While news organizations contract and struggle to monetize their Web-based coverage, Cambridge Day editor Marc Levy has begun an online experiment he believes will preserve local news in his community.
At 34 years old, Levy worked in the New England media for 15 years and watched from an executive editing position at the Journal Register Company in central Connecticut as executives sold off paper after paper in the mid 2000’s, hoping the sales would keep the company afloat until readers returned to the traditional print format.
Those readers never came back, but the loss in circulation to local bloggers was an inspiration for Levy to try something new.
“There had been a lot of talk at the time about hyperlocal news coverage, covering the stories in your neighborhood and telling your neighbors what had happened,” Levy recalled. “I decided that if that’s where all the news was going, I wanted to understand it and be a part of it.”
Levy turned to the neighborhoods surrounding his longtime home in Cambridge, a city he believed deserved continuous independent coverage that other blogs and traditional news outlets had failed to provide. Following a short stint in 2005 as a printed monthly paper, Levy turned the Day into an online presence to cut costs and quickly pass information to his growing readership.
Levy has carved a niche for himself in Cambridge, most notably with parents who circulate his continuous coverage of Cambridge School Committee meetings through email lists the night they hit the Web.
Because it only takes a single parent to begin a long chain of emails, Levy said he no longer struggles to find his audience; his audience now comes to him.
“Because I’m online, my readers do all the promotion work for me,” Levy said.
Despite his site’s growing popularity, Levy maintains a full–time job and sees his work at the Day as more of a learning experience as he gets a handle on what Web-based readers want to see most.
Boston-based blogger and media critic Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub has followed Levy’s site develop and notes that the Cambridge Day’s recent partnership with Watchdog New England, a Northeastern University-based investigative reporting project, reflects a shift a larger trend in which bloggers shy away from news aggregation and instead provide coverage of a caliber previously reserved for traditional newsrooms.
Author’s note: I have worked with Watchdog New England at the Dorchester Reporter, though not at the Cambridge Day.
“This is a relatively new phenomenon driven at least in part by the collapse of traditional media outlets,” Gaffin said. “For better or for worse, you have all these excellent reporters looking for work and some are going to turn to their own neighborhoods.”
The numbers back up Gaffin’s assertion. A recent Pew Research Center report says newsrooms have shrunk 30 percent in the past decade, swelling the ranks of potential citizen journalists.
Despite making some promising gains in his online readership, Levy is quick to point out that the Day is still a non-profit experiment. Despite taking a newspaper website format, stories are displayed chronologically, which he worries makes tracking down the most important news labor-intensive compared to more developed Web pages.
Levy is wary of running advertisements on the Day in what he considers its unfinished form, but Gaffin believes a future network of local bloggers could garner enough online readership to attract large advertisers that still rely on printed ads.
“There are a number of folks like Marc trying to do very similar things,” Gaffin said. “There are issues [they cover] that go across neighborhood lines…if you have 20 to 30 blogs working together, you are now making a serious offer to potential advertisers.”
While there has been a growing effort to cover life in Boston and Cambridge through blogs, citizen journalists looking to make a profit from their work face new competition at the hyperlocal level through AOL’s Patch network, The Boston Globe’s Your Town sites and GateHouse Media New England’s Wicked Local websites, all of which have dedicated advertising departments, not to mention name recognition for potential advertisers.
GateHouse Media New England was one of the first local news companies to make the shift online, and with 18 weekly papers and hyperlocal sites in the metro Boston area, including the Cambridge Chronicle, the company has maintained a considerable online presence despite the growing number of independent blogs.
Greg Reibman, GateHouse Media New England vice president and Cambridge Chronicle publisher, said that while the Chronicle maintains a print presence, the paper operates as a “week in review” supplement to the daily updates provided online.
Despite this increasing reliance on the Web, Reibman said the presence of independent news bloggers is not a detriment to online circulation, but rather evidence that the paper covers a community willing to take part in an ongoing conversation about current events.
“I don’t think [blog coverage] is a threat,” Reibman said. “All ships rise with the tide and if you are a talented blogger or Twitter person, we want you to join that conversation.”
For Levy, maintaining that conversation is one of the driving forces behind continuing his work at the Day. When asked what communities lost when local papers were forced to make cuts, Levy was quick to point to the arts and events sections that have fallen by the wayside, and sees the Day as an important way to ensure residents don’t find themselves bowling alone.
“It used to be you wanted to know what was going on in your town, you would turn to the day’s paper,” Levy said. “We need to be online telling people what is happening in their neighborhoods, get them out and involved in their communities again.”
Earlier this month I watched members of Northeastern University’s recently formed College of Arts, Media and Design present on some of the projects professors and students have put together in recent years.
The presentations were very interesting, but the overarching objective of the presentation was left largely unanswered: how do students from such a diverse set of skills contribute to the overall success of the CAMD program? Or, more to my point, how do journalism students contribute to these efforts?
