Yesterday, when I heard a shooting take place in broad daylight down the street from me in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, I wondered what happened, who got shot and thought about how lucky I was not to be out and about with my son at that moment. Later, I got an update from an email list serving Potrero Hill parents and found out that no one nearby was hurt in the shooting.
It made me think about how I get neighborhood news, and the way we all might get these types of hyper-local news tidbits in the future. When I put the question to MediaShift readers about where they get neighborhood news, I was inundated by fans of the Front Porch Forum service in Burlington, Vermont, thanks to the prompting of its founder, Michael Wood-Lewis.
Normally I tend to discount these types of write-in campaigns, but I have to admit that I like what Front Porch Forum is doing. The service is currently in a test phase covering 130 neighborhoods around Burlington. You can only sign up for the neighborhood you live in, and then you start getting email newsletters with news tidbits, items for sale, business openings, and more — submitted by people in the neighborhood. They are closed lists that aren’t accessible to the public, and each posting includes the person’s name, mailing address and email address to verify who they are.
Wood-Lewis told me he had been doing a version of Front Porch Forum for his own neighborhood since 2000, but just opened up the service to more neighborhoods last fall. Eventually, he would like to unleash it to more communities around the U.S., but also is figuring out how to add local sponsorships to pay for the service. At present, neighborhood volunteers take on the task of moderating the newsletter content and spreading the word about them to people in the area.
“We’ve got something remarkable going on here,” Wood-Lewis said via email. “We’re working to flesh out the local pilot and then we’ll be looking at scaling options.”
Here’s a sampling of the testimonials I got on MediaShift from fans and volunteers for Front Porch Forum:
“We have collected 150 sets of silverware from garage sales and tag sales and let our neighbors know through Front Porch Forum, so that they can borrow our bucket of silver whenever they have a large gathering. So much better than using those petroleum-based plastic forks and spoons. We found out through Front Porch Forum when our neighbor’s son was shipped out to Iraq and were able to contribute to weekly care packages sent by another neighbor. We find out about everything from public hearings to lemonade stands through this service and as a school board trustee I get direct feedback from my constituents.” — Jeff Forward
“In days gone by we would all be visiting with our neighbors and getting news that way. That still happens here in Vermont, but the Front Porch Forum helps the news travel faster and to a larger audience.” — Amy Todisco
“The Front Porch Forum is a postmodern return to citizen democracy which is nurturing the burgeoning hunger for community in our society. Feeding the mind and the soul, the neighborly interchange provides the information necessary to participate intelligently in the democratic process, develop deeper connections with those around us, and provides the support and care that meld individuals who live near one another into neighbors.” — Susan Comerford
After the initial influx of comments from Front Porch Forum boosters, I wanted to know a bit more from them: Do they trust the information on the forums? And do the forums provide a check on the power centers in the communities? Lorinda Henry pointed out that she trusted the information because it came from a trusted source, the people who live around her. “These are truly MY neighbors — and why would they lie to me about a lost cat, the time of the school board meeting, or wanting to borrow a garden tractor, for Pete’s sake?” she wrote.
Jeff Kaufman explained how a recent forum posting helped inform people about what was going on in local government:
Recently a pivotal vote was held in one of our local city government affiliated meetings (NPA). [In case] some disliked the results of the vote, the normal distribution channel for publicizing the vote results were disrupted: Minutes of the meeting were not mailed out nor posted on the city website. Thank G-D for the Front Porch Forum. Readers were quickly able to learn that an 11th hour amendment to our zoning ordinance was about to be quietly passed; that our parking availability was being reduced; and that their neighbors voted against this proposed amendment at their NPA meeting. The Front Porch Forum helped level the playing field, helping folks inform each other; and bringing light to activities some ‘local power centers’ seem to wish had been kept in the dark.
It will be interesting to see if this closed approach via email — similar to the closed approach of the early Facebook — will foster a better way of keeping tabs on community news beyond Burlington. And of course, the question remains how to make money off of email lists, and including local businesses in the mix.
The Reliable Mother-in-Law
With the Front Porch Forum inundation, one reader named Jordon wondered, “Am I the only reader of MediaShift that doesn’t live near Burlington, VT?” Luckily, no. In fact Jordon himself had commented earlier about where he gets hyper-local news in his area:
Mainly blogs. Philadelphia, my adopted hometown, has a vibrant community of bloggers. But I also subscribe to an RSS alert for my particular township on Topix, though that doesn’t seem to yield much, so I’m open to suggestions. There are lots of good community newspapers here, but since I tend to stay away from print media — I don’t like to get that black ink all over my fingertips — I don’t read them that often.
And yet, there are people in the local newspaper business who believe the ink-stained types will have a role in hyper-local news. Alastair Machray, the editor of the Liverpool (UK) Echo (and a blogger), noted that he gets local news from his mother-in-law — but he can’t always trust her information.
“The ideal has to be a mother-in-law one can rely upon,” he wrote. “That means a trusted brand processing her information and giving it in a reliable form to the consumers. As traditional media producers, we can still add value to citizen journalism without taking it away from the citizens.”
Lee Roberts, an assistant editor at a local weekly, also gets neighborhood news from the paper, and notes some of the problems with relying on the Net for news in an area with spotty broadband availability.
“DSL access problems have limited the use of the web as local social networking and local news in this rural area,” Roberts wrote. “The paper is in the early stages of figuring out how best to use the web in a way that doesn’t cost the company money. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the citizen journalist. Because our budget is tight, we depend on press releases for many of our 56-ish pages in a circulation of 9,000 or so. We also have Town Correspondents, ultra-local social news writers…Though press release writers may have a vested interest, around here it’s generally vested in some community non-profit or local chapter of a bigger picture, from Rotary to watershed associations. In any case, they’ve been making local papers local for a long, long time.”
Among the other comments, Phil Shapiro said he likes his local Washington, DC, email newsletter, DCwatch, that’s been around since 1995, while Penny Okamoto likes a newish service in Portland, Ore. (and Belgium!), called PublicPress.org.
“PublicPress.org is great because anyone in the world can create their own hyper-local, digital newspaper for sharing and archiving their community’s local news, events, reviews, and information,” she wrote. “It lets users upload incident reports, news articles, community events, garage sale information, lost and found information, help wanted posts…I can trust what is posted because PublicPress encourages fellow citizens to review, edit, and vet the stories. So reputations for credibility are established and maintained by other journalists on the site.”
What other hyper-local or neighborhood news services do you like? Do you think the Front Porch Forum model of closed email lists can be replicated in other communities, and is there a way to make it a profitable enterprise? Share your thoughts in the comments below.