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Free Speech TV is coming to Burlington!

#BTV #VT - Front Porch Forum is pleased to sponsor this action.  Click here to donate to their Kickstarter campaign!

Thanks to the work of many in our community, Free Speech TV is bringing its 24/7 independent news, analysis and documentaries to Burlington Telecom. Starting March 1st, we’ll be able to tune in to FSTV on BT’s newest channel (122) on its “basic tier.”

But first, we need to rally to finish the task of making Burlington the first city in the country to offer a fulltime FSTV channel on cable. FSTV has until the end of February to raise a one-time $10,000 to cover its start-up costs.

Here’s some more good news: We raised half the money before we even launched this page.

A group of us founded the Friends of Free Speech TV in Burlington, and we’ve already pledged $5,000 as a Founding Friends Challenge Fund. That means that for every dollar you pledge here, we’ll kick in another dollar to match you. If we can raise just $5,000 by the end of February, FSTV will receive the full $10,000 it needs to launch its new channel in our community.




Hastening the demise of community newspapers?

A community newspaper in Vermont recently raised concerns about Front Porch Forum to an entity that is supportive of our work.  Here are some of the points made by the newspaper publisher…

… internet activities like the Front Porch Forum are direct competitors to community newspapers…

… subsidizing these forums and spreading their access is hastening the demise of [community newspapers]…

… you enable the neighborhoods to believe that news of their community is being covered by the siting of trash being dumped on the side of the road, or of a neighbor who attended a meeting and reported on the one item of real interest to them…

What happens with these types of forums is news is filtered out to the community by those with an agenda. School boards or planning commissions, for example, could designate a member of the board to write the report of the meeting and put it on the forum. The potential to have that report cover what the board wants and how it wants is huge, and it is not, in the end, in the public’s best interest in cases that may be controversial. (Given, that much of the news coming out of such meetings is not controversial and such reports could be unbiased and with no consequence.) But in cases that are controversial, how is the community best served if what happens is that Front Porch leads readers to believe they don’t need the local paper except on those few occasions of controversy. That is, they cancel their subscription and only buy it at the store on those weeks when a professional reporter comes to town to report important issues. That type of thinking, of course, hurts circulation and undermines the advertising base.

… activities like these are no small threats to community newspapers…

… you might reconsider how to carry on this part of your mission. Partnering with the local paper may be one way to do that.

Here’s my response…

Small town community newspapers are crucial to local civic health.  And many of these newspapers face a dire future.  This should be a big concern for anyone focused on local social capital and civic engagement.  It’s one of the reasons I’m working on Front Porch Forum.  You should be congratulated for your forward thinking in this area.  I would be interested in seeing innovative proposals from community newspapers for new sustainable business models to support local journalism.

Front Porch Forum’s mission is to help neighbors connect and build community.  Any sharing of news among neighbors is incidental… it’s one of many things that neighbors do when they have access to an easy communication channel.  We don’t directly compete with newspapers, we help and complement them.

In fact, in Chittenden County, news stories bubble up out of neighborhood conversations on FPF.  In dozens of cases, The Burlington Free Press, Seven Days, WCAX, VPR and others have used Front Porch Forum to get leads for their news stories.  We’re happy to play this role (assuming proper attribution).

And forward thinking newspapers use FPF to attract more readers.  For example, Seven Days has been running weekly messages on FPF about its stories drawing significant traffic to its website.

Further, many of our subscribers travel an arc from (1) getting direct results from postings (e.g., found lost cat, gave away a stroller), to (2) feeling more a part of their community due to these interactions and routine reading of neighbors’ postings, to (3) increased involvement in the civic life of their town (e.g., volunteering at Green Up Day, serving on a committee).  This heightened sense of what’s going on in the neighborhood leads to people being more tuned into local issues… thus FPF helps nurture an environment loaded with more potential readers of the local newspaper.  It’s up to the each newspaper to capitalize on this opportunity.

For example, in Burlington’s New North End, past monthly Neighborhood Planning Assembly meetings typically drew five or six people, in addition to the committee members.  Once the committee started using FPF, attendance ballooned to 50 or 60.  This wasn’t just because FPF was a better way to announce the meetings, rather it’s been the regular neighborhood-level discussions stirred up via FPF that have increase awareness and interest in local issues.  So when the meeting is announced, many people are tuned in and caring enough to show up and participate.

We’d be thrilled if one of Burlington’s newspapers approached us with ideas for tying into this exciting development.  Perhaps we could even work up a proposal and seek funding together.

The decline of the newspaper industry is closely tracked and widely discussed.  Here’s one such recent piece that warrants careful reading.

Here are some other respected resources about the upheaval in the newspaper business…

Many factors contribute to the current status of the newspaper industry, including past business decisions, the current economy, volatile changes in the advertising world, the effect of the internet, participatory and decentralized journalism, etc… suffice to say, it’s complex and the sea change underway now has been a long time coming.  It’s hard to imagine that supporting a small local civic-engagement dot.com experiment has much of a role in this larger, centuries-running drama of the American newspaper.

The newspaper publisher appears to have some misconceptions of how Front Porch Forum works.  FPF is open to all residents of its service region, those with agendas (of any stripe) and those without.  It’s a discussion among clearly identified nearby neighbors about topics of their choosing… like a block party with name tags.  Newspapers, on the other hand, bring their own agenda, determine the topics, and limit who can speak.

