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Some citizen media sites have personalities that are so distinctive, a regular participant would know those voices anywhere. This is especially true of sites that are run by individuals or partners who got a bug to stir up a conversation in their communities, then began to suspect they had a business on their hands. Some of the most readable citizen media sites are the projects of non-journalists who started out wanting to know their towns better, and ended up creating civic conversations.

Case Study: A Busy Day on Baristanet

On a hot July day in 2006 site co-owner Liz George was on the phone with someone in downtown Montclair when the caller said there was a fire on the main drag of Church Street. George headed out with a camera, shot a picture of the fire scene and sent it to site co-owner Debbie Galant, who posted it at 2:26.

At 2:35 the first citizen responded. What happened next demonstrates how citizens and professionals blend their contributions to a breaking story. Within minutes of Galant posting the fire news, a series of citizens posted to the thread, reporting that streets were closed to traffic, emergency services had arrived and plumes of smoke were rising over downtown. “PEOPLE RUNNING - REALLY,” a poster wrote at 2:42. “People were telling us what they were hearing in almost real time,” Galant said.

The news was that an underground fire had ignited and two manhole covers had blown open, releasing clouds of smoke. In the middle of a heat wave, some 2,500 people lost power as firefighters and utility crews worked into the night.

For hours people posted brief first-person accounts of merchants evacuating their businesses while Galant and George posted interviews with the fire chief and town officials. A salon owner apologized to clients who were evacuated in the middle of their color jobs. Citizens posted their take on news: Starbucks and Whole Foods had gone dark. “People were using the site as a bulletin board to ask each other questions,” Galant said.

Late in the day Galant heard from the mayor that the library was opening as a cooling center for those without power. She called the library and heard the standard “library is closed” recording. Galant drove to the library, discovered it had opened and posted a bulletin to ignore the recording. “We had more information than the town web site,” she said.

“The site changes with what’s going on,” she said. “When you’re in the middle of a crisis you’re very into public service. You’re not thinking about being a smart aleck, you’re thinking about how to get the news out fast. Then there are other days when it’s fun to do the Stephen Colbert-take on your own small-town politics.”

Citizens don’t contribute reporting unless they develop the habit of hanging out on the site and seeing others do it. “You can sit back and watch things happen,” Galant said.

Lisa Williams, a computer-literate blogger and media consultant, founded H2otown in the Boston suburb of Watertown in February 2005 because she despaired of Watertown ever receiving consistent day-to-day coverage. She also felt like a stranger as a relative newcomer to the town and suspected others felt similarly disconnected. The site is “about paying attention,” she said, “and that’s what we’re doing collectively at H2otown.”

Watertown has a weekly paper with frequent staff turnover, and the Boston Globe selectively covers stories from the suburb, “but our competition is not the newspaper,” Williams said. “We’re covering stuff that is too small or silly or beneath the paper.” By “we” Williams essentially means herself. She invites citizens to post news and information, and some do, but she’s the one who does most of the reporting. “I cover the Town Council by TiVo,” she says (meetings are broadcast on local cable). “I have little kids and can’t go to all those meetings.”

On the site Williams refers to herself in the third person as “H2otown,” a wry, gadget-obsessed, slightly neurotic character. She spoofs herself to downplay her authority and invite others to participate, but the tone actually intimidates some citizens, Williams said, who have told her they can’t “write funny like you.”

Williams stands undecided on the brink of selling ads and building the site into a business. She’s not sure she wants to be accountable to clients. “I have an entirely experimental attitude,” she says. “I could stop at any time. Basically, I’ve been just not stopping.” But in the next breath she confesses to “itchy expansionist feelings about Waltham, the town next door.”

