"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 (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.
"I've spoken to a lot of teachers who are really into it," Rhodes said. "But a lot of them hate it, too."
Citizen reporting is still in its infancy, but it's already changing notions of news and news gathering. Bloggers at the 2004 U.S. presidential nominating conventions helped provide different perspectives on the campaigns. Commuters in London this month provided the world with photos of the terrorist bombings' aftermath from their video cell phones.
Articles in support of Roh Moo Hyun on the South Korean Web site OhMyNews are credited with helping him win the presidency. The Web site, which is often cited as a model for citizen journalism, claims tens of thousands of contributors.
"There is an increasing appetite among ordinary people to participate in the news," said Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland-College Park, which has been tracking citizen media projects.
For many people, putting out a news publication is "an alien process," said Jonathan Weber, the founder of New West, who rose to fame in the dot-com era as the editor of the Industry Standard technology magazine. "They don't feel a part of it. They don't feel like they can impact it and therefore they don't trust it. So I think we are trying to create a different kind of conversation: Get in here and be a part of it," Weber said.
Your Mom is the brainchild of a group of graduate students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Rhodes, a native of Newton, Mass., and a master's degree candidate, was part of a class that had to come up with a plan for a new media product. The name came from a late-night brainstorming session.
When a fellow student threw out the idea of Your Mom, "we started laughing so hard," Rhodes said. "It was unexpectedly clever," she said, connoting rebellion against established authority figures like, say, your mom.
In the spring of 2004, they presented their proposal to the Quad-City Times, and the newspaper executives decided within days to invest. Today the Your Mom Web site (www.yourmomonline.com) has about 1,200 unique visitors each week. In addition, 9,000 free copies of the 16-page, 61/2-by-11-inch newspaper -- designed to sit comfortably in a back pocket -- are distributed at schools, malls, pizza shops and pools throughout the region. The Quad-City Times invested $80,000 in Your Mom for start-up costs, and it operates on a $18,000-a-month budget.
While Your Mom lost money its first year, Quad-City executives said they expect to turn a profit in the coming fiscal year.
Many of Your Mom's contributors heard about the venture through word of mouth, and only a handful have any experience in journalism. As a result, many articles in Your Mom read more like opinion pieces and stream of consciousness, which teens say adds to the fun.
One teen bragged about how in past years she "enjoyed being able to turn off the news whenever it turned to politics" -- including reports on the "war on terrorism" -- because she was under 18 and not eligible to vote. A summary of current events noted the launch of a Catholic radio station in a nearby town in the context of the recent scandals involving Catholic priests and child molestation. "And so: Catholic schoolboys can listen to sermons from a safe distance." The publication also noted that the U.S. Navy had recently updated its dress code to make skirts optional, not mandatory, for women. "Navy men are protesting. The only problem they had with the skirts was that they were too long."
Sarah Bush, 18, who was on her school's dance team and choir and will enroll in Drake University this fall, was one of two reporters sent to attend three Christian youth group meetings and review them. She was the so-called "good girl," a conservative Christian. Her co-author, a gay student who said he feels ostracized because he is atheist and because of his sexual orientation, called himself the "bad girl."
Bush reported that one group focused too much on socializing -- at one point the leader swallowed a goldfish whole because the group had reached its goal of 80 people attending. "I didn't feel much 'God' in that portion," Bush wrote.
At times the teenagers' strong opinions on controversial topics have been criticized. One article written by Chiappinelli that ran in December's "Christian Cool" issue caused a furor. He wrote that "faith-based organizations" have "brainwashed my generation into thinking that it's okay to follow only the Bible, even though in America you shouldn't force your morality on others." He added: "Stop with the whole 'the Bible says' stuff."
Among the most popular features of Your Mom is that it allows readers to post comments in real-time, providing a forum for teens to vent about issues affecting their lives. The "Christian Cool" article spurred discussion about conservative youth in America, and the article claiming that overweight girls are unattractive led to a long debate about eating disorders and body image.
Michael Phelps, the Quad-City Times publisher, said Your Mom's unpredictable nature is what makes it appealing. "I never know what I'm going to find on the site." Without the controversy, he said, Your Mom would not be as successful: "I know if I'm not getting any complaints from parents we're not doing things right."