By Richard Kerns
FROSTBURG - The lead story of any debut news publication must be the birth of said publication. Thus it is with the Appalachian Independent.
The fruit of a year-long development effort by a core group of a dozen area residents, the AppIndie, as it is known in shorthand, for its .org Web address, seeks to foster grassroots news coverage of Mountain Maryland and its Appalachian environs.
The online paper, to be published every other Wednesday, aims not only to tell our region's stories, but to provide a forum where "citizen journalists" can report on their own communities.
More than just sharing the good, bad and beautiful of the region we call home, AppIndie pursues a higher mission, to foster Web-based discussion as to the nature of the community we the people bequeath to those who follow.
This "dialogue of democracy" is at the heart the Appalachian Independent, as reflected in the publication's mission statement: Citizen journalists giving voice to a diverse Appalachian community.
New Voices Grant
For the first nine months of incubation, AppIndie was but a dream, conjured and shaped over numerous meetings at Main Street Books in Frostburg. Dream took form in the spring of this year when the Appalachian Independent was one of 10 Web-based publications among more than 300 applicants to win a $17,000 startup grant from the New Voices program of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. (Read the news release announcing the grant winners here: www.j-lab.org/nv2008_release.shtml)
Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab - The Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University in Washington, D.C. that administers New Voices - said AppIndie rose to the top of the field on the strength of a proposal that both sought to address a pressing community need, and appeared capable of doing so.
Among the New Voices Advisory Board members who selected the winning entrants were Bill Gannon, Director of Online Production & Programming, Lucasfilm Ltd., Peggy Kuhr, Dean, University of Montana School of Journalism, and Thomas Kunkel, Dean, Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park.
"My advisory board always looks for projects that are hyper-local in nature, with people who know what they want to accomplish," Schaffer said. "Winning projects also seem to be do-able."
Of the 40 startup projects funded in recent years by New Voices, the Appalachian Independent is the first to be based in Maryland. The grant is broken into two phases: $12,000 for first-year operations, and an additional $5,000 available the second year as a match to local funding.
In describing the mission of other projects that have been funded by New Voices, Schaffer said such publications often don't offer standard journalistic fare. "In journalism we go to a meeting and unless someone's fighting, it's not a story. We don't validate consensus, we validate conflict...," she said. "These publications aspire to build community rather than cover community."
The trio responsible for the Appalachian Independent hail from Allegany College of Maryland in Cumberland: Craig Etchison, who just retired as a professor of English, Kurt Hoffman, professor of psychology, and Cherie Snyder, professor of human service. Friends outside the classroom, the three often meet for wine and conversation, and one night a couple of years ago, talk turned to news coverage in Western Maryland. As Snyder recalls in detailing the history of the Appalachian Independent, available under the "AppIndie's History" tab, "As the evening wore on and the wine flowed and conversation grew to a fever pitch, someone muttered.... â€˜Ya know, we should start our own paper!' This was followed by more wine and more heated conversation, and then someone said "Well, why not? Why not start our own paper?" After a somewhat stunned silence, the huzzahs commenced and the glasses were raised to Ben Franklin and a free press!"
While reality dawned like a Monday-morning hangover on the late-night musing, the development of the Internet had made such efforts far more realistic than in the day when a newspaper was just that: newsprint. Freed the expense of production and distribution, Web-based publications have flourished across the country and around the world.
And now in Mountain Maryland.
The Appalachian Independent will by necessity be a work in progress. Virtually every step forward carries the enterprise into uncharted territory. It is a journey both daunting and energizing, and one that will only succeed if the community invests itself in this endeavor. We invite you to click around the site, visit content "bureaus" like the Arts, Community, and the editorial "AppEd" section. We will always remain open to suggestions as to how we can enhance the product; don't hesitate to "Contact Us."
Craig Etchison stands at the helm as managing editor of the Appalachian Independent, bringing English-teacher expertise and a true believer's commitment to the challenging task of coordinating overall content, including news coverage. "We look forward to giving many of the muted voices in our community an opportunity to participate in the essential dialogue--often stifled--that underlies a vibrant democracy," he said.
