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On Local Sites, Everyone's A Journalist

"One of our business goals was to grow our reach among small and medium-sized businesses in the community who could not afford to be in the daily newspaper or preferred not to be," said Mary Lou Fulton, publisher of the Northwest Voice (and a former editor of washingtonpost.com). "In a typical edition of Northwest Voice, 40 to 50 percent of our advertisers are new or were infrequent [newspaper] advertisers.' "

Locally, an Internet start-up called Backfence LLC is planning to launch reader-generated news sites in Reston and McLean by April. The plan, according to chief executive Susan DeFife, is to develop eight to 10 community sites in Fairfax and eventually go national, creating similar sites in 16 metropolitan areas within three years. Unlike Advance.net or Northwest Voice, Backfence plans no companion print products and won't be hiring reporters. (The company's co-founder, Mark Potts, is a former Washington Post reporter.)

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If they don't hire reporters, how do citizen journalism Web sites work? Northwest Voice lets registered users submit stuff in specific categories -- news articles, events, photos, letters to the editor and general feedback -- by filling out a form online. The editor screens submissions but does not censor or rewrite them. Non-local stories or articles touting businesses are among the few items the site won't publish.

Northwest Voice gets its revenue mostly from ads in the print edition, which are mirrored on the Web site. The venture is hovering around breaking even, Fulton said.

Other local media companies are watching Bakersfield closely.

Advance.net, for example, is moving into citizen-journalism in stages. The company already offers readers in a few towns space to post journals or blogs online, and its local Web sites aggressively link to independent blogs in communities where it owns newspapers. Coming soon in six trial markets, said Jarvis, will be group-publishing software similar to Bakersfield's that lets readers post articles, listings, photos and the like. The software will group what readers submit into a common display area.

Jarvis wants to create a network of online journals so local businesses can negotiate one deal and have their advertisements appear on several sites simultaneously.

"It is not easy now to go out and buy ads to appear on the top 10 blogs in New Jersey or Washington," Jarvis said. "Somebody needs to create that ad model."

Others are testing the grass-roots journalism approach in national and international news. Last month, a community-edited site called WikiNews went live, inviting readers to collaborate on producing a general Internet newscast. Anyone can contribute to WikiNews (www.wikinews.org) by editing a published story or submitting one for public "peer review." But the site is off to a slow start, in part because its peer-review process is cumbersome.

Journalism schools are getting into the act, too. Students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism launched a citizen news site, GoSkokie, in Skokie, Ill., early this year. And last month, the J-Lab Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland announced a $1 million grant program to fund what it calls "micro-local" Web news experiments around the country. Funded by the Knight Foundation, each initial grant will amount to $12,000 and go to nonprofit groups creating community news sites.

Why would communities form their own news sites instead of ceding the turf to media companies? "Many feel they are dissed by mainstream news organizations," said Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab. "They can't get their news published, and they can't afford their [media's] ad rates."

That was the thinking that led Grotke and a partner to start iBrattleboro.com, which so far has attracted 2,100 stories from readers and more than 12,000 comments on those articles and serves an average of 3,000 page-views to readers a day.

"Each day it changes," said Grotke. "Some days it looks leftist, others, religious, still others, very concerned. It focuses on international events some days and is extremely local on others."

Its interests vary. Just like people, no?

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.

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