“We Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”: Jack Driscoll on Community Journalism (Part Two)

    by Henry Jenkins
    January 23, 2009

    You describe a range of projects in the book including those involving youths and senior citizens. What generational differences, if any, did you observe in the ways they thought about their roles and responsibilities as journalists?

    Young people are much more technologically adept in general. Older citizen journalists often get tangled up in the technology.

    They approach issues differently. The youth have strongly held opinions and aren’t afraid to express themselves, be they nationally or international in scope. The older generation tends to shy away from letting fly with their political opinions especially. They have sort of a been-there, done-that attitude in many cases. I’d love to see research on how the young, middle-aged and seniors differ in their approach to political expression, especially when it comes to writing.

    Obviously subject matter differs wildly among the young and the old, who don’t know Eminem from an enema.

    The young tend to go at each other more, arguing and debating, sometimes getting personal, whereas the seniors have only occasional flare-ups that die down quickly. I suspect they do a lot of internalizing.

    Both groups pride themselves on high ethical standards. The youth seem to be very cognizant of their audience, the fact that it is mostly other children or teenagers. No adult needs to monitor what they publish. Left to their own devices, they are quite careful.

    The teen-aged editors (well, one was 12) who ran the Junior Journal seemed to think more about themes than do the seniors. Every issue would have a dozen stories on one particular theme. There would be 30 or 40 other stories as well. They were much better at outreach than the seniors who tend to do their own stories but seldom reach out to others to contribute stories or photos or artwork.

    A lot of online chatter takes place among the youth as they prepare their editions, whereas the seniors do most of their communicating face-to-face. In both the Melrose and Rye groups there are still members who don’t have computers. They type their stories and someone scans them, or they write their stories in longhand and someone retypes them. One woman has a computer but never looks at her email. Still, she writes regularly and knows everything going on in the town.

    Can you describe your own transition from Editor of the Boston Globe to someone helping to facilitate community journalism? What did you have to unlearn as a professional in order to embrace citizen news reporting?

    When I was Editor of the Globe, an online community project was started in a crime-ridden Boston neighborhood of about 5000 by an MIT grad student and his wife. They enlisted teenagers to operate the site, which was Mac-based. Users ranged in age from age 6 to 80. I was fascinated how they used the site to tell what was going on in the community, working out an arrangement with the police department whereby users of the site could easily report a street light or traffic that wasn’t working. Using their website, they organized fairs and plays and other community activities that created healthy dialogue between old and young, something that hadn’t been occurring. It was a private site, so the teens went door to door and got permission to provide an email link to those willing. The result was a map on the site where you could click on a particular address and get an email box to write the person who lived there. Communication was crackling throughout the community.

    I was made a part of the community, so I decided I could salt the website with stories every day. Every morning I would select stories from the Globe that I thought were particularly germane to that community and feed an electronic copy into their system. Sometimes they were what I call reactive stories—happenings from City Hall or the police department or wherever. Sometimes they were how-to stories on raising children or tips on cooking for special holidays.

    When I left the Globe, after almost 40 years, I stayed connected with a media group formed by the MIT Media Lab in the late 1980’s called News in the Future. Most of the major newspapers were involved, along with some from other countries as well as television and radio entities. The projects the students and faculty came up with, large and small, were quite exciting. I had been chairman of the Globe‘s overall Planning Committee, so I knew the challenges coming down the pike. But to my amazement and frustration most of the media outlets ignored all the ideas, not the least of which was electronic paper and ink (Hearst being the exception).

    Still, I thought community journalism was a plausible route to go with newpapers taking the lead to organize them and incorporate them. The only tricky part was figuring out a method of compensation. But that was a detail.

    None of them seemed interested.

    I didn’t give up. I figured out another approach that would be a stepping stone. A lot of newspapers were part of a successful program called Newspaper in the Classroom. The held one-day training sessions with teachers on how to use newspapers as a teaching device in the classroom, then produced lesson plans and then delivered newspapers to the schools, charging a low bulk rate. So a pupil would learn math by learning about baseball box scores or stock tables, or about geography by tracking ongoing news stories, or…well, you get the idea.

    Given how well that worked in developing the newspaper-reading habit, I suggested to newspapers that they publish high school newspapers on their websites. Boston.com, for instance, would have a schools subsection with all the Boston school newspapers and all the suburbs. No takers.

