Citizens, Alert; Orange Alert

by Paul Bass | August 25, 2006 1:39 PM | | Comments (1)

You might think this guy is smiling because he just ate a delicious chicken dish at a Thai restaurant. You’d be right. He’s also excited about the the way he’s turning citizens into journalists.

His name is Geoff Dougherty. He’s one of three journalists whom the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) invited to speak at a panel Thursday at the group’s annual convention in Chicago’s swanky Hyatt Regency Hotel — three journalists who left conventional print jobs to help develop the new breed of “hyperlocal” “citizen” journalism. Through, for instance, web sites like this one. SPJ wanted to give mainstream reporters a sense of what they could do freed from the shackles of corporate journalism. (They didn’t put it that way, of course.) In all three cases, the panelists have sought to bring professional journalistic standards to the emerging wave of citizen-assisted or -driven news-gathering that returns power and voice to the grassroots.

Geoff Dougherty, for instance, left a job as investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune to launch a site called Chi-Town Daily News. Before the Tribune, he headed an investigative team at the Miami Herald that reviewed all those contested ballots in the 2000 presidential election. (Yep, he confirmed over lunch at the Thai joint, Florida did vote for Gore.) In the process of building databases for that project, he learned about writing computer code. He got good at it. On his site, he has designed a way for citizens to continually feed him photos of life in Chicago, photos which then automatically appear on rotation on the home page and in a gallery, via flickr. In addition to publishing professionally reported news stories, Dougherty has neighborhood and sports bloggers. He also publishes podcasts of local band performances and produces a weekly “beer-fueled blast of opinion on the Cubs, Bears, White Sox and Bulls” podcast. The bloggers do their shtick in front of a homemade wall display of baseball cards; a dog occasionally passes in front of the camera.

“This is not the CBS Evening News,” Dougherty said. “We don’t want to be the CBS Evening News.”

Jan Schaffer of Maryland’s J-Lab organized the panel and moderated it. Her organization gives grants to citizen journalism projects, some of them quite innovative, all around the country. Some of her favorite new-breed local news sites are Madison Commons, ibrattleboro, Coastsider, Bluffton Today, Westport Now, and, of course, everyone’s sinful pleasure, this web site’s original inspiration, Baristanet.

Ethan Michaeli left an investigative reporting job with a newspaper to start We The People Media, which publishes a news magazine and web site written and edited by public-housing project and low-income housing tenants in Chicago. The Residents’ Journal is awesome — filled with well written and edited accounts of life in Chicago, sophisticated political reporting, exposes about police brutality and (hold your breath) housing authority mismanagement and corruption. In addition to hiring full-time adult staffers, Michaeli gets grants to train kids to become reporters.

His top editors, Beauty Turner and Mary C. Johns, took time from their regular beat to cover and participate in the SPJ/J-Lab session.

Downstairs from the panel, the booths in the exhibition hall included a ghost from the kill-grassroots-journalism era: Accuracy in Media (AIM). They had these bumper stickers on display. The group sprung up in the ’80s to bully mainstream media into letting right-wingers define the parameters of debate, hog the “expert” talking-head and talk-show slots, and drive open-minded independent journalists out of their positions if they exposed the “wrong” stories (like massacres in El Salvador). They won, of course. So why were they still here? Maybe if the citizen journalist wave continues growing, AIM will have more work to do again.

After the SPJ panel, outside the hotel at the airport-shuttle stop for O’Hare, reporters crowded around a man revealing details of a terrible plane crash. It sounded alarming.

It turned out to be a practice session for budding TV reporters. Local anchorman Art Norman coached them on how to file live reports about the pretend event.

 At the airport, another alarm sounded. Authorities proclaimed an “Orange Alert.” The plane headed back to Hartford a little late, but without problems.

(Click here for a day-one report on the SPJ trip.)

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Posted by: lml | August 29, 2006 8:51 AM

It appears that Aim was created about ten years early that stated in your article. Could you please check and let us know when they did start.

"Don Irvine, Chairman, joined AIM in 1974."

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