Watertown provides a case study of citizen journalism on the web

Watertown provides a case study of citizen journalism on the web

Citizen journalist Lisa Williams wants to add to,
not replace, the media mainstream.

On an early-October evening at Watertown High School, Lisa Williams is in full schmooze mode. Williams, a 35-year-old mother of two, is the force behind H2otown, a weblog that combines news, photos, quirky commentary, and, above all, a running conversation about the place where she’s lived for the past decade. Tonight’s occasion is the opening of a new cable-television studio for the Watertown Community Access Center.

Wearing jeans, a black T-shirt, and a baseball cap emblazoned with a coffee cup and the inscription “Life Is Good,” Williams shoots the breeze with Peter Zawadzki, the executive director of the center. She pulls out her digital camera and takes a picture of an electronics-laden room that may one day house a low-power, nonprofit radio station. (“I like anything with buttons,” she quips.) Town council president Pam Piantedosi, who, a month later, would lose her reelection bid, effusively greets Williams as “the H2otown lady.” They discuss the relative merits of Irish and Italian food, with Williams concluding, “Everything is an offshoot of dinner as far as I’m concerned.” After Williams rides her bicycle home, she’ll post some observations and photos, including one of a big plate of brownies that had been set out on the goodies table.

H2otown (www.h2otown.info), launched in February 2005, hardly looks like it’s at the heart of a revolution. And the self-effacing Williams, who readily jokes about covering town council meetings by recording them on TiVo and watching them after her kids have gone to bed, is an unlikely revolutionary. Yet H2otown has emerged as a nationally recognized example of a nascent movement known as citizen journalism. Definitions vary. At root, though, citizen journalism melds cheap, easy-to-use Internet technology with the energy of community activism to create an independent alternative to the established media.

Most citizen journalists, including Williams, do not have a background in journalism and are not paid for their labors. But at a moment when the twin pressures of corporate consolidation and a shrinking advertising base are forcing newspaper companies to eliminate jobs and skimp on coverage, sites such as H2otown could emerge as an indispensable community resource.

“I don’t see H2otown as a newspaper, but it’s important to me that it add up to something,” Williams says in an interview at a local Starbucks, one of her regular blogging hangouts. “I’m not a professionally trained journalist. My coverage is limited by my babysitting coverage. I’m perfectly willing to be humble about that. But volunteer media is a heck of a lot better than no media. I’m angry at the economic realities of media consolidation. This is an extremely widespread problem.”

‘Volunteer media is a heck of a lot better than no media.’

So what is H2otown? The answer is that it’s community, it’s conversation, and — yes — it’s journalism, even if it’s not the sort to which we’re accustomed. Posts from late November and early December included a Google map of Watertown restaurants, a couple of updates on recounts that were still taking place following the November 8 town election, an announcement about the annual winter parking ban, and lots of links: to the site of a local blogger whose grandmother was celebrating her 100th birthday; to a photo of a vintage Watertown fire truck being sold on eBay; to a new blog-based newspaper started at the middle school; to a Boston Business Journal profile of a local tire magnate; even to something called the Pencil Olympics. “H2otown finally has a shot at the gold!” wrote Williams in the third-person/first-person style that’s typical among bloggers. “She’s flexing her fingers now. Is blogging an Olympic event yet?”

Several months ago Williams was a guest on Christopher Lydon’s public-radio program, Open Source (heard locally on WGBH, 89.7 FM, and WUML, 91.5 FM), which often looks at how the Internet is being used to empower ordinary people. “ Lisa is a sort of open-source ideal,” says Lydon via e-mail. “For me she’s an embodiment of hyper-local journalism and in that sense a perfect match for the Internet zeitgeist. There’s so much funny, generous connectivity in Lisa. She’d be a star in any world. In ours, she’s demonstrating how electronic links can remake the village and then, who knows, the country.”

DO-IT-YOURSELF JOURNALISM

If citizen journalism has an intellectual godfather, it is Dan Gillmor, a former San Jose Mercury News technology reporter whose 2004 book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People is something of a manifesto. “What it’s about in the most fundamental sense is replacing the old idea that news is a lecture with the emerging and, I think, accurate idea that news is something like a conversation or seminar or combination of those two,” Gillmor says in an interview. “What we know collectively is vastly more than any one individual or any one organization.”

It’s a philosophy that animates H2otown. Though Lisa Williams’s voice is clearly predominant, she allows people to comment on posts and she often links to other bloggers, some of whom have taken up residence on H2otown. (Among her newer contributors: the aforementioned Pam Piantedosi.) It’s this model of interconnectedness that gives citizen journalism the potential for considerable reach and depth.