In addition to his duties as editor, Craig will oversee AppIndie's environmental coverage in a section titled "Our Blue Earth." A Vietnam vet and a man of dogged research and deep passion, he operates the Center for Nonviolent Alternatives from his home in Fort Ashby.
Kurt Hoffman led the group throughout the year-long development process, guiding wide-ranging discussions, and patiently steering the rabble back to the agenda. He'll serve as community outreach coordinator and edit the People section. Kurt will also oversee a regular feature that he has championed from the beginning, under the People section: Why Should I Care? Ever the teacher, Kurt wants to help educate folks as to why issues like Darfur matter to Americans a world away.
Kurt's wife Vicki has graciously stepped forward to coordinate a community calendar that remains under development at this time. The feature promises to be an interactive community bulletin board of sorts, where folks can look for a roommate, or a carpool, or a like-hearted fool with whom to fall in love.
Cherie Snyder, the definition of a height-challenged dynamo, will produce content on Wellness, sharing not only her own expertise on mental and physical well-being, but also inviting a wide variety of local contributors who will help guide AppIndie readers along the path to a healthier and more spiritually fulfilling life.
Other members of an initial "Gang of Seven" that grew to a "Dirty Dozen" are equally essential to Appalachian Independent.
Dr. Jeff Davis, an emergency room physician with the Western Maryland Health System and a longtime citizen activist, graciously allowed his 501(c) 3 organization, Citizens for Secular Government, to serve as a fiscal sponsor and grant recipient for the Appalachian Independent. Readers should check out his "Why I got involved?" post, under About Us. He writes of a "short and balding, retired State Department Ph.D. who taught a Problems of Democracy Class in Jeff's senior year at Suitland High School.
"The classroom was constantly an interaction of opinions, and all opinions were valued for discussion," Jeff writes. "We were nurtured on The Washington Post, and made acutely aware of the value and enjoyment that could be derived from being interested in the events swirling through our adolescent days."
Jeff is coolly logical and reluctantly provocative in his writing. Strap on your seatbelts for a man who has a lifetime worth columnizing to exorcize. His column's title, "Carpenters in the Forehead," refers to the ideas banging around in his head. He's also chomping at the bit to take sports pictures for AppIndie.
Jeff's' wife Susan Davis will write about the Arts in Garrett County. A charter member with Snyder of The Sisters of Shortness, Feisty Frostburg chapter, Susan has been at the table from the start, never shy about sharing her opinions, and anxious to get about sharing the Arts stories of God's Country, otherwise known as Garrett County, Md.
Mary Spalding, a professor of English at Potomac State College in Keyser, W.Va., will coordinate coverage of the Arts in Allegany County. A die-hard Kucinich fan, she once wrote a letter to the editor galvanizing local opposition to the war in Iraq by comparing civilian casualties to the devastating losses of the 2004 tsunami. She is a woman who knows how to use a semi-colon, as passionate about her politics as her prose.
Also hailing from the world of academia, Kara Rogers Thomas, professor of sociology and a folklorist at Frostburg State University, will provide ongoing coverage of Appalachian Culture, including next weekend's Appalachian Festival. She's also a former journalist, only, a smart one, as the title "former" attests.
On the technical side, Steve Robinett, yet another ACM professor, is the pony-tailed resident guru of the Appalachian Independent, capably assisted by Frostburg resident Woody Getz. Steve found the "Joomla!" open-source software that serves as the content management system for the publication, and he and Woody have doggedly mastered the application to bring AppIndie online.
Ron Krug, also of Allegany College, joined the effort to offer his skills in marketing. He will also oversee the critical task of developing advertising and other revenue sources critical to making the Appalachian Independent self-sufficient.
Rounding out the core staff is this reporter, the resident newspaper man, who will primarily cover the Frostburg area. Having started my journalism career two decades ago at the Frostburg Journal, I have come full circle. I will also oversee the "AppEd," or opinion/editorial section.
As part of the debut edition, members of the core staff wrote about what motivated them to take part in this grand experiment in 21st century media. Their commentaries, available in the About Us section, provide insight into the passion and ideals that inspired their participation, as well as their visions for what the Appalachian Independent can be.
We are all united by a common belief: This is our community, far and wide and close to home, and it is ours to make better, through the dialogue of democracy.