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Media Giraffe Project Conference - Fresh Air for Local News, by Jessica Duda

The Media Giraffe Project at the University of Massachusetts hosted the conference "Democracy & Independence: Sharing News and Politics in a Connected World" from June 28-July 1 to identify the opportunities and challenges facing the future of journalism in the Web 2.0 world.

Conference participants included: professional and citizen journalists and editors, bloggers, technology developers, academics, political strategists, media investors, and students. The key questions that emerged were largely a response to online news sites and aggregators: what is the definition of journalism; where does public newsmaking belong; does media ownership matter; and of course, what are the funding models to sustain professional and public media?

The explosion of public participation in online media inspired University of Massachusetts Professors Norman Sims and Bill Densmore in 2005 to create the Media Giraffe Project and this conference. The three-year project seeks 1) to identify new media pioneers with the Media Giraffe Prospects database, 2) to provide linkages between public and professional journalists, and 3) to incorporate new journalistic practices in academic curricula.

Helen Thomas kicked off the event with a key note touching on issues that will continualy challenge journalists: truth, war, peace, justice, accountability, independence. Also, as a panelist on the "Future of Journalism" she commented that, "nothing can replace being there to see it with your own eyes. Authenticating and everything else that follows is being done, but we have been reduced to one-paper towns. You can demonize journalists and there is no way to counteract that as liberal commentators have been knocked off the airways. We won’t change our definition of being seekers of truth, which is what a democracy is."

Speaking to Ms. Thomas’ frustration, the trends in public media discussed at the conference focused on new online distribution and technologies are creating spaces for the public to authenticate their own stories in their communities as well as to create nonprofit e-democracy initiatives.

Citizen Local News Websites and Discussion

The rise of the local nonprofit news websites with modest seed funding indicates how the internet can revitalized local news and promote citizen reporting in rural and urban communities. The following two examples show the reach of seed funding of as little as $12,000 from the J-Lab at the University of Maryland.

The Forum in Deerfield, VT is the only source of local media for its 4,000 residents. A few months after the Maureen Mann started The Forum, public engagement in local elections grew to the extent that three, instead of eight, seats were vacant and the incumbent seats went from being uncontested to having challengers. See the The News Hour’s coverage of The Forum and other citizen media.

Chris Long, the former C-SPAN director of new media for and Newsday editor, directs the Madison Commons out of the University of Wisconsin. He based his approach on avoiding how hundreds of mainstream news outlets’ public programs eventually dissipate leaving no medium to long-term payoffs. With just one part-time staffer, he manages the Madison Commons on three levels: assigning journalism students to cover local stories, training citizen reporters from the major neighborhoods, and creating relationships with local news outlets to repost their local stories. This effort is an example of engaging academic curriculum, civic participation and public-private partnerships.

Other sites presented provide similar experiences of creating public spaces for local news and discussion on and offline, including: Ibrattleboro.com, Villagesoup.com WestportNow.com, CTNewsjunkie.com, The New Haven Independent, The Tyee, and Coastsider.com.

Writing quality, fiscal stability and volunteer retention are the main challenges for these local news sites. To encourage and manage public participation, these local sites post editorial policies of accuracy and fairness, but do not edit for a strict, professional journalistic writing style. In all cases, financial sustainability based on various combinations of foundation funding, local advertising and audience donations continue to be a challenge and require volunteer contributors. Relying on volunteers provides a platform for public participation; however, retention is also a challenge. Some online sites post volunteer reporters’ profiles and photos to acknowledge and motivate them beyond their byline, but that does not substitute for modest stipends or alleviate the volunteers’ time constraints.

Viral Video Advocacy

The conference organizers invited a new "Media Giraffe" Steve Anderson, managing director of an online public media portal COAnews.org, because of the viral success of his independent short video, Death of the Internet on the net neutrality debate. With little video experience and using only archive footage from C-SPAN and television news programs, he summarized the net neutrality debate in his 7-minute video and attracted 160,000 down loads on savetheinternet.com, video portals as well as 150 screenings on cable access stations.

