The following article to appear in the Northfield Entertainment Guide.
Every morning, I wake up, pop my head through my sandwich board and, lifting from the knees, begin walking around town proclaiming the death of journalism as we once knew it and the coming of a mysterious savior who may or may not be me, a burgeoning writer who is working on the Representative Journalism Project in conjunction with the three bloggers of LocallyGrownNorthfield.org.
Naturally, I’ve met with skepticism, including my own. But lately, I haven’t felt alone in my quest to discover a new way of publishing news. That’s because more and more people seem to be curious to find out if the power of the plugged-in masses could be harnessed and used to improve the flow of important information.
For example, Jaci Smith, managing editor of the Northfield News, touched upon the matter in an editorial she wrote on Dec. 5 titled “Sticking to the Plan.” In the editorial, she discussed how Victor Summa, a member of the Northfield Economic Development Authority, posted a comment on LocallyGrownNorthfield.org under a story I wrote about the authority’s participation in a decision to build a new municipal liquor store.
“I found it disturbing that Summa chose to publicly comment about some of the proposals,” Smith wrote. “After all, he’s serving at the pleasure (and on behalf) of the public and that makes his personal opinion somewhat irrelevant, not to mention the fact that the city’s clear intent was for the process—at this point—to be private. It seemed to me he violated the intent if not the actual rules of the process.”
At the conclusion of the editorial Smith wrote, “This is about journalism in the new era of the Internet and blogs and online comments to news stories, and when—or if—speculation does more harm than good, so I’d respectfully ask the commentary focus on that.”
Perhaps too predictably, most of the many comments below Smith’s story had to do with Summa and not “journalism in the new era.” I have had many similar experiences in calling out to the general public for specific input on LocallyGrownNorthfield and getting either no reply, or answers beyond the scope of the information I could use to help me write a news story.
In the case of Smith’s calling out, the act seems almost contrary to the sentence she wrote about the irrelevance of the personal opinion of a public official. Or, maybe it simply indicates that there is a time and place for public input: It’s appropriate for readers to write opinions below a professionally written piece, as long as… well, what? As long as the reader is not a public official expressing personal thoughts on a municipal matter? As long as people express themselves in a way that exhibits common courtesy? What are the rules, do we need more of them, and if they existed, could online conversations really be more fun and productive?
As I see it, there are some people who look at the information flowing on the Internet with an air of Manifest Destiny. It is an untapped resource that, with the right mechanism, can be used in a good and powerful way. Other people see it more as a plague, an unstoppable flood of information where good is inextricably tied with bad. I think it’s a little bit of both, and in either case, no one has figured out what to do.
Still, many people continue to try. Mid-January, Jane McWilliams of the Northfield Citizens Online group, which governs Northfield.org, brought together some of the major providers of information in the city.
Those people included Sam Gett, publisher of the Northfield News; Griff Wigley, founder of Locally Grown Northfield; Doug Bratland board member of Northfield.org; Jeff Johnson, owner of KYMN radio; Rob Shanilec, publisher of the Northfield Entertainment Guide; Brendon Etter an independent blogger; and Paul Hager, director of NTV.
Each of the panel speakers took a few minutes to explain themselves and the audience of perhaps 20 people (including the bar tenders) asked a few questions afterward. I’m not sure if anyone drew any grand conclusions as a result of the meeting. It was clear that each of the panelists had varying levels of success filling a particular niche, but no one entity appealed to an exceptionally larger group than the others.
Should we just leave it at that? Or is there a way to build a large, diverse community around the exchange of information? What would it take to ensure that the information exchange deepened true understanding about important issues? Perhaps a journalist, a strategically located professional journalist, like me, could help find a way. But should we keep aspiring to retro-fit a newspaper or a blog? Or should we really look at all the new tools we have and use them to build something completely new? There’s still plenty of space on my sandwich board for creative scribbling.