I’ve dragged my feet writing this post largely because I’ve been playing with the idea in hopes of pulling out an interesting suggestion. So far I’ve come up with one idea that may make it up the chain and give the school of journalism a fighting chance at helping the less abstract CAMD fields:
Synergy! (for lack of a better word!) – The CAMD program has some really amazing projects going on, from massive abstract art exhibits across the country to training the next generation of video game designers. Unfortunately, I only learned about these projects by attending this seminar. Maybe j-school students can cobble together some sort of CAMD publication meant to shed light on interesting projects. Not only would it give some hard working students and professors some much-needed attention (and possibly funding,) but could foster future interdisciplinary collaborations.
Maybe the architecture students are struggling to understand how a visitor will experience a building they are working on. What’s to stop one of the level designing classes (having read an interview shedding light on some of the challenges faced by architecture students) from turning a first person shooter engine into a 3D into an architectural aid meant to simulate walking through a new project?
For that matter, this is an online news class. How about an entire class devoted to maintaining some sort of craigslist-style blog where students can request the help of other CAMD programs while J-schoolers cover beats throughout the college, tracking down interesting programs and asking not just what students are doing, but what they are struggling with due to a lack of resources or training.
I think the best way the school of journalism can prove to other programs that we are not only a relevant, but potentially helpful force in the CAMD program is to do what we do best: track down interesting information, make som sense out of what we learn and ensure that information gets to the audiences that can do something about it.
*Update – my NewsTrust member page can be found here.*
In the past week I spent some time evaluating articles on NewsTrust.net, a website meant to aid online news consumers in the quest for good journalism by posting and critiquing stories.
Overall, I like what I saw on NewsTrust and think that if the project can expand its membership beyond hardcore newsies, the site could be a definitive voice in online news coverage.
Like most crowdsourcing projects, NewsTrust relies on a large community to sift through information and pass judgment on articles and their authors before the information becomes irrelevant. Because these articles are so time-sensitive, a larger, more active group of reviewers could go a long way to ensure journalistic gems from smaller media outlets are not overlooked.
As it stands, the 20,000-plus reviewing community largely gravitates towards mainstream news like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, rather than smaller local publications where readers could most benefit from an uninvolved third party reviewer.
Additionally, people tend to review websites they agree with and often pass over reviewed articles from news sites they would not normally read, creating some minor bias issues since unpopular news platforms face less reader scrutiny. As an experiment, I posted a review for a profile from MSNBC and an AP report posted on FoxNews. Not surprisingly, my MSNBC article had a lot more follow up reviews compared to the Fox report.
While the uneven focus of reviews is an issue for the site in its current state, I feel like this problem will decline as the number of users making regular reviews grows and the community becomes more active and diverse.
As a journalist, I see NewsTrust as becoming a handy source for both reviewing my own work as well as helping me find reliable information of past events which I may be pushed into the middle of and asked to cover. For example, if I were to cover the school board in a city I have just transferred to, I would want to not only read up on past events, but do so with the comfort that what I am reading has been established as fair, unbiased coverage before I start forming my own questions.
Last week my class had a chance to speak with Firuzeh Shokooh Valle, the Spanish language editor for Global Voices, an open source citizen-journalism website meant to offer on the ground coverage in every corner of the world.
Although I believe citizen journalism is by no means a replacement for a professionally trained newsroom, I certainly feel there is a place for the citizen journalist in the brave new world of online journalism.
While we were talking about Global Voices, I cruised around the Libya page and was surprised to find the posts and videos offered answers about the men and women behind the ongoing revolution that the mainstream media based in Tripoli had failed to answer for weeks.
While I would not expect the average Libyan blogger to have the most up to date press releases from NATO or the White House, I was pleased to see that many residents have begun to upload long videos of themselves tooling around various liberated cities, offering myself and others a chance to see the revolution from the ground level, rather than through satalite images and maps provided by most conventional media outlets.
To be honest though, the more I searched Global Voices and listened to Valle, the more I started to realize that while professional journalists and their citizen counterparts share a similar mission of informing their viewers about breaking news, there is no reason why the two cannot coexist. As I see it, the professionals will always have the most accurate body counts, maps and summaries of the day’s events, but Global Voices bloggers serve as more of a social barometer for a given area.
I asked Valle how she can treat figures provided by potentially misinformed (or biased) bloggers as fact to which she replied “When I am editing from outside of the country, I am always reading lots of different accounts at the same time. It gives you a sense of what is happening, it may be difficult to say ‘this is 100 percent what is happening,’ but you can write ‘this is a sense of what is happening, what people are feeling and thinking.’”
With that approach in mind, I have something of a newfound respect for the citizen journalist, not as an unpaid reporter of fact, but rather as a collective expression of feeling. Given how national emotions have played such a large role in the past months’ revolutions, I think the information found on Global Voices cannot be ignored.
Last week we had a chance to speak with a former Wired Magazine writer and current NU professor Jeff Howe. Howe discussed some of the finer points of crowdsourcing, an emerging practice of using your internet audience to augment your own efforts in journalism, business or art.
Howe discusse the three major functions of crowdsourcing in journalism, as a means to find stories, validate findings and theories or perform research that would otherwise be too time consuming for the smaller team found in a physical newsroom.
