Traditionally, newspaper reporters were dispatched to cover the mundane proceedings of a local government in action: the city council meeting. But as the mainstream media grapples with its survival in the Internet era, the seats in the audience once occupied by full-time reporters are sometimes being filled by local bloggers and other citizen media outfits. They're using blogs and social media technologies like Twitter and Facebook to spread the word about important decisions, or to inspire action within their communities.
"It's the time for the group formerly known as the readers to come out and do our part," said Chuck Welch, the editor of Lakeland Local, a citizen journalism site in Lakeland, Fla.
Welch is a former journalist at a local weekly in Louisville who's now a stay-at-home dad. He created Lakeland Local after his wife took a job in Lakeland and the family relocated. Welch wanted to get to know his new city, and soon grew dissatisfied with how the local newspaper, the Ledger (owned by The New York Times Co.), was covering a big story in the area.
"I thought the only way I could ensure that the story was being covered the way I wanted was just to go do it myself," Welch said.
Mobilizing the Community
Paul Roberts, editor of the site Blogging Belmont in Belmont, Mass., has also stepped up to cover and mobilize his community. He recently used Facebook and Twitter in tandem with his blog to get people to the polls in support of a debt exclusion school funding measure.
"[The voter drive] got us some media attention, which was helpful in creating awareness about what was happening," Roberts said. "The exclusion passed by a wide margin. I don't think the social networking piece was decisive, but they are powerful tools."
Roberts, like Welch, is a former journalist. He currently works at a technology analyst firm, and was recently elected to serve as a school committee member. He created Blogging Belmont to establish a source of real-time information about everything that's going on in the Belmont political sphere, and as a resource for a community where the local media is comprised of a single two-person newspaper.
Roberts said he would like to integrate technologies with Blogging Belmont that allow visitors to the site to use their Facebook or Twitter account to log-in, making it easier to participate.
"There is a huge amount of potential there, but as of yet, my integration between the blog and other media are pretty loose," Roberts said. "I talk to a lot of folks that are pretty frequent readers of the blog and they are still trying to wrap their brain around what Twitter is and why it exists. So I'm not sure the urgent need is there to build the bridges to Facebook and Twitter as it might be if my audience was different."
Political Leaders Taking Notice
Technology is making citizen journalism easier, but of course there is currently little, if any, money in covering local government. Without any financial incentive, how do you get the average citizen to spend their time live blogging or sending out tweets during a public meeting? And unlike the inclination to tweet about an accident on the highway, school board and city council meetings just aren't that sexy, despite their importance.
"I think that it is good for a democracy, but the trouble is that it is an awful waste of time and there's not a whole lot of ways to pay for it," said Tommy Duncan, a Tampa, Fla. blogger and editor of Sticks of Fire. "Live blogging would probably be helpful in many cases, but I don't know if it can be justified financially."
There is some reward in the fact that politicians are beginning to notice the presence of local bloggers. Cincinnati Councilman Chris Bortz said citizen journalists can offer communities additional access to political leaders.
"I know a few of the bloggers fairly well and it's nice because it is a good source for me as well," Bortz said. "If I feel like I'd like to get something out and maybe it's too difficult to get in the local paper, I can often email the bloggers and ask them if I can post a guest blog, and they are often eager to do it."
Perhaps the biggest potential for citizen journalists who are focused on local government is the interactivity promised by Twitter or Facebook. They can receive instant feedback and encouragement from readers and fellow citizens.
"I've gotten questions from the readers because they might have more experience or they might have an insight that I didn't have," Chuck Welch said. "In the past it was thought that a story had to be completely finished before you printed it in the newspaper. Today you put the information out there and you update and add to it as you learn more. News is a process. You put it out there and let the audience help you build on it. It's more fun to work back and forth with the readers."
He said the end result is that local government officials know they're still being held accountable.
"I think there are cases now where city council or city staff might be more cognizant that just because the newspaper reporter is not in the room it doesn't mean the community is not going to learn about whatever it is they are doing," Welch said.
Steven Davy is a freelance journalist, and freelance radio reporter/producer. He regularly covers the defense industry and security related issues for UPI. Additionally he hosts a current affairs news magazine radio show called the Nonchalant Café Hour which broadcasts live in Kalamazoo, Mich. Steven recently created Exploring Conversations as a multimedia website examining the language of music for his graduate thesis project at Michigan State University.
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According to the Constitution you have to be 35 years old to be elected President. There is obviously no such regulation for social media moguls — despite the ever increasing power they wield over our daily lives — though judging from some recent comments from Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg maybe there should be.