    So I approached a newspaper sponsor from Italy and another from Brazil about ten years ago. They leaped at the idea. Three of us from MIT spent a day with 200 teachers in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and a while later Agencia Estado, a leading newspaper, opened its website to 100 schools in the region of Curitaba. The experiment worked well until a change of government apparently curtailed the program.

    Meanwhile La Republicca in Italy advertised a similar program on kataweb.com.it. Today that one newspaper—about the size of the Boston Globe—carries 7400 school newspapers from junior high schools and high schools in 84 cities.

    At about that point I gave up on US newspapers and started working with citizen groups for their sake not for the newspapers’ sake.

    Major adjustments for me were lack of resources and a rejection of hierarchy. The first is a continual problem. They don’t need hardly anything in the way of financial resources but there aren’t enough people to thoroughly cover a community, even the size Rye (5300 population). Operating as a flat organization can be time consuming at times, but I have learned to relish operating by consensus. Someone has to orchestrate the functioning of meetings. Melrose and Rye have solved that by rotating the person who chairs alphabetically.

    I tend to be a stickler about conflict of interest, certain ethical concerns and style consistencies (is it 3 p.m. or 3 P.M.?; is it spring or Spring?; if nine is spelled out, why isn’t twelve?, etc.). I’ve learned to look the other way when someone wants to write about the accomplishments of a volunteer group they belong to (although we insist they disclose their affiliation) or someone uses Photoshop to slightly alter a picture. But I am so swept up in the enthusiasm of the participants that I tend to honor the wisdom of the group over any personal journalistic prejudices I might harbor.

    Americans are increasingly getting their news from national papers, though there has also been a rise of micro-local news on the web. What happens to the middle ground between the two in this evolving informational system — news that occurs on a state or regional level?


    I am now climbing on my white horse. I am very angry with publishers and broadcast executives. And a few editors. They have abrogated their responsibilities by cutting staff to the bone (especially reporters) and by dumbing down the news (TV has been particularly guilty of this). I don’t have the statistics at my fingertips, but there are studies showing dramatic decreases in the numbers of reporters covering state houses. That trend started long before newspaper profit margins started narrowing.

    Some fast measures need to be taken. Technology can play a role. Public legislative sessions at every level need to be televised. Techniques for searching video archives need improvement. Better reporter tools would help. And there need to be more collaborations among media outlets. It’s ironic that Associated Press is apparently under siege at a time where that formula for coverage is more relevant now than ever. It’s also ironic since newspaper websites from their inception have been replete with AP stories even though newspapers claimed they were devoting staff to generate web articles. It hardly every happened.

    Only recently have the newspaper newsrooms and their websites begun to combine forces. Editors were reluctant to ask their reporters to write a quick web story on a breaking news story, then turn around and write a different story for the next morning’s newspaper.

    One answer is for citizens, whether they are journalists or not, to keep the pressure on state and regional governments to make records and meeting minutes available online in a timely fashion.

    We typically think of news as valuable as a product — the newspaper and the information it includes — but many of your arguments about community journalism center on the value of participating in the process of identifying and generating the news. What do you see as the value of everyday people involving themselves in the process of reporting the news?

    Somehow the activism of the Sixties petered out, and we became largely a nation of couch potatoes. Bowling Alone, the book by Prof. Robert Putnam captured that trend. Even now we go to local government meetings (Selectmen, Planning Boards, etc.) and no one shows up. However, average citizens are beginning to wake up to the fact that they don’t know what’s going on in their own hometowns. As taxes go up, they begin to take it personally. They want to know what’s happening and may even want to get involved in a particular issue from time to time. Little by little they are becoming aware that their local newspapers are letting them down. They are becoming aware that their elected officials don’t want them to know what’s happing. Last week I received an off-the-record email from someone working in Town Hall, saying, “The only way I know what’s going on is by reading your publication.”

    Clearly those who get involved in reporting the news learn more about “what’s going on”, convey what they have learned to readers and, we would hope, a better informed populace translates into better governance.

    You reference James Carey’s concept of news reading and writing as a ritual, suggesting “News is not information but drama.” Can you elaborate on this claim? I’ve often argued that civic engagement is as much a structure of feeling as it is a structure of information. How does community journalism impact the ways people feel about their communities?

