Magazine article The Quill

Civic Journalism Goes Online

Magazine article The Quill

Civic Journalism Goes Online

Article excerpt

In 1999, Chris Hardie, then local news editor of the La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune, confronted a thorny dilemma: how to cover an issue so explosive that some people believed their livelihoods, if not their lives, hung in the balance.

Stray voltage - electricity that flows into the ground from utility power lines - was a hotly debated issue both nationally and in this dairy state where farmers argued that electrical currents devastated their herds and threatened the health and well-being of their families.

Despite the Tribune's earlier forays into civic journalism and newspaper-led community discussion of issues, Hardie rejected the idea of sponsoring a town hall meeting. The emotionalism associated with stray voltage, he says, would have made constructive dialogue all but impossible.

Instead, bolstered with about a $3,000 grant from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, Hardie launched a Web site that combined exhaustive Tribune reporting with interactive message boards where, like a bulletin board in a Laundromat, readers could post comments and read what others had posted.

"Using the message boards, people from all over the country or world could weigh-in with topics, suggestions, comments and concerns" Hardie said. "It was meant to bring in the voice of the people."

Newspapers throughout the country are utilizing online message boards in an effort to stimulate community discussion and problem-solving. By pairing in-depth information about the news of the day with interactive message boards, these newspapers offer readers the opportunity to exchange ideas and discuss issues unfiltered by journalism's traditional gatekeepers. Ironically, a medium touted for its ability to reach a global audience also can be an electronic backyard fence over which conversations about local issues are held regardless of geographic distances or time of day.

"It's amazing the way people can come together over an event, an interest," said Kate Aurthur, senior producer-forums for The New York Times' Web site. "There are people out there who want to help on all these levels - answering questions about anything, talking about things, sharing what they know, helping other people."

People utilizing the Minneapolis Star Tribune's online message boards, for example, can discuss local antismoking proposals, local taxes and budgets, police effectiveness, affordable housing, chronic offenders, state liquor laws and myriad other community problems and issues.

Users of conline.com, the online edition of the Topeka (Kan.) Capital Journal, can discuss any number of community issues, including property taxes, budget crises, the tobacco settlements and specific ways to improve the city. And, two years and several awards later, the La Crosse Tribune's stray voltage site continues to attract users and the message boards still generate discussion.

"We choose stray voltage because it was a local news topic:" said Hardie, now a publisher with a subsidiary of Lee Enterprises. "But you can do it with whatever issues, like transportation, the newspaper confronts. But if you're going to invest local resources, make sure it's something that hits your market You have to make sure it's relevant."

That was the philosophy when the Topeka Capital Journal's online edition launched "City Council Survivor," a spoof on the popular TV game show. The feature was designed to stimulate community discussion about a then-controversial City Council that some said was dysfunctional.

In late 2000 and early 2001, users provided their name, e-mail and traditional addresses, and a paragraph explaining why they voted a particular City Council member off the island. Their comments were published, without identification, on a message board. …

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