When fire destroyed a historic building in Brattleboro, Vt., in the wee hours of Saturday, the local daily newspaper had already been put to bed. But by dawn, local residents had posted photos and their own stories about the blaze on iBrattleboro.com, a local Web site where anyone can write the news.
Residents in the town of 12,000 spent the weekend using the site to publicly discuss ways to help the 11 people who had been hurt or displaced -- and even look for lost cats.
"It served its purpose," said site co-creator Christopher Grotke. "For many people, it was the only place to find any news throughout the day."
One-year-old iBrattleboro.com is at the vanguard of the latest wave of Web publishers trying to build audiences by delivering local news. What's different about their efforts from those in the past is that they are relying on a new ally: local residents.
Several notable ventures have launched or raised money this year to create local news sites online in which readers contribute all or most of the news. The big idea is that citizen-generated content lowers costs and creates more loyal audiences.
The Brattleboro site hasn't sold many ads yet -- Grotke says it's still mostly a labor of love, though he hopes it might turn a profit one day.
Others are bullish on the business prospects for citizen journalism. Advocates say do-it-yourself Web news supported by advertising is more viable today than in the 1990s -- back when Microsoft shuttered its Sidewalk network of entertainment guides and the rival CitySearch network went deeply into the red. That's because more people are online, and they're using faster connections and growing increasingly comfortable posting their thoughts via forums, blogs and other formats. The dream of local Web entrepreneurs is to reel in a new generation of hyper-local advertisers -- those dry cleaners and car washes that rarely advertise in big, daily newspapers.
"The business strategy is if we can get a critical mass of very local content and a local audience, then we can target ads better than we ever could down to a town level," said Jeff Jarvis, president of Advance.net, the Internet arm of Advance Publications.
Jarvis said his firm, which owns a string of community newspapers and Web sites, is preparing to launch citizen-journalist Web sites in six towns in Oregon, New Jersey and Massachusetts. The sites will essentially be town blogs, in which postings from different residents will be grouped together and presented in a newsy format.
One intriguing experiment started in May when the Bakersfield Californian, a daily newspaper with a circulation of about 65,000, launched a community Web site called the Northwest Voice (www.northwestvoice.com). The site has no paid writers except for a lone editor. It employs only four people full-time, gets most of its content from readers, and -- in a twist that delights ink-stained wretches like me -- publishes a print version with highlights culled from the Web every two weeks. Each print issue is distributed free to the 21,700 homes in northwest Bakersfield, about 115 miles north of Los Angeles.