While some FPF members may quit their local newspaper subscriptions, as he suggests, that’s not our intent.  If that happens, I submit it has more to do with the readers’ perceived value of the newspaper than with FPF.

Finally, we’re humbled by the recognition and awards from the following organizations bestowed on Front Porch Forum for its cutting edge work in building social capital and civic engagement, including…

  • American Press Institute
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Morning Edition
  • PBS
  • John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
  • Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society
  • Personal Democracy Forum
  • Case Foundation
  • Sunlight Foundation
  • National Night Out
  • PlaceMatters
  • Action Coalition for Media Education
  • Snelling Center for Government
  • Orton Family Foundation

Thanks for the opportunity to comment on this subject and I’d be glad to continue the conversation with you, newspaper folks, or others.  I have much to learn and remain openminded and flexible.


Everything is Miscellaneous, so Why Lump it Together by Subject?

I’ve been wanting to write about David Weinberger‘s Everything is Miscellaneous vis-a-vis Front Porch Forum since I had the pleasure of meeting him at a Berkman Center-Sunlight Foundation conference at Harvard earlier this year… so today’s the day.

The reason for my delay in writing is that I’ve been hoping to actually read the book(!), but it hasn’t happened yet. However I have digested enough reviews to be in receipt of the gist. From Amazon.com

Human beings are information omnivores: we are constantly collecting, labeling, and organizing data. But today, the shift from the physical to the digital is mixing, burning, and ripping our lives apart. In the past, everything had its one place–the physical world demanded it–but now everything has its places: multiple categories, multiple shelves. Simply put, everything is suddenly miscellaneous.

In Everything Is Miscellaneous, David Weinberger charts the new principles of digital order that are remaking business, education, politics, science, and culture. In his rollicking tour of the rise of the miscellaneous, he examines why the Dewey decimal system is stretched to the breaking point, how Rand McNally decides what information not to include in a physical map (and why Google Earth is winning that battle), how Staples stores emulate online shopping to increase sales, why your children’s teachers will stop having them memorize facts, and how the shift to digital music stands as the model for the future in virtually every industry. Finally, he shows how by “going miscellaneous,” anyone can reap rewards from the deluge of information in modern work and life.

My take on David’s thesis is that trying to make one order out of “everything” is hopeless and not even especially useful. Better to tag everything and search anew every time you want to get at something. (Brings to mind huge filing projects in the pre-web days… I remember filling out cross-reference cards and placing them throughout the file cabinets… arghhhhh.)

So I’ve seen with Front Porch Forum. In our pilot city, more than 20% subscribe, each person belonging to their neighborhood’s forum. People post messages for their neighbors about babysitters, lost cats, restaurant reviews, plumber referrals, school tax debate, car break-in, moose sightings, school fundraiser, car for sale and on and on.

A few members have expressed frustration that all these messages aren’t neatly ordered into threads. Or that we don’t offer one part of the site focused on contractor reviews, another area on classified ads, another part for political debate.

Instead, each neighborhood forum publishes a single issue every few days with whatever postings the neighborhood has generated. Each message is clearly labeled. Current and past issues, a mishmash of subjects, may be browsed or searched by keyword, author, street, etc.

I don’t think caging this information into various compartments will serve anyone well. It’s all about the conversation… not order. FPF’s aim is to help neighbors connect and foster community within the neighborhood… not create a Dewey Decimal System at the neighborhood level.

Which brings me to much of web 2.0. Whether it’s real estate, reviews, classifieds, directions, discussion… whatever, many FPF members have reported that they would rather just search their neighborhood’s archive for what they need (and come across other interesting tidbits) or post a brief note to a couple hundred nearby households… rather that then go to one of the burgeoning number of these specialty sites.

Put another way, David argues that many web 2.0 sites free information and make it accessible in many ways. But these examples are still in verticals, such as real estate. So the information is constrained, although it’s accessible to everyone.

Front Porch Forum removes all subject constraint and instead limits who can participate… only residents of a given neighborhood.

For what it’s worth.


Amazing Tools and Content at Harvard

What a delight! I just returned from a couple days in Cambridge, MA… invited to participate at a Harvard workshop about innovative local uses of the internet, focusing on politics. The event was hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Sunlight Foundation. About 50 people were invited from around the country.

About half of the speakers were content providers, mostly local and state-level political bloggers. The other half were online tool developers focused on improving public access to information about state and federal legislatures. I strongly recommend checking out what I was lucky enough to see. Some of the participants have kindly blogged and wiki-ed about it already…
David Weinberger, Ethan Zuckerman, David Gillmor, Campaigns Wikia… and others, I’m sure. Try Technorati (photos too).

On the one hand we had bloggers generating great content about fairly narrow topics. On the other were people developing incredible tools for drilling into all sort of data and stories about what’s really going on behind the scenes in Congress and the statehouses. Most of the folks in both these camps shared one challenge… engaging a wide-enough audience.

So Front Porch Forum was met with curiosity and interest. We’re building surprisingly high participation numbers when viewed from a geographical per capita perspective. Lots of great questions and leads. I need to explore more of what was on display. More later, perhaps.

Thanks to Berkman and Sunlight for bringing me to this wonderful event, and to all my colleagues for sharing their projects and insights. A hopeful way to spend the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. By the way, snow in Vermont kept me in Cambridge/Somerville an extra night… a local cousin came to my rescue!