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From AJR,   November 1999  issue

When Readers Write the Stories   


By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     

Seven years ago, Jedd Gould was an inexperienced 24-year-old reporter for the daily Register Citizen in Torrington, Connecticut, when he decided he had had enough. Traditional reporting, he felt, left out too many valuable voices.

"There's this attitude [among newspapers]..if we don't think it's important, it's not. I found that sort of offensive," Gould says. So he launched a free weekly, the Voice, that lets its readers do the writing.

Based in Winsted, Connecticut, the Voice has only one editor and gets almost all of its content from its audience. Asking readers, including activists and elected officials, to contribute articles and essays "is essentially putting the role of newsgathering into the hands of the community," says Gould, now the Voice's publisher.

The tabloid's motto, printed at the top left of its front page, is "anyone can write for the Voice." But not nearly enough do, say some of the paper's biggest fans, including Winsted native son Ralph Nader. "People are not used to writing for a newspaper on a regular basis," he says. "It's a cultural change that's required." Nader says he has contributed to "just about every issue" since "day one," writing on such subjects as low-power FM stations and e-commerce.

The Voice's subject matter ranges from overpopulation to religion to a discussion of whether citizens need Social Security numbers to an account of smashed flowerpots on Winsted's Main Street. Though the paper seems to focus on Winsted, Editor Alan Trevithick says he's getting more submissions from Torrington and other nearby communities. A couple of regular writers receive a "nominal" fee, he says, and the paper occasionally buys features from Copley News Service.

The free paper has grown from 5,000 copies to 26,000 copies and is now distributed in more than two dozen communities, mostly in Connecticut and a few in New York and Massachusetts.

The paper's commitment to being an "open forum" has won it staunch supporters.

Detractors say its reliance on volunteer writers means some voices get heard over and over while others don't get heard at all.

John Forrest, second selectman on the town board in Winchester, which includes the borough of Winsted, met Gould when he covered the town for the Register Citizen. "His idea was great," Forrest says, adding that in the early years the paper contributed to the public debate on local issues. Now, "the same few who seem to write a lot of negativism" get published the most, he says.

Trevithick says Forrest has a point. In Winsted, some writers "staked their claim in the newspaper," he says, and that has turned some people off. "That's just a constant battle because it is a volunteer enterprise... I have to fight that perception all the time."

Another board member who has similar criticisms says she still reads the Voice because people talk about it. Maryann Welcome says she's "been slammed a couple of times" but sees no point in responding because "you cannot get the last word in, exactly like talk radio."

Trevithick is sensitive to concerns like Welcome's. He says a big part of his job is "trying to keep my ears open as to who's attacking whom, assuring that those who are being attacked know they have an entry into the paper." A Harvard-educated anthropologist, Trevithick calls the Voice "a real solid civil-society project. When people react negatively to it, it always hurts me..because I feel I'm not getting the message out."

Community lawyer and activist Charlene LaVoie, whose practice is funded by the Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest, says the Voice has provided a valuable forum for citizens to hash out local issues such as the closing of the Winsted hospital three years ago. As for elected officials who complain about a narrow range of views in the paper, LaVoie responds, "They don't want to be bothered with those pesky citizens."

Gould and Trevithick say they won't print anything obscene or libelous, but otherwise, anything goes. So far, they've never been sued. Gould says he receives far more writing on religion than he can publish.

While Gould lost money for the first several years, he says, the paper has been profitable since. His success has bred one offshoot: Two years ago, Gould launched a Voice in Oil City, Pennsylvania, at Nader's urging and an offer of free office space. Three employees in Oil City sell ads and gather reader submissions and send them to Winsted, where all the production and editing is done. Gould says he's interested in replicating the paper elsewhere.

"One thing we do pretty well is we really don't let our personal opinions get in the way of what people want to write... [P]eople assume that's easy, and it's really not," Gould says. "It's hard to put out a paper sometimes when you think that what people are writing is stupid."