From AJR, July/August 1999 issue
Citizens As Budding Writers And Editors
Seniors, teens bring personal experiences to Web publishing
By J.D. Lasica
J.D. Lasica is a former AJR new-media columnist.
WHERE WILL ONLINE JOURNALISM be in five or 10 years? In the hands of more and more regular folks, who may not even think of themselves as journalists.
The Internet has long held out the ideal of Everyman as publisher--ordinary citizens who take back journalism from the professional class. As the Web matures, we're starting to see a flourishing of community journalism, a phenomenon that has both distant roots and a promising future.
"The news consumer is turning into a news provider," says Walter Bender, associate director of the MIT Media Lab. "It's not that these news consumers will compete with the New York Times, but the consumer becomes part of the process of telling stories in a way that enriches the public discourse."
Through the Net, readers have been interacting with writers and editors. But in the next stage of Web journalism, citizens actually are becoming writers and editors. We've already seen the glimmerings of this trend with zines (special-interest electronic magazines) and with individuals' own Web pages in online communities such as GeoCities or Tripod. Most of these enterprises have been lone wolf affairs.
Here's a more exciting prospect: Enlisting people with shared interests to connect with each other and the outside world in new and powerful ways. It's not clear whether this kind of community publishing will take place through online communities like GeoCities, online city guides like AOL's Digital Cities or online newspapers. But online papers are missing a good bet if they overlook this rich source of community content.
MIT's Media Lab isn't waiting around to see who'll pick up the ball. Its News in the Future program has set up community publishing projects among seniors groups in the United States and Finland, in a high school outside Atlanta and in several villages in Thailand.
"We're getting both youngsters and 60-, 70- and 80-year-olds to publish online newspapers, and the results are absolutely extraordinary," Bender says. "They're publishing some of the best stuff on the Web."
One of the projects, Silver Stringers, began in mid-1996 with 10 volunteers from a seniors center in Melrose, Massachusetts. They agreed to participate in a community-oriented approach to news. MIT supplied three computers, a laptop, a digital camera, a scanner, a color printer and software to produce an online publication. None of the seniors had been on the Net before. "Most of us did not even have a computer when we first started," recalls Virginia Hanley, 72, a founding editor.
"In the early days, those who couldn't type were encouraged to write in longhand, and we found volunteers to transcribe those stories onto the computer," adds Jim Driscoll, 74, an editor. At the outset, MIT advisers helped edit articles and insert photos. In time, the seniors took over those tasks. The result was the Melrose Mirror, a monthly online newspaper that runs features, recipes, essays and news. Today, a handful of editors meets weekly to kick around story ideas and edit copy, while about 20 staffers contribute stories, reviews, photos and poems.
The Web publication draws readers from around the world, but its most loyal readers are current and former residents of Melrose. Says Driscoll, "The most popular articles seem to be stories describing experiences during the Great Depression and World War II"--material that most professional journalists wouldn't define as news.
"We don't see this replacing newspapers," says Kay McCarte, 69, one of the editors. "But it lets us be involved in the creative process. It gives us a voice."
Jack Driscoll, the Media Lab's editor in residence (and Jim's brother), says online news organizations should follow suit and put Web publishing tools in the hands of community groups. "We're empowering readers to become journalists," he says. "They've got talent, and they've got things to say. It's amazing to watch them develop their own sets of publishing values."
This is where we're heading: news not as a commodity dispensed by a professional class, but as a service in which the consumer is engaged as an active participant. In the future, journalism will become a catalyst for creating communities of interest and for building links and relationships between news providers and consumers. That's a win for everyone.
This, alas, is my last AJR column. A new son and a new job heading the editorial department at BabyCenter, a new media company in San Francisco, have forced me to cut back on outside commitments. During the past 25 months I've enjoyed watching the online news industry grapple with the revolutionary changes wrought by the Internet. This wild, wonderful ride has only just started.