Make-Your-Own Media Fills the News Gaps in Town
By Nathan Alderman
J-Lab Online Editor
Christopher Grotke and Lise LePage set out to fill some gaps in their local newspaper coverage. But the Web site they built, iBrattleboro.com, has become something much bigger: a powerful voice for the town of Brattleboro, Vt.
Located on the border of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Brattleboro has a highly educated and participatory population of 12,000. “People are always starting things,” LePage said. The town has its own citizen-run radio station and public TV channel, part of what Grotke calls a strong tradition of public involvement in the media. “It’s like a college town, without the college,” he said. “It’s its own little world sometimes.”
LePage and Grotke have lived together for nine years and jointly run a Web design studio. They decided to start a community news site in February 2003 after hearing complaints from neighbors that the local Brattleboro Reformer newspaper, owned by the MediaNews Group chain, didn’t always cover issues and events important to the community.
As a result, they decided to make their own media and in the process developed a successful, volunteer template for community happenings.
Thanks to open-source Geeklog software, they were able to build a community-driven site quickly and cheaply. Then they walked into town, posted flyers advertising the new site and waited.
It took three weeks for the first users to trickle in. Grotke and LePage refined the site by trial and error. When they began having trouble with anonymous, abusive posters, the two designers required anyone wanting to post or respond to stories to register first. “We saw the number of registered users skyrocket,” LePage said. As of November 2004, there were more than 580 registered iBrattleboro.com users.
When they began having trouble with anonymous, abusive posters, the two designers required anyone wanting to post or respond to stories to register first.
That growing community helped to shape the site’s development. When Grotke and LePage wanted to add or change features, they involved iBrattleboro users in the conversation. The resulting site is something very different from the citizen journalism site its designers envisioned: an informal, ever-changing place for Brattleboro residents to share information. “It’s not us, it’s the community,” Grotke said.
Grotke and LePage don’t heavily edit citizens’ posts, unless there are personal attacks. “Most of the time I want to see what people are capable of,” Grotke said. The bulk of their editing involves tweaking the format of headlines or breaking up long paragraphs. The two also contribute occasional articles, including interviews with everyday citizens. In the name of transparency, they let site visitors view iBrattleboro’s usage statistics, allowing anyone to see which stories are attracting the most attention.
Aside from the initial flyers and a few interviews with local media, Grotke and LePage haven’t publicized the site. Revenues from the site’s few ads don’t allow the couple to quit their “day jobs” as Web designers. But the site costs little to run and has earned its creators a certain local recognition. “You walk through town and people go, ‘You’re those iBrattleboro people!’ ” Grotke said.
“You walk through town and people go, ‘You’re those iBrattleboro people!’ ”
iBrattleboro.com has provided story leads for local and regional media, from the Reformer to the Boston Globe, Grotke said. When 31 acres of woodland near Brattleboro were slated for development in 2003, iBrattleboro users rallied in defense of the forest. Discussions on the Web site led to news coverage of the story and a successful campaign by some site members to save the property.
iBrattleboro.com occasionally scoops the local newspaper. In the early morning hours of Saturday, Dec. 4, 2004, a fire broke out in downtown Brattleboro. The Reformer, which publishes Monday through Saturday, had put the paper to bed hours before. But an iBrattleboro user broke the story and posted a photo of the fire. More users sent in updates and photos over the next few hours. Without iBrattleboro.com, no one would have covered the fire until the Reformer published again Monday morning.
Town officials are also paying attention to the site. When they learned that renovations to a small local park would cost the town $250,000, LePage and Grotke invited site members to join them at the park and see whether the town was getting its money’s worth. They found the director of the renovations waiting with maps and charts to justify the expense. “People have been telling me I better read iBrattleboro,” he told them. The citizen involvement helped the park debate get covered in the Reformer.
“We’ve been able to get issues that would never get coverage (in the newspaper) out in front of people,” LePage said. “We feel like we’re able to open a door to freer discourse.”
“We’ve been able to get issues that would never get coverage out in front of people.”
The site has grown slowly but steadily through word of mouth. As of late November 2004, the site had amassed 2,100 stories and 12,500 comments and was headed toward its millionth page view.
“We’re just barely scratching the surface,” Grotke said. “I’ll be excited when all 12,000 people in town are signed up.”
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