    Everyone has his own metaphor, I suppose. Carey, who shared some of his thinking in the halls of MIT a few times, was especially thoughtful about the ritual. He used drama as his metaphor, which I thought was an improvement over my use of orchestra or orchestral arrangement when I was at the Globe. Perhaps I overdid it, because they gave me a framed baton at one point.

    News has its ebbs and flows, and to some extent the readers’ attention is affected by changes in patterns. Sometimes those shifts are caused by the news itself that is driven by inaugurations or Congress voting on a budget or weather or fires and shootings and the like. That’s called reactive news. Then there is proactive news, where a decision is made to probe a specific area: the latest trends in education, the mobile lifestyle, how other invaders have extricated themselves from countries they occupied…

    In either case—reactive coverage or proactive—the journalist, community or otherwise, is trying to read the audience; trying to inform, respond to their needs and interests, provide them with what they need to know and what they ought to know and maybe even entertain them.

    Publications, online or otherwise, need to figure how to engage readers; how to draw on them. This is not done by running insipid contests: Vote yes if you think we should withdraw from Iraq by June; vote no if you think that is too early. Or, vote yes if you think actress X should have her children taken away from her, or no if you think she should keep them.

    The receiving of news should not be strictly a cerebral activity. News should be tweaking the imagination, angering, frustrating, moving a person to sadness and joy. It should at the same time be molding a true depiction of the community you live in with all its flaws and all its richness. It is very much an emotional engagement.

    Most of your projects are rooted in geographically local communities where people at least some of the time meet face to face and write about people they’ll know. Is it possible to imagine community journalism operating on a global scale through online communities or would the process necessarily change without the face to face contact?


    My experience is mostly centered on seven years working with youth between the ages of 10 and 18 from 91 countries.

    Again, we come to the question of mission. Members of the Junior Journal wanted to reform the world. Not a bad mission. Plenty to work with.

    The problems they addressed cut across geographic boundaries: war, environment, abuse, etc. It was fascinating to hear how these issues were handled in India and South Africa and Mexico and Russia and the United Arab Republic and China and Argentina and Australia and on and on.

    What started as a group of 30 wound up with well over 300. Their only face-to-face contact was among the 30 originators for five days before they started their publication. The individual reporting aspect didn’t seem to be that adversely affected. Recruiting of writers didn’t seem to be a problem. But the inability to recruit and train editors proved to be the publication’s downfall as little by little editors reached an age where they were too old and going off to college. If even a quarter of the group could have met for a few days once a year the Junior Journal would be humming today.

    In short, even though they had no editor-in-chief and arrived at all major decisions by email consensus, the importance of a leadership group being in sync and understanding one another, even though they might argue a lot, was essential to survival.

    But let me proffer another model. Perhaps we should call it a “confederacy” model. It could be all-volunteer or commercial. This would be a loosely connected set of community publishing groups with similar missions that operate independently within a state, region, country or world, but are tied together electronically. Perhaps they would use the same publishing software, although not necessarily. They would be able to use each other’s stories. They would share a joint archive. Perhaps they could share a database of theme photographs and graphics. They might share a set of guidelines for issues of style, usage and publishing matters such as libel, copyright, etc. They could develop an internal, fully electronic help desk.

    “Hello, desk? How do you handle photos of children under 12?”

    “Waterloo: If the child is identifiable, we don’t use the photo without permission of the parent or guardian.:

    “Sarasota: If the photo is taken at a school, we consider permission from the headmaster as equivalent to parental permission (in loco parentis).

    “Austen: We never run photos of children that show them in awkward situations.”

    Perhaps there could be a repository for investigative projects that other groups could use for hints on doing their own investigation. Even better, what if there were jointly reported stories?

    I remember when working for United Press we often received or sent messages to all bureaus saying something like: “We are doing a story on the impact of the economic crunch on social service agencies. Please survey some of the agencies in your region for anecdotal information, making sure you touch base with small, medium and large agencies. Please send us a memo of not more than 2,000 words by next Friday.”

    Again, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

    For more reflections on Couch Potatoes Sprout, see Ellen Hume’s post about the book for the new Center for Future Civic Media blog.

    John S. (Jack) Driscoll has been Editor-in-Residence at the MIT Media Laboratory since 1995. Previously he was at the Boston Globe newspaper for nearly 40 years, seven as Editor. He is the author of Couch Potatoes Sprout: The Rise of Online Community Journalism.

    Tagged: boston globe community publishing jack driscoll newspaper

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