Speaking at the Crunchie awards in San Francisco this weekend 25-year-old Zuckerberg told the crowd that privacy should no longer be considered a “social norm.”
“People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people…That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”
Or at least Zuckerberg’s definition of it has, which might also explain why the recent change in privacy settings was implemented with such a heavy, oblivious hand….this is the new norm! Which of course is true in the sense that thanks to Facebook privacy is likely not a social norm for most people under the age of twenty-five. Privacy, however is very much a social norm for most people over the age of 25 and/or who do not live in college dorms. Alas, with the increasing prevalence of Facebook it would seem all of its 350 million users — not just the under-25 ones — are increasingly at the mercy of mindset of a generation who grew up sharing. Like it or not if Zuckerberg has his way, our online social lives may never actually get out of college.
Is this the year we finally see Internet companies trying to go public again? There are a lot of folks rooting for an IPO from the likes of Facebook, LinkedIn or even Zynga. And I’m one of them, if only because it would give me lots of interesting stories to write.
In the meantime, if you’ve got a voyeuristic itch to scratch, public offering-wise, there’s still FriendFinder Networks. The money-losing collection of porn sites and social networks announced its IPO a year ago but never pulled the trigger.
FriendFinder still wants to, though. The company has updated its filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (via PaidContent) and is now looking to raise $220 million, down from the $460 million it was looking for a year ago. It still wants to do the same thing with the cash: Pay off lenders.
Interested in getting in? You can read the new S-1 filing or this very quick version: FriendFinder’s subscriber base has shrunk just a bit, but net revenue has held steady–it brought in some $244 million in the first nine months of last year.
The company’s pitch is that it is throwing off a lot of cash–FriendFinder reported $45 million in income from operations in the first nine months of last year–and that things will get better once it can pay off its debt and stop making huge interest payments (it spent $75.3 million on interest during that same period).
FriendFinder’s model, meanwhile, still revolves around paying other Web sites a lot of money to promote its own sites and bring in new subscribers. (More on its “freemium” model here–worth paying attention to in light of Zynga’s go-go growth.)
In September, vitaminwater launched an interactive Facebook app which its fans could use to design and vote on a new flavor of vitaminwater. Well, the polls have been closed and the votes have been tallied, and the world finally has a Facebook-themed flavor of vitaminwater, called Connect.
Now, about that flavor: Connect will be “a tasty black cherry-lime flavor made with caffeine and 8 key nutrients.” Do you know what else was black cherry-lime flavored, according to Wikipedia? You guessed it: Powerade’s Matrix Reloaded promotional drink from 2003. Coincidence?
A comparison: the new Facebook vitaminwater’s flavor and design were determined by a contest, with an entrant named Sarah, from Illinois, taking home a $5,000 grand prize.
Matrix Reloaded Powerade, by contrast, was “one of the biggest, if not the biggest, marketing program for [Powerade in] 2003,” according to a press release from the time; it even had a set of commercials featuring Agent Smith telling you to “drink more Powerade.” It was later rereleased as the more straightforward Black Cherry Lime Powerade. Whereas the vitaminwater takes its inspiration from the black cherry and is colored a dark pinkish red, the lime prevails for both Matrix Reloaded and Black Cherry Lime Powerade, which are cyberpunk green.
Facebook’s new vitaminwater flavor is a win-win for both companies, with Facebook getting its name on supermarket shelves across America and vitaminwater garnering more than 1 million Facebook fans. But this does add fuel to the common criticism that Facebook may in fact be, in the words of the IMDb, “an elaborate facade created by a malevolent cyber-intelligence, for the purpose of placating us while our life essence is ‘farmed’ to fuel the Matrix’s campaign of domination in the ‘real’ world.”
Here’s the ad for Matrix Reloaded Powerade from way back when:
(Matrix Reloaded Powerade photo via BevNET)
Palm is expected to announce today that its Pre and Pixi smartphones will be available on Verizon Wireless (VZ) . What else is in store? This is normally Palm (PALM) bete noire John Paczkowski’s territory, but John’s en route to Las Vegas from the Bay Area, so I’ll be tapping away.
- Some totally unverified gossip from my fellow scribes here at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas: Expect an AT&T (T) announcement as well. [UPDATE: Make that "sort of verified"--AT&T already indicated it would support the Palm operating system yesterday, as Business Insider's Dan Frommer notes.]
- Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein takes the stage: Our platform is a deliberate bet on the Web, he tells us. It’s at “the heart of everything we do at Palm.”
- Rubinstein notes that there have been 85,000 downloads of the webOS software development kit since launch in July and 20,000 registrations for the new online developer program, adding that these are clear indicators of interest in the Palm platform. [Translation: We're going to start catching up to Apple (AAPL) and its gazillions of apps. Promise.]
- Rubinstein: Pixi is the “perfect choice for consumers looking to purchase their first smartphone.” That’s why we have these supercool back covers available. Check ’em out! And now a video of people talking about our stuff. [In the video, a talking head mentions "the death of the PC." Ominous!]
- Palm announces a new partner: French carrier SFR, co-owned by Vivendi and Vodafone (VOD). Vivendi SVP Jean-Marc Tassetto says his company reaches half of the country’s population, simultaneously taking a dig at Apple and offering praise for Palm: “We started negotiating in Cupertino, we ended up in Sunnyvale.”
- Palm SVP of Product Marketing Katie Mitic updates Palm’s developer program. After six months in closed beta, it is formally opening up. Any developer can submit a webOS app. Why work with Palm, Mitic asks? Her answer includes more coded Apple digs: The company promises a “fast and easy development” cycle and “freedom and choice” in how developers take apps to market. There are now 1,000 apps and Palm expects much faster growth.
- Palm promises a “new approach to app distribution,” i.e., you won’t have to get Palm apps exclusively through Palm’s equivalent of iTunes. You can get them anywhere on the Web or via mobile. Mitic shows off Projectappetite.com as an example.
- Coming this spring: A “Hot Apps” bonus program–$1,000 to developers with the best distribution (both free and paid), measured by downloads.
- Also coming: A new “Plug-in development kit” for webOS.
- We’re shown some new games from the likes of Gameloft and Electronic Arts (ERTS), including Need for Speed and Sims, etc. These are available today in the U.S.
- Here’s Travis Boatman, VP of EA Mobile’s Worldwide Studios. Palm came to us a few months ago, he notes, before offering praise for Palm (duh): “Within a few weeks, we realized how great this SDK is….It’s really easy to use,” etc.
- Some demos: Sims3, Need for Speed Undercover (which does indeed look “gorgeous,” as Boatman says).
- More from Katie Mitic, who introduces Paul Cousineau, product marketing director, who is going to demo something involving Pre’s camera.
- New feature: Video recording. Cousineau demos an editing feature with footage he just took onstage. It can be shared to Google’s (GOOG) YouTube, Facebook, etc., and will be available to all customers in February via software update. “No new hardware required.”
- Cousineau demonstrates integration of various webOS features, moving data/elements from one app to another–sharing a YouTube clip that was just shot, for example.
- Back to Mitic: More on over-the-air software updates. There have been nine updates since June, she says, covering battery performance, email, search, etc., adding that Palm is “bringing the pace of Web development to the mobile environment.” The February update will have a battery performance boost, too.
- Back to Rubinstein, who focuses on two new products. He pulls the first, “Pre Plus,” from his pocket, describing it as a “more elegant, easy-to-use experience.” Button goes away, memory increases. It comes with 16 gigabytes of flash. The second new product,”Pixi Plus,” comes with built-in Wi-Fi. More color choices for back cover.
- Carrier announcements: Both new phones are available exclusively on Verizon Wireless.
- There’s a new 3G “mobile hotspot” app for both new phones that allows users to tether with the “appropriate data plan.” They can connect up to five devices.
- Next: A taped message from Verizon Wireless CMO John Stratton, who is snowed in at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, apparently. Phones will be avail starting Jan. 25, he says.
- How much will the new Palm phones cost? We won’t tell you! Ho ho ho.
- Rubinstein recaps, promising to allow CES visitors to actually hold the new phones this time. (Last year Palm had a “look but don’t touch” policy when it showed off the Pre).
There’s no mention of AT&T, even though the carrier has been talking about Palm options in public. Interesting. Maybe there’s a “one carrier per press event” rule.
UPDATE (sort of): After the event, I asked Rubinstein about the phantom announcement from AT&T. Here’s the entire exchange.
Rubinstein: “We don’t have anything to announce.”
Me: “Really? Because AT&T executives are saying they’ll have two phones running the webOS later this year.”
Rubinstein: “We don’t have anything to announce.”
He was smiling a bit, though. Certainly cheerier than when I asked former Palm CEO Ed Colligan about Pre pricing last year.