Wanted: Citizen Journalists PDF Print E-mail
Community News - Community News
Written by Richard Kerns   
Wednesday, 03 September 2008 20:46

FROSTBURG – While the idea of an online newspaper serving Mountain Maryland and its sister-state environs is radical in itself, even more revolutionary is the concept at the heart of the Appalachian Independent: The citizen journalist.

 

Meeting over the past year, a dozen area residents sketched out the scope of the enterprise that would become AppIndie.org. Frustrated by the failure of local print media to both hold public officials accountable and celebrate life in these mountains, the group sought to engage, inform and empower area residents through development of an independent, vigorous press.

 

Modern technology facilitated the endeavor, the Internet making possible a bi-weekly publication unburdened by the limitations and expense of a traditional newspaper. We kill no trees, nor do we pay for their transformation into newsprint or require fossil-fueled doorstep delivery.

 

All of the labor is volunteer.

 

In the finest, altruistic spirit of the Web, even the platform upon which the Appalachian Independent rests is virtually expense-free. The Joomla! “content management system” utilized for the publication is provided as Open Source software, developed and distributed by techies who devote their considerable talents to fostering efforts such as ours, in the belief that a free press, and freedom of speech, make the world a better place. One community at a time.

 

Still, the human element remains indispensable. Just as no newspaper can exist without reporters, the Appalachian Independent will live or die by its volunteer contributors.

 

The debut issue is largely the product of that core group, but for this grand experiment to succeed, AppIndie will require news recruits in the form of citizen journalists. Sort of like neighborhood reporters.

 

The concept of citizen journalists is relatively new, its growth made possible by the technological advances of the past decade. From camera-phone wielding just-plain-folks who catch news in the making, to bloggers and YouTube “correspondents,” new-century America is undergoing a transformation in news gathering and reporting.

 

And it’s not just in the big cities. It’s Frostburg. Cumberland. Lonaconing. Westernport. Oakland. Deer Park. Wellersburg. Elk Garden. Ocean. Flintstone. Bloomington. National. Klondike. Finzel. All the hills and dales and peopled-clusters in between. You got news, AppIndie wants to share it.

 

Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University – which administers the $17,000 grant that gave life to AppIndie – spoke in an interview of “citizen media makers” who focus on issues in their community “that they know about and care about.” While traditional journalism is rooted in a rigid standard of objective reporting, citizen reporters at interactive publications like AppIndie often bring a personal perspective to their reporting.

 

“The community knows where they’re coming from, they’re trusted,” she said of online contributors. “People want them to write from their perspective.”

 

Most issues will be non-controversial, but when a subject arises with an alternative viewpoint, citizen journalists don’t necessarily have to reach out to “the other side.” Opponents can register their opinions by clicking on a link at the end of each story where comments, pro and con and in between, are recorded for all to read. “You get a conversation going on,” Schaffer said. “It’s different than the classic style of news and information.”

 

(The end-of-story post for AppIndie articles is still under development. In the meantime, email addresses are provided for each article’s writer.)

 

If a citizen journalist files a piece that strays too far from news, too, into personal opinion, it will likely be treated as a letter to the editor and featured in the “AppEd” opinion section. “We’ll work with citizen reporters,” said Managing Editor Craig Etchison. “If a submission falls short of our standards, we’ll let you know why and offer suggestions as to how a report can be modified to meet the guidelines. We’re new at this too, so we will be flexible in dealing with people who submit articles.”

 

To help develop a cadre of citizen journalists, AppIndie staff will conduct occasional workshops on writing and reporting. If you’re interested in attending such a workshop, email Etchison at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or Kurt Hoffman at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

Much of the information provided at the workshops will be based on training modules developed by the Knight Citizen News Network, an organization dedicated to “helping citizens and journalists amplify community news.” One module, available online at www.kcnn.org, outlines “10 Steps to Citizen Journalism Online.”

 

“We all have news and stories to tell, but the Internet lets us tell our stories to the world,” the Knight Web site states. “If you want to tell something important to others, this guide will help you … (it) tells you how to gather information and how to tell it  – and tell it accurately.”

While no one at AppIndie is paid a salary, the startup grant provided through the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation allows the Appalachian Independent to provide stipends of up to $25 per accepted news story to offset travel expenses and provide minimal compensation for the effort involved in producing news stories.

 

Obviously, you won’t get rich writing for AppIndie, but that’s not what it’s about. The Appalachian Independent is about telling the tales of our times, sharing the good news, and reporting the challenges we face as a community.

 

Asked what her message would be to aspiring citizen journalists considering joining the AppIndie team, Schaffer encouraged area residents to get involved. “You are your own experts about the community, what’s going on and what’s important to people,” she said. “You shouldn’t be shy about sharing your knowledge.”

Last Updated on Sunday, 07 September 2008 02:40
 
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