Archive - Nov 13, 2007

Wordless Wednesday

Rocks near Sperry Falls, originally uploaded by Aldon.

Citizen Journalism and The Primary Place

Recently, I received an email from Jon Greenberg about Primary Place Online (PPO). I had spoken with Jon months ago about PPO, and I was curious to find out how it was going.

The site is described in their about page as growing “out of a radio series from New Hampshire Public Radio”. It is summed up as:

The idea behind Primary Place Online is simple. New Hampshire voters get many chances to see the candidates in person. Voters in places like California, Missouri and New York do not. The web has now given us a way for the citizens of New Hampshire to share the unique advantages of living in this state with voters everywhere.

I’ve spent a bit of time reading posts on PPO. Most of them are written in the first person, and the voices of the writers, like icy water down a granite-strewn stream, captures wonderfully my experiences in New Hampshire.

You should visit the site to hear what real people are saying about the candidates, and not simply plants at a campaign stop or a faux news conference.

Even more importantly, I believe that PPO says something about how citizen journalism can and should work. Back in March, Jay Rosen and Arianna Huffington announced their new venture, Off the Bus Back then I wrote

I hope that Jay and Arianna’s efforts will help people find their voice in the political discourse. However, I worry that it might be the same rich white ivy school educated young men that I run into on the blogs and the conferences across our country. I worry that the discourse might end up being not substantially different from the nasty, horse race, Coke or Pepsi type coverage that we see in the traditional mainstream media.

So far, Off the Bus hasn’t caught my attention. Glancing at the bios of the recent writers I find one who chaired “the platform committee for the national Independence Party in 1992”. Another who “currently serves as Executive Director of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy”. The next one I read was “Director of Publicity for The Nation Magazine” This was followed by “The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law”. That isn’t even a person, it is a center. Finally, I got to a woman, who is “research and investigative projects director for Public Campaign, a national advocacy and educational center dedicated to campaign finance reforms that reduce the power of big money in elections and amplify the voices of ordinary voters within the political process”

Well, these voices somehow have failed to resonate with me. Over at PPO, I find different sorts of biographies. An “MRI Technologist” and has “been working in the healthcare industry for 14 years.” The second was only listed as a ‘coach’, who was unaffiliated. This was followed by a stay at home mom and a student.

So, what is it that makes PPO work for me? I offered comments to Jon about this, which I thought I would share here.

First, as far as I know, PPO invites citizen journalists to write about something they are interested in, that touches their daily life. You don't have to give specific writing assignments, just give them the framework. I know that one of the problems people working on citizen journalism have run into is not finding people who are interested in what the site is about. Perhaps some of that stems from the lack of a useful framework to operate in.

Once you have people that are interested, you have to teach them the basics. I touched on this a little bit back in 2005 when I wrote about The Video Divide. Giving people the technology to shoot and distribute video, or even simply to share a story isn’t enough. I think PPO does a great job of this in their Message for Exeter Residents.

With citizen journalists willing to work within a specific framework and armed not only with the technological tools but with the basic journalist tools, the final thing to do is to get out of the way and watch what emerges. PPO is moderated, but the only criteria is civility and facts. There isn’t an editorial effort to fit the stories to some narrative, instead there is an effort to watch to see what sort of narratives emerge.

In an email to me, Jon says his gut is telling him that he is building some sort of infrastructure. It isn’t only a technological infrastructure, a platform for doing this sort of news gathering, but it is also about building habits of citizens to look at the facts and present them civilly and from a personal perspective. Where will it lead after the primary? It is hard to tell. But, it seems to me that anyone who is seriously interested in citizen journalism should pay very close attention to the Primary Place.