Bridging the Gap
An online newspaper run by citizen journalists covers four New Hampshire towns often neglected by the mainstream media.
By Andy Zieminski
Zieminski (email@example.com) is an AJR editorial assistant.
None of the four mainstream newspapers in southeastern New Hampshire bothers very much with Deerfield, a town of 4,000 people. There was a time when residents had to stop by the gas station to see if the agenda for an upcoming meeting had been posted. But that changed in August 2005. A group of concerned citizens launched an online newspaper called the Philbrick James Forum (forumhome.org), named after John D. Philbrick and Frederick P. James, who helped create the town library in the 1880s. Nearly one-and-a-half years later, the Forum, which attracts 6,000 unique visitors per month, has expanded to include coverage of four towns and the publication of a tri-annual print edition. The nonprofit Forum depends on a volunteer pool of 150 occasional contributors and 10 to 15 core contributors, including cofounder and Web Editor Deb Boisvert, who talked to AJR's Andy Zieminski . An edited transcript follows.
Why do you think the regional papers weren't covering any of these four towns?
Because geographically we're just outside the edge of their circles. If you drew a circle around Manchester, Concord, Portsmouth and Dover — those are the four regional papers — we'd be right at the edge of where those circles were. Sometimes we're covered in Concord, sometimes in Manchester. But nobody consistently picks up our issues.
So they only pick it up if there's a major story?
Actually we've found that since we started the Forum, often issues from the Forum are picked up by those newspapers. So that's one way that they're finding the news locally. Which for us is a real benefit. There [are] also things that aren't news to a larger town, like the Deerfield boys' soccer team had an undefeated season and the girls' cross country team won the southeastern championship. We're talking eighth-graders. That doesn't make the sports page on the Manchester Union Leader, but it is a way for us to showcase locally what our kids are doing.
What impact has the Forum made on your four towns?
We can't claim all the changes that have happened to our town in the past year. But voter turnout was about 10 percent higher last year in the local elections. And we put out a print edition right before the local election so everybody could read bios of all the candidates. It's the first time that's been done in the recent past. And we're seeing more people attending meetings when we cover an agenda item that will be discussed there.
What would you say was the most difficult obstacle you had to overcome in launching the Forum?
I think there's always a concern..with how you recruit volunteers and how you maintain the ones you have. We always have the feeling we don't have enough and we need more. We're getting more, but it's always like this panic feeling that maybe we won't have enough. And since you're relying on volunteers' efforts, you have to accept volunteer limitations.
How is the Forum funded?
Initially we received a grant from J-Lab [the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism] that was $17,000. We've sold about $12,000 in ads and we have [received] about $2,700 in donations in 14 months. Our outflow isn't anywhere near that. We have an advertising person that works on commission, and that's the only paid position we have at this point. And our hosting service is about $50 a month. One of our print editions broke even. On the next one, we lost $200, so even the expenses for the print editions aren't depleting our reserves.
What advice would you give to people who want to create something like this in their community?
It's very doable. I think it can be done on a variety of different scales. We certainly have met people who do it on the scale of one or two people blogging about local events in the town. I think you should start off modestly and add as you can.
What have been some of your biggest stories and some of your best, or some of the ones that stand out in your mind?
Our most popular stories are stories about the Deerfield Fair. Recently the sports have been a huge issue and have increased readership. I would say that probably the thing that we're most proud of is the accumulation of candidate coverage, because that wasn't anyplace before. It's really exciting to hear people say, "You know, I'd never been able to learn [about] who the candidates were before."
Can it get too local? Even though they're small towns, can you ever get stories that are almost bordering on gossip?
That's an interesting question because in some ways our online paper is conservative. We won't post comments unless there's a name or an e-mail address that we can check to make sure that person really posted it. Because we are concerned that people might be putting words in other people's mouths. And we try to be fair and respectful of town officers when we quote them.
I understand that people can submit story ideas. Is that how it works?
Yes, people can submit. We get a lot of story ideas. And what we often try to do is turn it around. If somebody says, "You should cover the boys' soccer team," we'll turn it around and say, "Gee, could you give us a story on that?" Because we don't have the capacity to cover more news.