When I was in journalism school a decade ago, we scrambled to keep up with advances in our field, many of them technological: digital cameras, Web-based research and publishing, and the like. But we were still following the same underlying model that had driven our profession for more than a century: We were the experts, the gatekeepers, the sole generators and providers of news; you were the news consumers, and it was our job to deliver it to you.
What a difference a decade can make. Today, some news providers, Mountain Xpress among them, are reinventing our role, with an ever-increasing emphasis on collaboration with readers. In the past year, we've experimented with numerous initiatives that take us off our journalistic high horse and decentralize how local information is gathered and shared. Along the way, we've started crafting systems and an overall approach that are grounded in citizen journalism — and we've only just begun.
Despite all these changes, Xpress' mission remains the same. In a nutshell, it is "to build community and strengthen democracy by serving an engaged, thoughtful constituency at the local level — where the impact of citizen action is greatest." What's changed is the potential impact of citizen action on local journalism itself.
In other words, as much as we want to help readers stay informed and active, we also want to serve as a forum, a gathering place, a hub where many networks of connections and communications come together. As much as we want to serve you, we now want to serve with you.
Amid all the lofty abstractions about citizen journalism, we're talking about something concrete: a functional model in which every concerned reader has the potential to generate and share the news. And in fact, many of you are doing so already. You're blogging. You're tweeting. You're on Facebook, Flickr and YouTube. You have the tools, and you're using them to send and shape your own news.
Of course, we can't claim to know precisely what form these new approaches — including our own — will ultimately take. The pace of technological change is accelerating, and no doubt the months and years to come will bring innovations we can't even imagine yet.
In the meantime, however, we're exploring how the new technologies and new model can foster collaboration with thoughtful citizens in unprecedented ways. These initiatives include:
• MXNow A live local-news stream, it uses the microblogging program Twitter to collect and share readers' dispatches on topics ranging from politics and the environment to entertainment, agriculture and much more. You'll find the stream on the right-hand side of our home page, www.mountainx.com, in a yellow box. So far, more than a dozen readers have volunteered to partner with our own staff members in sharing the news they come across.
• Blogwire Also on our home page is this local-news aggregator, providing a space for reports that are necessarily longer than the 140-character limit on Twitter. One of our newest ventures, Blogwire is mostly compiled by Xpress staff for now, but we've signed up a few readers to contribute there as well, and we're actively seeking more.
• Xpress Forums, at www.mountainx.com/forums, is a virtual town hall — and sometimes more like a virtual free-for-all. Registration is free, and any registered member of our Web site can launch and/or contribute to discussions on just about anything under the sun.
In addition to these features, we've worked to open our Web site to community contributions wherever we can, from online comments on all our stories to reader-submitted photos and videos to free classifieds.
And looking ahead, we have big plans for 2010. We're planning to build a hub database/Web site serving the Asheville area where readers can create, manage and distribute community-focused content using the most advanced methods available — some of which we will develop ourselves. The project will train citizens, collaborate with area software developers, and generate revenue via a local ad network.
Of course, this grand shift in the way our society gathers and shares news doesn't always come easily for us; it can be hard to let go of old ways, of old understandings, and adopt new ones. And indeed, there are key parts of our profession that we'll hang onto till someone pries the keyboards from our aching hands: We'll still gather and disseminate crucial news on our own. We'll still sit through the lengthy local-government meetings that aren't everyone's idea of a good time. We'll still do the kind of long-term, in-depth investigations that don't (or don't yet) seem to lend themselves to crowdsourcing or citizen journalism. We'll still count on experienced photographers and designers to make what we do look as artful as possible.
But we won't cling to the outmoded approach that delivers news top-down, strictly from us to you. Maybe not everyone wants to be a journalist, but we're rapidly approaching an era when anyone can be a journalist of one sort or another. And as the impacts of these fundamental changes spread, we want to be able to say that Xpress helped pave the way for a new kind of journalism that's richer, more diffuse, more responsive and more empowering than the way we used to do it. Here's hoping you'll join us and share in the exciting evolution of the way local matters become local news.
Managing Editor Jon Elliston wants to hear from readers interested in collaborating with Mountain Xpress. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 251-1333, ext. 127.