Anatomy of a Shutdown | MIT Center for Civic Media
The blog headline read, "What Works". How ironic. It was published the day a community website I was involved with bit the dust after five-plus years.
The blog, written by Jan Schaffer, a respected journalism leader and a new media pioneer, summarized a report on the status of community news websites funded by J-Lab between 2005 and now.
Rye Reflections began in June, 2005. We had no funding, nor did we seek any, nor did we need any, other than the cost to register our name. Each year staff members kicked in $10. Essentially it was used for glossy copies of our front page that we posted around town each month and for an annual party.
The closing raised some eyebrows. The site had a loyal local following and was getting some national attention as a model. Then poof. Was it a success or a failure?
The fact that we called it quits after 64 issues would suggest we failed. However, based on feedback and our highest number of page views ever at closure (13,000 a month, according to Google Analytics), we were a successful failure in a community of 5200 residents year-round with another few thousand in the summer.
We did what our name suggested, reflecting on the most vital aspects of a small seacoast town that is a gem with imperfections. But we couldn't sustain the all-volunteer effort.
Along the way we had some proud moments: Deft writing by Polly Morton, who had at least one article an edition before passing away in November, 2008, at age 99; all-out coverage of several major storms; in depth articles about four major housing developments and a dogs-on-the-beach controversy, an investigation of excessive non-public meetings, periodic profiles of members of the greatest generation, etc. Popular recipes, some quite special poetry and carefully selected "calendar" recommendations added substance. We also published first-rate photography, capped in the last issue by a full-page display on a Blue Angels exhibition. And we created a satire feature with a simple but apt name: "Wry".
Formation of six Blue Angels planes passing with smoke on. (Jim Cerny photo – 1/800, f/7.1 ISO 200)
It was heartening when we were voted a "Notable Website" by J-Lab in 2007 and one of 60 "superior" US sites in a 2010 University of Missouri "State of the New Media" study.
The Why in Rye
So why discontinue publication? The reasons were spelled out in a story I wrote in the September edition, our last. They boiled down to an aging staff (half of the core group of 16 being over 75), failing health of some and inability of others to absorb the responsibility and time commitment required, mostly due to other activities they were involved in.
There was no smoking gun in Rye. I can't recall even one sharp exchange of words at any of the 250 or so weekly meetings. Indeed, the group has had four meetings since ceasing publication and is planning monthly brown-bag lunches. Clearly the activity was a social success.
It could be argued that we should have solicited advertising, that we should have joined forces with a local newspaper or other website, that we should have have been more aggressive in our recruiting, that we should have lowered our standards, etc.
We did make some major adjustments along the way. A visual change occurred in February, 2006, when we went from a page width of about 1000 pixels to one of 750 pixels. We got crucial volunteer assistance from a computer designer in a neighboring community who works full-time. She continued helping us out of jams right up until we put together an Archive edition that now is accessible at our original URL, www.ryereflections.org.
(Interestingly, in announcing our redesign, the following paragraph appeared in our story: " … we would welcome more participation from Seacoast area residents who like to write, take photographs, edit, handle technical aspects or just provide input based on their knowledge of the area. The SilverSurfers meet every Thursday at 1 p.m. at the Rye Public Library. Come and see how you like it." The same essential message appeared every few months on the Front Page or in our highest read news-notes column, "Rye Crisp". We got no new takers.)
In mid-2007 three men wandered into our weekly meeting in the Rye Public Library, two from the abutting town of New Castle (even smaller than Rye with a population of just over 1000) and one from the abutting city of Portsmouth. All three became productive staff writers, one also became our premier photographer and brought technical skills as well. Their presence reinforced a change in direction that we had been moving toward: Focusing on the seacoast region, not just Rye, given the dependencies on one another of four other coastal communities: New Castle, Portsmouth, North Hampton and Hampton.
The major change, that goes to the heart of this article, occurred a year ago when we gave up the ghost in trying to be a monthly news magazine and became a magazine. We continued two well-read news-notes columns, called "Rye Crisp" and "New Castle Saltines", but no longer covered meetings and news events.
Reporting is hard work. It takes more time, effort and passion, even without expertise, than most citizen journalists are willing to devote. Schaffer acknowledged this point in her recent blog, when she wrote: "Ordinary citizens, armed with good intentions, are just too busy."
In the early going there were signs that the local daily newspaper, the Portsmouth Herald, would either cut back drastically or eliminate beat coverage in Rye. Staff reductions were forcing retrenchment. We felt an obligation to fill the void.
But we were kidding ourselves. It turned out no one really wanted to cover meetings, so for four years I tried to attend as many meetings of the Selectmen, the Planning Board and the Zoning Board as I could. Certain major issues from other boards tended to make their way up to the Board of Selectmen level, such as those that emanated from the Conservation Commission and Budget Committee, so I had a sense of what was going on. But one person, even with experience, cannot cover a town adequately while also being an editor and a pseudo-technician.
Much to my chagrin we never covered School Committee meetings. At one point a staff member asked me to train him to cover meetings. He was conscientious, taping entire sessions of two Selectmen's meetings, then trying to recapture the high points for a story when he got home. That's no easy task. Unfortunately he became seriously ill and had to abandon his initiative.
It became clear that no one would go to the night School Committee meetings. And in volunteer organizations there is no such thing as assigning a staffer to a particular story or beat. I compromised and asked if someone would at least concentrate on school stories. One woman volunteered with enthusiasm but soon thereafter had health issues and other commitments, forcing her to step aside. I recruited another woman when she retired from work. She too was fired up, but then a daughter returned from living out of state with her husband and two young children. Guess who was drafted for babysitting and daytime chauffering of the children?
Service vs. Profit
These are realities in any town or city, but the pool of potential citizen journalists in a small town is limited. Parents who work have their hands full. Volunteerism in Rye at all ages is one of the strengths of the community but draws away some of those best suited for work on a community website. One of our staff members, Jim Cerny, also wonders whether social networking will satisfy the communication needs of many and thus cut into the potential citizen-journalist pool. So, putting blogging aside, citizen journalism generally is taken on by retirees who have much to offer but are independent and shy away from the sustained effort required of news reporters.
In the five years that Rye Reflections functioned, we never had a problem dredging up enough stories. Generating 18-20 stories a month was quite doable (I have seen other sites desperately scraping up stories the few days before publication; that never happened to us). So the question is not whether citizen journalists can generate good stories of interest to a community. The question is whether citizen groups can fill the void left by the cutbacks in professional newsrooms. I doubt it.
Some day the public will come to realize the extraordinary service provided in the 20th Century by publishing families, who, for the most part, were public-service oriented, not profit driven.
I worked for two publishers, a father and son, in one of those families for 40 years. They cared.
But creeping corporatization of newspapers in particular over the last 25 years has changed the ethos. Budget directors in effect are editing newspapers.
Volunteer community websites can actually enhance the quality of life by coverage of activities and people that otherwise may have been overlooked by the "old media". But citizen journalists are not equipped to cover the depth and breadth of news that their fellow citizens need to know and have the right to know.
Who is covering the courts, the state, local and county agencies? Who will cover major issues such as health, religion, science, business, etc.?
Having worked with numerous community groups the last 15 years, I am impressed by the citizen journalists' public-service commitment. They have added a dimension to grassroots coverage. But they are not equipped to fill the void caused by corporate cutbacks.
(Jack Driscoll was Editor of the Boston Globe prior to becoming involved with citizen journalism as editor-in-residence of the MIT Media Lab. He is the author of "Couch Potatoes Sprout: The Rise of Online Community Journalism". The book was dedicated to "reporters of every variety. Their role is more vital to democracy than ever.")