don't have to spend a lot to promote it either -- flyers, word of mouth, and some human-interest coverage in the local media should get people to your site in no time. After that, it's up to you and your neighbors to cover the news. Do it well, and you'll have the local paper checking you out daily.

A word about local mainstream media, should you decide to do this yourself. Don't think they won't notice. Not only will they notice, they will start to emulate you.

We knew that by calling ourselves citizen journalists back in '03, we were issuing a direct challenge to mainstream media, nor is there any doubt that some 'real' journalists have taken umbrage at the presumptuousness of our claims. Although iBrattleboro doesn't have trained writers and editors filtering its content, right away it has something the pros don't have -- grass roots and authenticity.
Having given the concept of citizen journalism full rein to play out on iBrattleboro, we remain as convinced as ever that it is essential to let the voices of the people be heard, in all their ragged glory. Then, as columnist Helen Thomas likes to say, "Let the chips fall where they may."

Venezuela. Spencer Tunick.

More About Citizen Journalism:, a resource for current and would-be citizen journalists

Citizen journalism questions and answers

A serious interview with journalism professor, Jay Rosen, about Citizen Journalism

'Geographically-Based' Citizen Journalism Sites:

Westport Now

Bluffton Today

Blogging/Citizen Journalism Software Sites:

Geeklog (the software we use for

WordPress (a blogging package)

TypePad (another blogging package)

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