Knight People To Help Build Digital Communities

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By: Steve Outing

Recently the Knight Foundation made a bunch of new-media pioneers very happy, doling out $5 million for a variety of experiments in new forms of digital journalism and community interaction.

One of the winners was my neighbor here in Boulder (Colorado), Amy Gahran, who along with Adam Glenn was awarded $90,000 for an experiment in online community involvement. Their project, called the Boulder Carbon Tax Tracker, aims to create a new way to cover a long-term issue faced by a community — in non-traditional ways that directly involve community leaders and residents.

The concept, which is still in its early stages of development, looks to me to point toward a new way of covering — and influencing — significant community issues that tend to be under-reported or even ignored by newspapers doing journalism the old-fashioned way.

What Gahran and Glenn are devising puts the onus on the community to cover an issue (from multiple perspectives), rather than journalists. Professional journalists can be involved in their scheme — indeed, it’s logical that they lead it — but it will be more as facilitators than as reporters. (As a requirement of receiving the Knight money, the duo must report on what they discover and share it with news organizations that might want to implement something similar.)

The project

The Boulder Carbon Tax Tracker is about a unique tax on utility bills that the city of Boulder passed — the first-ever city carbon tax to fund municipal efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The small tax is expected to bring in $1 million to $1.5 million a year, which will be used to get the city’s emissions down via educational and other programs.

Gahran, a Boulder resident who recently gave up her car and now relies on her bicycle as primary transportation, says that local media (primarily the daily newspaper, the Daily Camera) have done an inadequate job covering the carbon tax beyond the initial wave of coverage when it was passed. In enviro-conscious Boulder, there’s much community interest in what this means — and how that money will be spent and how it will actually result in lower city emissions.

Many people in this city are vocal and have ideas about how the money should be spent, so the Tracker is meant as an outlet for those voices to come together and help guide city decision makers on the implementation process and in coming up with new ideas.

Boulder’s carbon tax is a great example of one of those long-term issues that can get lost over time, as reporters’ attention turns to other stories. Unless some news peg comes along, mainstream reporters may go weeks or months without paying attention to the issue — even though it’s still alive.

But Gahran says the idea behind the Carbon Tax Tracker is to engage the community in a long-term discussion, and solicit community members’ and leaders’ ideas on how the money should be spent. It’s not dependent on editors’ or reporters’ focus on the issue, but is meant to keep attention on it over a long period by actively engaging community members over an extended period.

While the Tracker project will take shape over the next year as Gahran and Glenn set about spending their $90,000, the core component is already established: a simple group blog where stakeholders and any interested party can contribute. The project likely will extend beyond the group blog, and Gahran says she and Glenn are looking at various forms of participative media, including discussion forums and wikis, and will experiment with them to see what works best for the project. Gahran plans to do podcast interviews, as well as some video.

Gahran and Glenn have approached the key players in the carbon tax, such as city officials who will manage the program, to get their involement. A professor at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism is signed on, and he’ll be involving his students in the online dialog. A journalism colleague is working on tracking the numbers as the carbon tax money gets spent, and as results start to be documented down the road.

Gahran even got some neighbors on board, who when told about the project said they’d like to participate.

In the spirit of any good online discussion, the idea is to get voices from all sides involved and speaking out — and to work to make sure that one side of the issue doesn’t turn the Tracker into its mouthpiece.

A different kind of online forum

Newspapers have struggled with open-to-anyone initiatives and features online, of course. Some open comment threads on stories have become overrun by trolls, rudeness and abusive behavior. Discussion forums, due to the large size of some online newspaper audiences, too often have run amok, as the politeness of most participants is drowned out by a minority of crass, rude and/or abusive participants. You probably remember the famed Los Angeles Times wiki page on the Iraq war that was abused and vandalized so completely and quickly that the project was killed in its first hours.

In part, these troubles result from the size and breadth of these online communities. When any discussion forum gets too big — and if the topic focus isn’t sufficiently narrow enough, or is controversial enough (e.g., Iraq war, abortion) — things can get unruly and difficult to manage.

Why I think Gahran and Glenn’s concept holds promise is that these online issue trackers will not likely bring in huge crowds. Boulder’s carbon tax attracted lots of attention when it was first passed, but those interested enough to follow through and become involved later on will be small. As the saying goes, “The world is run by those who show up.” It’s that minority of people who will actively engage in the Carbon Tax Tracker.

If the average person in Boulder isn’t interested in the Tracker or the carbon tax issues, “that’s OK,” says Gahran.

While the stated goal of the Tracker is to attract ideas from all sides of the issue and, it is hoped, build toward a consensus, I think that it will attract participants who care enough about the issue to engage in a reasoned discussion. Ergo, publishers who are skittish about opening up their websites to unfettered community interaction may want to give this concept a try.

In it for the long term

These kinds of issue trackers seem like a logical progression of the “citizen journalism” or “grassroots media” trend. The Gahran/Glenn model can put journalists in the facilitator role — instead of reporting, they’ll be scouting for the best people to involve within the community, and guiding their contributions. That’s a role that journalists increasingly should be taking on.

(Reporting by journalists for a project like this will be icing on the cake — and that’s a good reason why news organizations are the right ones to take on this kind of issues iniative.)

I encourage newspaper editors to consider this new kind of open-to-all intiative for themselves. Any editor must have long-term issues affecting the community that could benefit from this approach of accessing the intelligence of community members and local experts (and letting that drive the project, rather than relying on traditional reporting).

Some of the issues most suitable for Tracker-like treatment may not be the sexiest ones on the community agenda. Land-use or long-term health care issues could benefit from this approach, especially.

Communities rebuilding after a disaster — like those damaged by a hurricane, or the small Kansas town that was leveled recently by a Class 5 tornado — are ripe for this sort of approach. Rebuilding Greensburg, Kansas, will take consensus building, and this sort of online approach could be quite helpful.

What I like most about this concept is that while it doesn’t require that a news organization run the thing, it’s an ideal opportunity for a newspaper to position itself at the center of issues that are of great importance to the community.

And certainly, I’ve long advocated that newspapers open up and allow community voices to have their say under the newspaper umbrella. The Gahran/Glenn approach seems like a relatively safe way to do that.

Best of all, the Tracker model takes the long term approach to important issues. If there’s one legitimate criticism of traditional newspaper journalism, it’s that reporters and editors have short-term memories when it comes to issues that don’t continually produce sexy headlines.

So let’s watch how this one turns out. Thanks to the Knight Foundation for having the good sense to fund this project. Good luck, Amy and Adam.

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