Tuesday, June 06, 2006

To Blog or Not To Blog?

A couple of months ago, Steve Early from the Gazette asked me, via email, a series of questions about this blog and why I was writing it. He never used my answers. I think they were too long for a newspaper article. So I thought I would include a version of what I sent him here. As always, your questions and comments are welcome. -rick

Why did you start blogging about Laurel?

Sometimes it is easier to know what is happening on the other side of the globe than what is going on across the street. There are thousands of news gathering organizations covering big stories around the country but only a few papers are covering stories about Laurel.

I’ve been a news hound since grade school. Local news has always been the most interesting for me. Weekly newspapers do a great job but waiting until Thursday to find out what’s going on around town just kills me. As web technologies like blogs began maturing I started to consider how they might be used to provide local news more efficiently.

I started reading Westport Now! a couple of years ago. It is a local news blog written by a team of folks in Connecticut. I emailed some questions to the founder, Gordon Joseloff, and he wrote back and explained how he created his site.

Do you have a journalism background?

I’ve never been a professional journalist. But I have always been interested in collecting and telling stories. I was trained as an engineer but I wrote for my high school newspaper and have remained curious about the craft since then. I’ve written a few articles for the Leader. They were very supportive of my rookie efforts.

I think everyone is a journalist. We all tell stories. It’s part of being human. Communities grow by the stories we tell each other.

In my next life, I would love to create long-form radio features for NPR. I plan on trying out audio files (podcasts) on my blog when I can find some time.

What is the role of a blog? How does a blog compare with the more traditional press?

It depends on what you mean by traditional press. When people mention "journalism" today, most people think about professional journalists and commercial news organizations like the Leader and the Wash Post. But long before there were professional journalists, people were telling stories around the camp fire.

Today, thousands of mainstream reporters swarm all over the big national stories. But only a couple of folks pound the pavement in Laurel. Commercial media need a large audience to generate enough advertising revenue to stay alive. Local news, features and opinion pieces are relegated to a few dedicated weeklies and an occasional story in a metro daily.

How many unique Laurel stories do you think are covered by the Post, Sun, Gazette and Leader collectively in one week? I would guess that there are less than 25 news stories published by the traditional outlets in any given week.

But how many interesting and important stories are told in Laurel's coffee shops and offices everyday? How many local stories are sent via email? Shared at PTA meetings, club meetings, schools and church events? How many are tossed over the back yard fence, front porches and over shopping carts at the super market every week? Maybe thousands?

Obviously, each story is only important to a small circle of people, but collectively they define and shape our community for that week. Blogs provide a cheap and efficient tool to narrow cast important stories for only a few people.

But blogs can even go one better than dead tree technology. Once you post a story on the blog, other people can immediately comment, telling you where you got it wrong or they can add to the story from their own perspectives. Blogs create a diverse tapestry of interactive voices and shared perspectives. In their most useful form, blogs engage their participants in a collective conversation. Conversation creates stronger bonds in a community than the more passive media of traditional newspapers, magazines, television, or radio.

Another benefit of a blog is that we can archive stories and conversations forever. And they are also easily searchable, so in the future we will be able to effortlessly turn back the clock and replay any discussion to more fully understand how we got from there to here. Imagine if bloggers commented to the Federalist Papers in 1789?

Professional journalists work hard to discover the truth. Traditional outlets are expected to be fair, to get all sides to a story, to check their facts. When a mainstream media company prints or broadcasts a story, it puts its institutional reputation on the line. When I write a story on my blog, I put my personal reputation on the line.

If somebody tells you a story in a bar, do you always believe it? Maybe your buddy on the next bar stool got his facts wrong, or simply lied to you. On a blog, the reader must be a much more critical information consumer. We need to evaluate information based on the source.

What posts have generated the largest response, either online or elsewhere?

The most interesting reaction I got was from a couple of good friends who accused me (separately) of creating a public nuisance with this blog. They were upset with me for allowing untruthful comments to be posted during the recent election. Or at least they thought the comments were untruthful.

I tried to explain that a blog is a public forum not a newspaper. I suggested that if they felt that some comments were incorrect, they should post their own views. The both declined to participate that way.

I know that some people will never be comfortable engaging in public debate for the record over the Internet. I think that the power of a community blog is that it brings sunlight into the public process. Folks who want to stay in the shadows of the backroom will find that their power is eroding. Power will shift to new leadership models leveraging a two-way public discussion of a blog.

What were you trying to accomplish with your city election coverage?

My timing for the blog was specifically planned for the Laurel elections. The only time some issues ever get any traction is in the 6 weeks preceding an election. So, like Willie Sutton said when asked why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.” I purposely ramped up the blog because elections are where the energy is.

What plans do you have for the future of the blog? How can you reach outside the traditional audience and make sure you’re not just preaching to the choir?

Not sure I want or need to reach beyond the choir. I don’t want to turn the blog into a mainstream media wanna be.

The net lets us effortlessly bind ourselves together via links. I don’t need to grow my blog’s reach at all. I have a dream where every church, PTA, club, neighborhood, business, city department and government institution has somebody collecting and sharing their unique stories via blogs. I then can easily link their stories to mine, constantly adding to and reshaping the conversation. Just like we do when we fgmeet on the street and share our stories.

I want to continue writing stories that interest me here in Old Town Laurel. I am interested in local history. I love wallowing in a good policy wonk story or deeply analyzing a budget. Traditional local weeklies can’t afford the space to really dig into a complex policy or budget story, but a blog has no limits other than my own energy.

I also want to experiment more with pictures, audio and video stories. I used to produce a few television shows for the local public access channel in Laurel. It would be interesting to adapt some of those show concepts for the blog.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to use free net meeting technologies to create and distribute a public policy talk show where the panelists participate from their own homes and offices via the net. The audience would ask them questions online. I think it would be cool to do a real-time talk show over the net like this for hot local issues.

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