Baristanet concerns itself with the obsessions of suburban parents and below-the-newspaper-radar events in the New Jersey towns of Montclair, Bloomfield and Glen Ridge. It was founded in May 2004 by writer Debbie Galant and a business partner. Each invested $3,000 in site design and T-shirts. The original partner has since withdrawn; Galant now co-owns the site with writer Liz George. Galant and George do all the posting on Baristanet (along with a paid part-time writer and occasionally their part-time technology consultant). Many of their posts consist of tart commentary wrapped around links to New York Times or Newark Star-Ledger articles on local matters, but the Baristas (as they call themselves) regularly break hyperlocal stories and post real-time coverage of breaking events. Contributors weigh in on real-time news with tips, observations and photos.

Favorite discussion topics include mini-mansion proliferation and critiques of local government and schools. The site “is about our voice,” Galant says, describing it as “fun, interactive and timely, with a blogger’s view that there are no sacred cows.”

The site is “about paying attention.”
—Lisa Williams

Life and business partners Chris Grotke and Lise LePage run a web design business in Brattleboro, Vermont. In February 2003 they founded

ibrattleboro, their privately owned site where anyone in the community can write about any local issues that matter to them. Grotke says the site predated the citizen media terminology, or at least their knowledge of it. “We didn’t really know what we had started,” he said. For a long time, the founder/owners seeded the content with concise, opinion-flavored posts on municipal government and downtown development. Now a community of nearly 1,500 contributors has grown up around the site. 

“I could stop at any time. Basically, I’ve been just not stopping.”
—Lisa Williams

Grotke and LePage hope over the next decade to build the site into their primary business. They screen all content and do light editing. “You wake up, who knows what’s coming in, and you publish it,” Grotke said. “We get tons of tips, people e-mailing and calling about stuff all the time,” said LePage. But, adds Grotke, “We write back and tell them we don’t post things for other people and get them to do it. It builds up the number of contributors.”

“I don’t think we need to become like trained newspaper or any other media,” LePage says. “We’ve had news stories submitted in the form of poems covering events, and that is the beauty of it, this incredible diversity of styles.” They have developed a town wiki and plan to create an assignment desk where citizens can request that a story be covered and others can volunteer to cover it. They hope to build revenue through automated ad sales. “Businesses are starting to recognize it’s OK to advertise with us. For a while we were viewed as rebels,” LePage said. “If we focus on good content, the advertisers will come.” 

“I’m making a real contribution to the community. I want this to last.”
—Barry Parr

Coastsider, a news and informational site about the California coastal town of Half Moon Bay and environs, was founded in May 2004 and is edited by Barry Parr, who has a day job as a media analyst for Jupiter Research. Parr contributes 90 to 95 percent of the content, by his estimate, and his wife is the site’s chief photographer.

The town has a weekly, the Half Moon Bay Review, but no daily consistently covers the community of about 30,000, Parr said. When he launched he thought he would be just one of many citizens aggregating locally compelling items to Coastsider from other sites and posting original bits of news and information. Instead, he said, “nobody posted.”

So Parr assigned himself the task of inquiring into development, traffic problems and other town issues. His posts are less fully reported stories than very short chapters in an ongoing narrative on selected local issues, occasionally punctuated by his carefully considered opinions and invitations to discuss (on such subjects as whether fire-fighting should be volunteer). Parr edits all stories and moderates all discussions. He also covers breaking news. When a major road in town was closed by a landslide in the spring of 2006, “I worked hard to cover it with photos and videos and text. It was a watershed moment,” he said. Site traffic increased four-fold.

Now Parr’s goal is “to run a very personal site. I don’t want to be really responsible to anyone else for what I write.” But he also says he can’t do it alone - generate the content and sell enough ads to quit his day job and pay himself and at least one business-side employee. The site, as is, “doesn’t scale well,” he said. “I’m going to have to identify more people I know and recruit them” to post, he said. “Figuring out the advertising model is a big challenge - finding a way for ad sales to make sense, convincing local merchants in a small town that online advertising is going to work for them.”

But Parr is optimistic that a sustainable form will emerge out of the universe of citizen media models. “I’m prouder of this than anything I’ve ever done in my entire life. I’m making a real contribution to the community. I want this to last.”

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