The video’s success indicates how online distribution has deepened the public’s ability to make their own meaningful media expanding from text to multimedia. Anderson noted that this nascent stage of viral video advocacy allowed him to advocate on a public policy issue using the emerging online networks of bloggers, listservs, online video portals and social networking sites – a public relations strategy that is going from emerging to standard in public media. These networks and aggregator sites will continue to help bring order to this viral approach in order, "to create a burst of noise on a [policy] issue that reinforces itself," he said. Thanks to net neutrally (for the time being), this approach is much less expensive than television ads for people to speak out on their own from their living rooms. For more citizen videos on net neutrality, go to savetheinternet.com.


New e-democracy initiatives displayed the untapped potential for all levels of government to talk listen to citizens for their feedback on policy issues. The following initiatives are examples of public media that inform and engage the public and the press corps on what state and federal congress members are – or are not - doing with their tax dollars.

Stephan Clift, Democracies Online Newswire, implored that the government should be doing more online to facilitate democracy than just allowing the public to file taxes and pay traffic tickets. He suggested governments conduct public surveys, moderate online discussions (with identified users), and post draft legislation for comment. Posting draft legislation online seems harder than it should be given long-time Hill staffer Rafael DeGennaro is now devoting his time to Readthebill.org, an advocacy campaign for the House to abide by its obligation to post legislation on Thomas.gov 72 hours before a vote and for Senate to codify the same rule.

Craig Sandler presented a wire and archive service covering Massachusetts state policy, Issuesource.org/State House News Service which is notable because its public media serving the public affairs role of the government since the state has an online button liking to the site. This shows how governments do not want to take on the cost and liability of maintaining an electronic trail of their activities – or inaction – linking to a site like IssueSource.org allows them to use the internet without truly engaging citizens themselves.

Ed Fouhy presented Stateline.org, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 1999, intended to educate the dwindling state capital press corps on state demographics local and national policies of significance. As recent as April 2006, Connor Kenny created CongressPedia.org that provides background and links to news articles on congressional members. The site has attracted up to 50,000 visitors per day which has increased 10 percent per month showing the power of the internet for public media entities to burst out onto the scene. Like Wikipedia, registered users can edit the site showing the public participation and interest in documenting legislative activity.


Tight fiscal constraints bind most public or private media initiatives and this conference showed there are no easy solutions. Although the J-Lab can create the spark for new forms of online citizen journalism, such outlets remain strapped for human resources as the 20-80 rule prevails - 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work. (Robert Mann worries about the 80-hour work week his wife Maureen puts into managing The Forum – without pay.) The traditional media present at the conference face other harsh realities with three different owners buying and selling the Philadelphia Inquirer and disparate buyers in the stock market parsing out Knight Ridder, both that week.

"Foundation support can be like crack cocaine. If you don’t have a sustainable campaign, it can go no where," said Barry Parr, Coastsider.com. Charles Lewis, Center for Public Integrity, own co-founder told him consistently that his fundraising model of relying on foundation and individual donors for investigative journalism was an economically unsustainable. The $30 million he raised over 15-17 years required the hard work of finding new funders when old ones succumbed to donor fatigue.

The local news sites are finding that advertising requires time and skills to attract, let alone presents ethical challenges to maintaining journalistic independence. Parr commented that government funding like PBS would lift the burden, but that is unrealistic, and the NPR model of audiance support has been difficult to harness for community-based websites.

Nevertheless, there was plenty of optimism of new technologies to empower professional journalists and citizens. Tom Rosenstiel, Project on Excellence in Journalism advised that the professional media should enable, complement, train and embrace citizen journalists who want to be sentinels for one another. Besides the financial situation, this is an empowering moment for those in the newsroom who want to produce journalism.