The conversation turned towards former U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzales’s scandal and resignation in 2007, a story built largely by the crowdsourcing efforts of talkingpointsmemo.com blogger Joshua Micah Marshall.
While I do like the idea of tackling bigger stories with the aid of interested readers contributing to the sometimes messy business of tracking down sources, getting on-the-ground confirmation of facts and actually digesting the piles of data a good story may create, I can’t help but think of one important drawback: the loss of surprise.
During my brief time as a reporter, I’ve found that showing your hand while composing a hard-hitting article can give subjects a clear picture of what questions you are asking, how you are asking them and what you have found. While this may not be a major disadvantage when writing about the larger, slower moving elements of the federal government, a reporter covering municipal issues who likely has a spot near the top of City Hall’s RSS feed could see the rug pulled out from under them as they try to gather information.
Conversely, having a group of readers actively working on a case may signal to a public official that as Howe said, “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” but for that kind of influence to sink in you will need a story harder hitting than an overspent streetlight budget .
I guess a compromise solution on the local level would be to reach a smaller group of interested readers and work under some sort of confidentiality agreement, but at that point you are really blurring the line between reader and writer in a way that seems less than ideally transparent and could cause your core readers to start demanding a cut of your paycheck.
I have no doubt the power of the online masses will play a role in some of the biggest stories we will read in the coming years, watching the grapgic design and stock photo industries adapt new business models is encouraging, but as a local reporter I really have to wonder how the crowd will fit into my byline.
Ah, the burrito. A stalwart companion through good times and bad, a mobile meal that can take the place of two or three entrees depending on how much your budget has shrunk your stomach. But with so many franchises throughout the city, finding the best burrito is no small task.
Located at the foot of Mission Hill, Montecristo Mexican Grill offers the low to no-income student set a solid, no-frills alternative to the heavy-handed offerings of Qdoba and the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none Boloco menu.
At $6.50, a Montecristo burrito offers fresh guacamole (the owner refuses to charge $2 for avocados), crema (not sour cream), a touch of hot sauce and a choice of chicken or steak (both boasting strong grilled flavors,) slow-roasted and very flavorful pork or a large serving of greasy chorizo in a package just slightly smaller than the portion you can expect at Qdoba.
The overall effect is a lighter, cheaper burrito than most chains that pleasantly wards off starvation. Combine that with a Mexican Coca-Cola or Jarritos ($1.75) and you have a fast meal that can get you through the day or line your stomach before your next house party.
For diners looking for something more substantial, Montecristo offers an excellent enchilada plate ($8) that boasts the same quality as the burrito, but adds another half a pound of organic matter into the mix. Topped with some of the Tapotia hot sauce found at every table and mixed into a homogenous slurry, this burrito alternative make for a very filling meal.
For a quick snack, ala carte eaters can try empanadas ($.99), crispy fried pastries filled with meat and beans, tamales ($2) served in an authentic corn husk wrapper or single-filling tacos ($2) that help show off the quality of the meats (and sell for half price every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.)
The restaurant is geared towards take-out, but there is plenty of space available to dine in and catch a soccer game, professional wrestling or a Spanish soap opera. Burritos are quickly made to order, but expect to hang around for a few minutes while the kitchen handles more complicated dishes.
Overall there’s little to detract from the Montecristo experience: it’s clean the counter staff is fast and generous with the portions. Most customers will be content to grab a burrito and run, the menu also offers a few pricier Salvadorian items for more adventurous diners.
Location: 748 Huntington Ave Boston, MA
Credit cards accepted, wheelchair access, scenic view of Bringham Circle
In the past five years I have spent studying to become a journalist, I have learned how to crank out obituaries, nail difficult interviews and create some semblance of order in my notes so that I can hit a deadline without a major cardiac episode.
Northeastern University has prepared me for most challenges I expect to face as a working reporter except for two: how to handle the constant pulls of my own biases and (more importantly) how I can make it as a paid reporter in a world where content is becoming less and less of a commodity.
It is those final two questions I hope to address in my final project by interviewing Lynn, Massachusetts-based media critic Bob “Moviebob” Chipman. Chipman has a number of online commentary series catering to movie and video game fans on the Escapist Network, as well as a personal blog which combine for an astounding number of hits every month.
Considering my concerns as I enter the working world, I hope to interview Chipman and learn how he has been able to make the internet work for him. As far as I can tell, he is exclusively a web presence but has been able to make a living by delving into the topics he feels strongest about and works to maintain his own point of view without giving in to “fanboyism,” the geek culture equivalent of bias.
Since much of his subject matter is for better or worse aimed at a younger audience but his online rants tend to aim for an older crowd, I want to learn how he balances these two audiences without dumbing down his material and more importantly how he handles his interactions with his rather volatile community online viewers.
In addition, I would like to learn how he became affiliated with the Escapist Network, what his role is in the long-term strategy of the website and get a first hand account of how to create such a strong online presence that keeps clicks coming in week after week.