A former technology consultant and analyst who took up blogging as an escape from 24/7 motherhood, Williams points to two very different models: Universal Hub (www.universalhub.com), which tracks and publishes highlights from hundreds of Boston area blogs, and Baristanet (www.baristanet.com), which covers part of Essex County, New Jersey.

Universal Hub blogger Adam Gaffin says,
“You don’t have to be a geek anymore.”

Coming up with an accurate number of citizen-journalism sites is difficult — impossible, says Dan Gillmor — but Adam Gaffin, who runs both Universal Hub and Boston Online (www.boston-online.com), estimates there are about a dozen in Greater Boston. A couple of the better-established ones: Live from Arlington (www.livefromarlington.com) and the Cambridge Civic Journal (www.rwinters.com).

“You don’t have to be a geek anymore to do this stuff. That is actually a critical thing,” says Gaffin, a Web professional and former community-newspaper reporter who writes a best-of-the-blogs column for the Boston Globe’s City Weekly section. “People were putting out mimeographed stuff and alternative papers 30 years ago. The concept is not much different. It’s just that you can reach a potentially much larger audience for very little money.”

Though unpaid, passionate amateurs such as Williams are the current paradigm for citizen journalism, that could change. Take, for instance, Baristanet, Williams’s other favorite site. Debbie Galant started it in May 2004 after The New York Times discontinued the freelance column she’d been writing for one of the Sunday suburban sections. Galant says it never occurred to her not to try to turn Baristanet into a viable business. Thanks to advertising, Baristanet now pays Galant and each of her two staff members $1,000 a month — a number they would like to see rise as Baristanet continues to grow.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out a way that we can make money as writers and not have to work too hard. I don’t think we have the high-mindedness that somebody like Lisa Williams has,” Galant says, laughing.

High-minded though Williams may be, she wouldn’t mind finding a way to make H2otown pay something more than the income she now receives from Google Ads, which cover the costs of hosting the site and of making trips to Starbucks. If nothing else, a self-sustaining model would enable H2otown to survive well into the future. It’s an important consideration, given the economic pressures with which the mainstream media now find themselves contending.

MEDIA OLD AND NEW

Watertown’s media experience is typical of what has happened across the state and the nation. A densely packed suburb with a population of about 33,000, the town at one time was the home of two competing weekly newspapers, the locally owned Sun and the Press, which was part of a small regional group. During the 1990s, both papers were acquired by Fidelity Capital as it was building Community Newspaper Co. (CNC), which now comprises more than 100 papers, most of them weeklies, in eastern Massachusetts. In 1997 CNC combined the two papers into one weekly, the Watertown Tab & Press. Today CNC is owned by Herald Media, the parent company of the Boston Herald. And the vast majority of the Tab’s news coverage is written by the paper’s one staff reporter.

Among those lamenting these developments is Bill Oates, a veteran Watertown community leader currently serving on the school committee. “When you would read the stories, you would get the context,” he says of the Sun and the Press. In contrast, he says, reporters at the Tab tend to be young and unfamiliar with Watertown — and they quickly move on. “I think a lot of them do a nice job, but they never get the depth of understanding,” Oates says.

Yet perusing the pages of the Tab , it becomes clear that, even with just one reporter, the paper covers Watertown reasonably well, and that it’s not about to be supplanted by H2otown anytime soon. For one thing, the Tab reaches more people. According to Herald Media, the paper’s audited paid circulation is about 3,800, a number that makes it Watertown’s news source of record. (The Tab and H2otown compete more or less evenly online, however. The Tab’s Web site, WatertownTab.com, attracted about 24,000 visits in October, says Herald Interactive executive vice president Erin Purcell Gallo. That amounts to a rough average of 800 a day. H2otown, according to Williams, receives about 1,000 “page views” per day, which, she estimates, translates to about 750 or 800 visits; the site also has about 100 registered users.)

Though H2otown sometimes provides more background than the Tab & Press, original reporting is practically nonexistent.

In addition, the missions of a weekly newspaper and of a citizen journalism blog are very different. H2otown is conversational, even humorous, in tone, with lots of little items about local businesses, restaurant reviews written by readers, and announcements of upcoming events. Since its only organizational scheme is chronological, it lacks coherence; there’s no reliable way to tell what’s important and what isn’t. And though H2otown will sometimes provide more background on an important issue than the Tab & Press can — long quotes from participants at town council meetings would be one example; running commentary on a months-long controversy over plans to build a new police station, complete with links to the architectural firms involved, would be another — tough, original reporting is practically nonexistent.

