Ghost of Midnight

… about neighbors, community and Front Porch Forum

Hastening the demise of community newspapers?

Posted on Thursday, April 16, 2009 by 1 comment

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 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.

Posted in: berkmansunlight, Case Foundation, Citizen Journalism, Clay Shirky, Community Building, Democracy, Front Porch Forum, Knight Foundation, Local Online, MacArthur Fellows, Make It Your Own Awards, Media, Neighborhood, Newspapers, Small Business Advertising, social capital, Social Media, Social Networking, Start ups, Stories, Vermont

One comment

  1. Eric Newton says:

    Knight Foundation recognizes and supports many projects helping all forms of journalism survive and thrive in the 21st century. Many of our grants create open source software than anyone, including existing community newspapers, can use. Many of our projects, such as free onling training of both journalists and citizen journalists through and, also can be of great help to existing community newspapers. The internet is providing an extraordinarily compeititve platform for local news. Today, a library, a university, a public radio station, a public television station, commercial broadcasters and publishers, nonprofits of many types and citizen volunteers all are participating in the digital revolution and providing one type of local news and information or another. It is difficult so early in this new digital age to know what the emergent providers of high quality news and information will be in the 21st century.
    There will likely be an even greater variety of information providers in the 21st century than there are today. That’s been the trend for several centuries.

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