The Rapidian citizen journalism site launches

September 13, 2009
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The Rapidian, a new nonprofit, Web-based experiment in citizen journalism in Grand Rapids, is set to launch at 4 p.m. Tuesday.

“The idea is that in a climate where traditional news outlets are threatened and shrinking, there isn’t a reduced need for news and information to go in and through our community,” Grand Rapids Community Media Center Executive Director Laurie Cirivello said. “This is an experiment to see if we can leverage some of the power of new technologies and the energy of our residents to help infuse our community with more news and information at the hyper-local level.”

With seed money from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Grand Rapids Community Media Center have joined forces to create the venture at a time when mainstream media faces tectonic shifts in advertising support and information delivery methods.

The Miami-based Knight Foundation provided a $128,000 competitive grant for the project as part of its $24 million, five-year Knight Community Information Challenge. The foundation is funding 21 information projects nationwide launched by community foundations, which also are expected to contribute. The GRCF provided another $128,000, while the Slemons Foundation added another $5,000.

Cirivello and GRCF Vice President for Marketing and Public Relations Roberta King, along with an 11-member steering committee, a Vista volunteer from Oregon with community media experience and a cadre of CMC staff, have spent about a year shepherding the plan to establish four neighborhood news bureaus.

From the bureaus, city residents will be able to contribute their own news in words, video, sound and photographs via The Rapidian’s Web site. Cirivello said some of the material may be used on public access cable television stations run by the CMC, by the nonprofit’s radio station, WYCE, or even by some professional local media outlets.

Currently, the only bureau for the 93 citizen journalists is at the CMC building at 1110 Wealthy St. SE, next to the Wealthy Theatre.

 The content that will appear on The Rapidian site depends entirely on the interests of the volunteers, Cirivello said. But it must pertain to topics related to Grand Rapids.

“We don’t know,” she said. “We’re providing the structure, platforms and supports. What happens with the community reports is the grand experiment.”

Volunteer reporters are provided some training in journalistic techniques and their first three postings will be vetted. After that, they will be allowed to post on their own, she said.

For example, King, an avid runner, plans to write about running. She hopes to profile people who participate in races frequently.

“We see it on a parallel tack (to mainstream media). We never intended to compete. We never could compete,” King said. “We intend it to cover very local things. By the nature of citizen journalism, people cover things they are interested in. That’s why we need 80 reporters, so we can have lots of different ideas in it.”

To come up with their approach, the organizers studied other citizen journalism Web sites as well as the public information projects being undertaken by the 20 other community foundations awarded Knight grants, King said.  She said the group set out to create a project that emphasized inclusion, civility and a very local approach.

But, Cirivello said, The Rapidian’s approach to citizen journalism is unique.

“We’ve had great support from a number of people within the media, and as time has gone on, they’ve warmed up to it even more,” King added. “The media is realizing the possibilities and that, hopefully, it will be a resource.”

Grand Valley State University Professor Tim Penning, a former journalist who now teaches public relations, said the mass media, which has seen severe cutbacks as advertising support has migrated to the Web or been swallowed by the recession, does not cover the micro-stories that might interest citizen journalists based in neighborhoods.

The long-term financial viability of the nonprofit citizen journalism model is an issue, King acknowledged. Whether The Rapidian becomes another vehicle for local advertising remains to be seen.

“The people organizing The Rapidian are going to have to decide, do they want advertising,” said Penning, who was involved in the early planning stages. “Sometimes people don’t want to see advertising, and that might be part of the attraction of The Rapidian.”

Yet, like news, advertising provides people with information and there may be a role for it in nonprofit citizen journalism, said Penning, who is working on a doctorate in advertising at Michigan State University.

“A lot of times, consumers value advertising,” he said. “One of the top reasons people get a newspaper is for the coupons.

“Advertisers are realizing that there’s less and less mass media,” he added. “You really have to reach out to people in smaller groups, either geographic or topical communities. Where there are eyeballs, there are advertisers.”

If The Rapidian accepts advertising, it would have to decide what type it would accept and who those advertisers could be. For example, should it allow an ad from an out-of-state company that buys small Web ads across the nation, he said. And advertisers would have to decide “what do the numbers need to be to make it worth their while,” Penning added.

Public relations professionals, who have been dealing with bloggers for years now, may find that they are able to establish one-on-one relationships with Rapidian reporters, he added.

In terms of content, citizen journalism is tough to pin down, he said. One MSU study showed that “there’s great variance from one community to the next. Citizen journalism is all over the map and is not directly competitive with mainstream journalism.

“It would be too early to say The Rapidian is going to be like all other citizen journalism out there. It’s going to be its own thing.”

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