“Citizen blogs add a great deal to the dialogue. But papers like ours contribute many things that most of these sites never will,” Greg Reibman, editor in chief of CNC’s Metro Unit, says by e-mail. Among those things, in Reibman’s view: aggressive reporting of crime news “that the police aren’t always eager to disclose,” covering “dull meetings,” and holding local officials accountable when they violate the state’s Open Meeting Law.

Watertown Tab reporter Dan Atkinson (he has since moved on to CNC’s Newton Tab) says of H2otown, “It’s a good site because it gives news, but it’s also a little playful in tone, which a newspaper can’t be. By not being playful, I would I hope give a little bit of a sense of authority and impartiality, which is another tick in our favor to get people to talk to us.”

Indeed, even enthusiastic proponents of citizen media argue that such efforts are no substitute for professional journalism. “A newspaper speaks with a single corporate voice, and it may — this isn’t actually guaranteed — aspire to standards of professionalism in journalism that blogs may not actually subscribe to,” says Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. “I don’t think those things are quaint, even though newspapers themselves may not respect them as much as they should.”

Adds Steve Outing, an outspoken advocate of citizen journalism who’s a senior editor for the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Florida: “This is really something that you can add on top of the traditional journalism model, and, at least in theory, [combine the two into] something better. I certainly hope that no professional journalists lose their jobs over this, and I don’t think citizen journalism replaces it in every way. I think that would be a bad thing.”

‘I WANT TO PLAY, TOO.’

At its best, H2otown demonstrates a fine eye for Watertown as “ a comic opera with real estate taxes,” as Williams wrote in an essay for PressThink.org, the online home of New York University journalism professor and citizen journalism proponent Jay Rosen. Williams’s observations are often flip and breezy in a way that she acknowledges wouldn’t pass muster in print. To wit:

  • “It’s bad, people: H2otown has got the Town Clerk’s office programmed into her cell phone’s speed dial, waiting for news on the District A recount.”
  • “Today is Veteran’s Day. Be sure to hug a veteran! No veterans nearby to put the squeeze on? How about writing your congresscritter to oppose the $600 million cut in Veterans Administration benefits proposed by the House leadership.”
  • “ My word! H2otown has become…The Media! H2otown is reeling with the idea that this newfound role might involve free parking, a free donut, or perhaps even a free junket to West Watertown!”

A self-described newspaper junkie who, as a child growing up in Woburn, considered becoming a journalist in order to impress her mother, Williams sees H2otown as providing a supplement to the mainstream media, not a substitute. As unhappy as she is over cuts and consolidation in the newspaper business, her attitude is very different from that of what might be called the blog triumphalists — the critics who gleefully predict that millions of laptop-wielding, pajama-clad (to invoke a memorable if clueless putdown once invoked by CNN president Jonathan Klein) amateurs will soon kill off the mainstream media once and for all, good riddance, thank you very much.

“I think there’s a fake, marketed genre of stories about how bad the media is,” she says. “And, in part, that created an appetite for stories about alternatives to the media. I enjoy newspapers. It’s a uniquely interesting profession. I definitely don’t want newspapers to go away. I want to play, too. I want to help. I want to do the kinds of things that newspapers have traditionally done to promote social cohesion.”

Williams likes to cite Bowling Alone, the classic book by Robert Putnam that charts our cultural regression from bowling leagues, civic associations, and front-porch stoops to television-watching and backyard decks. At their best, citizen journalists like Williams can help provide the cultural glue needed for people to reconnect with each other.

‘I want to do the kinds of things that newspapers have traditionally done to promote social cohesion.’
Meet the Author
The Internet is neutral technology — that is, it can serve to isolate the isolation-minded even more than they already are, or it can be a powerful tool for those looking to rebuild community ties. It’s the latter idea that animates citizen journalism in general and H2otown in particular. It’s no substitute for traditional journalism, but Williams doesn’t want it to be. Rather, it’s a town crier, a connector, a conversation, a bridge between the gentrified “New Watertown” of which Williams is part and the blue-collar “Old Watertown” with which it co-exists. It’s a way for Watertown residents to understand each other better — and perhaps to arrive at a different and better understanding of themselves.

Dan Kennedy is a visiting assistant professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. His weblog, Media Nation, is online at medianation.blogspot.com. Send tips about innovative ways by which media are connecting with their communities to da.kennedy@neu.edu.