Monday, March 17, 2008 • 9:39 AM Comments ()

Blogger as Supplemental Journalist

posted by Heather Brandon

I started blogging as an outlet, and it quickly became an addiction, one with a peculiar relationship to a mostly lurking audience. The more I blogged, the more I wanted to test the limits of its purpose.

The writing was a platform for focused thoughts about where I live, commenting on local news and regularly directing traffic to online published reports. It was sometimes at its best a kind of civic service, but it certainly was not journalism, in my mind. Journalism was much more responsible and polished, I told myself. It required expertise.

For my work, I merely attempted to keep up with current events in order to have an informed voice.

Early this month, Bill Densmore at the Media Giraffe Project gave a speech at a media seminar in LA. In it, he outlined what he viewed as four methods of serving news consumers: navigator, advisor/valet, referee, and teacher/coach. "The navigator finds," Densmore said, "the valet recommends, the referee connects and facilitates community. And the teacher/coach builds community." Densmore was talking largely to editorial writers, and the insight applies to bloggers: these roles are important in the gatekeeping and assessment of news.

Densmore defined the blogosphere as a referee role, "knowledge of and collaboration with many other voices at the level, if not necessarily at the grassroots citizen level, then at the next stage of the food chain up, which is the blogosphere now."

That may be true in a blogosphere with many voices, but in my city, there was not a blogging community per se, and I wasn't sure what to facilitate. My blog did not have comments enabled at the time. I wanted to speak with some kind of editorial voice, but also felt as though I was operating in a vacuum, or at the edge of a cliff, where the slightest misstep could cause me a lot of trouble.

My work has evolved. Over time I learned that missteps can be corrected, risks are worth taking, and the illusory vacuum is actually a rich field of community, growth and potential. I now regard myself as a fickle member of the independent media, perhaps a journalist. But a one-woman show has its limitations, and it's not strictly journalism I practice. It's some new breed, and it presents challenges as well as opportunities.

Rather than try to execute a version of journalism better or more consistently, I experimented with how my work might complement what is already available, in addition to covering stories that were purely from my own point of view. I knew the work had added value if it had originality, and meaning, and yet also fit into the context of other common experiences for people locally.

When a weekday afternoon street brawl once broke out in front of my house, I documented it with my cruddy camera through a second-floor window, cowering, afraid I would be spotted.

The brawl involved men who lived a couple of doors down, threatening other men in the street with tremendous, long sticks. I continued taking photos while my husband dialed 911, and we watched the police arrive just as the crowd abruptly dispersed. No arrests were made and there was nothing for the newspaper to report. But wasn't it news, of some sort?

When my one-sidedness - potentially a huge liability - is instead an adjunct to other news approaches, it can add context. The street-brawl case was just one small example of civic disorder, the kind that freaks some people out, brings up seemingly unanswerable questions, and makes neighbors want to move away. It pushes us to consider how we would react as observers, and what we expect our police to do in handling situations like these.

When an Urban Land Institute panel visited to assess Springfield for a week in late 2006, I was suddenly motivated to be involved. I surprised myself by wanting to cover the hell out of it. No longer interested in writing only from the vantage point of my sidewalk, I wanted to gain a bigger-picture view of my city and learn whatever there was to learn about how to make it a better place to live.

This urge dragged me over a threshold into behaving more like a journalist. I requested media releases related to the events of the week and attended my first press conferences, prepared only with intense curiosity and a few gadgets for documentation.

I didn't want to duplicate the work of newspaper reporters; I wanted to add depth and meaning, providing every single piece of information that couldn't fit into the paper itself.

When Aaron Brevoort was shot dead a year ago outside a house on Malden Street in Springfield, after barreling out a front door firing at officers waiting for him, wounding one of them in the leg, my version of context was that I live nearby. The afternoon it happened, I watched as news helicopters swarmed overhead, while I walked to get my children at the school a few blocks from the incident. After an autopsy and the publishing of two angry letters to the editor in the paper, one from a man in Easthampton who was upset that the officers had evidently shot at Brevoort with children around, I interviewed the police commissioner at the time, Ed Flynn, for an explanation.

In a later interview, Flynn told me, "For those who are interested enough to follow up, you can provide a richness of context that conventional print media or television can't touch. One of the frustrations of our office is trying to provide context for somebody who's doing a one-minute long story, or a six-paragraph long story. And you just - it just - you can't get the context in."

I knew I wasn't going to cover all the angles. But in covering just one or two, it was at times different from what was already out there, and that aspect gave it potential meaning.

The more I followed the news, in order to have that informed voice, the more I began to regard residents' sidewalk-based perspective as a valuable supplement to the lofty, omniscient voice the newspaper and other media can tend to adopt - a voice Densmore recommends eliminating entirely. "The core challenge we face is turning civic affairs back into a contact sport," he said in his speech, "not a spectator sport. News organizations must drift away from detachment, to learn, try and embrace the tools of engagement."

Without the traditional reporters covering stories and filling other roles, my own supplements probably would have less value, and less contrast with other stories out there. When traditional approaches can be combined with proprietary, invested voices in covering identical stories, it's particularly informative, especially when there are multiple on-the-street perspectives bubbling up on their own. Bloggers can successfully contribute a meaningful piece of the local picture, and I imagine this also causes their traffic to swell, which renders them potentially more attractive for support from local advertisers - and then, hopefully, also sustainable as a kind of model for news gathering.

The task is especially compelling at the local level, because the field is wide open for doing the work. Blogs can expand on what is already available, with the freedom to explore first-person perspectives in ways that add new dimension to an otherwise limited stream of news in the authoritative voice.

--Heather Brandon, The Urban Compass

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