Do-It-Yourself Journalism Spreads

Hillary Rhodes, editor of Your Mom, promotes the Web site and newspaper for teenagers produced by the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa. She is the only paid regular employee of the enterprise.
Hillary Rhodes, editor of Your Mom, promotes the Web site and newspaper for teenagers produced by the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa. She is the only paid regular employee of the enterprise. (By Axel Larson -- Your Mom)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 17, 2005

DAVENPORT, Iowa -- "Check out Your Mom." "Your Mom is hot." "Your Mom has issues."

Those are the messages Evan Chiappinelli is trying to get across as he haphazardly drives around the area with two of his buddies, flinging promotional T-shirts, pens and fliers out the car windows. Chiappinelli, 18, is a writer-photographer-marketer for Your Mom, a Web site and weekly newspaper for teenagers launched last year by the Quad-City Times, a Lee Enterprises Inc. subsidiary.

Although the endeavor began as a way for a traditional newspaper to reach a younger, Internet-savvy audience and increase profits, it has become an experiment in "citizen journalism," in which people who live in a community get involved in reporting on it. Only one of Your Mom's staffers -- its editor -- is a professional journalist. The other 40 or so people who help put the publication together are all teenagers and all, except for two interns who are paid just above minimum wage, work without pay.

"The most interesting thing is diversity of voices because everyone gets a chance to say what they believe in. You don't have to be hired. You can just write. And it'll get published -- as long as it's grammatically correct," said Zach Sapato, 18, another regular contributor.

The explosion of the Internet over the past decade has allowed anyone with an Internet connection to instantaneously publish whatever he or she wants, fueling the growth of "citizen reporters." Over the past year or so, media companies have been backing citizen journalism efforts like Your Mom in various shapes and sizes across the country. They are creating what some believe to be a more democratic press, but throwing into question what it means to be a journalist and adding a new dimension to debates over fairness, libel, protection of confidential sources and trust in the media.

On one end of the spectrum is Falls Church-based Backfence.com, a venture run by local residents with no editorial guidance from the site's owners that is evolving into a sort of virtual town square. Its hyper-local coverage is available so far in McLean and Reston.

On the other end, there's New West ( http://www.newwest.net/ ), a Web site that specializes in politics and development issues in the Rocky Mountain region. Its goal is to break news in competition with mainstream media, and it contains a mix of content written by experienced journalists and amateurs.

Most others fall somewhere in the middle -- almost exclusively written by citizen reporters but edited for grammar, style and some content. Examples include the Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, Calif., Lawrence.com in Kansas and Your Mom.

While Your Mom runs some teen-oriented stories from the local paper and national news services, stories by the teenagers are the heart of the publication. About half come in unsolicited, i.e., "I saw this thing on TV and felt inspired to write about it." The rest are assigned by Hillary Rhodes, the publication's 25-year-old editor, based on biweekly brainstorming sessions she has with the teens.

They might pop in at a student or city council meeting, but only if they feel like it. Most of the articles are takes on subjects such as Christianity ("undercover" reports about local youth groups from the perspectives of someone who is religious and someone who is not), drugs (how they actually make you feel in addition to how bad they are for you) and body image (an opinion piece by some guys about how fat girls are unattractive).

Your Mom tries to adhere to a PG-13 content policy and erases all profanity, but otherwise lets pieces go through unchallenged, Rhodes said. "I want it to be authentic, to give an accurate idea of who teens are and what teens think," she said.

Many of her contributors say the thing they value most about Your Mom is its rawness, which they say makes it more relevant than a more restrictive school newspaper. More than a few adults, on the other hand, say they could do without so much honesty.


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