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April 15, 2009, 9 a.m.

Jack Driscoll on citizen journalism: From major metro to hyperlocal

Jack Driscoll spent 39 years with The Boston Globe, ending his career as its top editor. But his most recent clips have covered topics like leash laws and school renovations.

Driscoll is a leader-among-peers at Rye Reflections, a citizen-journalist site staffed primarily by retired residents of his hometown, Rye, New Hampshire. He thinks that projects like his could be part of where journalism is headed.

“My dream is to have a citizen journalism group like this in every community,” he told me recently. “And a greater dream is that they would be linked. The web is such that there could be some really fascinating things done.”

Driscoll, 74, has a longstanding interest in the future of news; he’s been editor-in-residence at the MIT Media Lab since 1995, and he’s currently an advisor at MIT’s Center for the Future of Civic Media. He retired from the Globe when The New York Times Co. bought the paper, which gave him time to explore the grassroots journalism the web makes possible.

His first effort, a group of senior citizens called the “Silver Stringers,” founded a local site called The Melrose Mirror. He started Rye Reflections in 2005. Its staff of about 20 meets regularly in the Rye Public Library, mapping out areas of coverage — which might include a meeting of the Rye Selectmen to features on ice boating and other local goings-on.

“It’s almost like the old-time discussion clubs where people want to have some sort of substantive activities,” Driscoll said. “I think this meets civic needs and intellectual needs and social needs.” The payoff for participants, he says, is the kind of intellectual stimulation that studies show lead to longeity and better health. “For the participants, there’s value. And for the community, because the participants are reporting on their communities, the communities benefit.”

In a town like Rye (pop. 5,100), there are few other sources of town news. Driscoll said local papers have trimmed their coverage of Rye in recent years. He believes that a group approach like his can lead to a broader range of stories than the many one-person citizen-journalism sites out there. He wrote about the benefits he sees in this model in his self-published how-to book, Couch Potatoes Sprout: The Rise of Online Community Journalism.

Other than Driscoll, the Reflections’ staffers all spent their careers in areas other than journalism. And the notion of the Boston Globe’s former top editor dipping into extremely local coverage doesn’t seem odd to him.

“You’re always an old war horse, and you enjoy news at any dimension -– it doesn’t matter if it’s national politics or local politics,” he said. “In many ways it’s all the same. But the instincts are there, that you feel you can inform people. But on the other side of it is: I’m also curious how it will play out in a small community. [A proposed leash law] was a huge issue on the town ballot, and at the town meeting they had six times as many people just because of that issue. It’s similar issues as we did at the Globe — just on a smaller field.”

Despite Rye Reflections’ success at covering its community, Driscoll doesn’t claim it’s a solution for the news industry’s larger problems. He says it’s “just one element of the picture. We really don’t know how this citizen journalism thing is going to evolve in the next ten years. But I feel there is some strength in this citizen group approach…One of our students at Media Lab, who was from Finland, did a fantastic thesis on this very idea, about how groups could share resources, archives, and ideas. Veteran groups could help newer groups get started.”

As for the larger questions: “I do have this huge concern that a lot of people have misunderstood the value of good reporting. I’m afraid we’re going to lose a whole tier of quality professionalism in the media. The impact of that, I think, is going to be huge. What I’ve been involved in is hyperlocal. But who’s covering state government? Who’s covering the courts? Who’s covering science and medicine? The Globe just closed its science and medicine section, and when I heard that I nearly died. I was the one who started it.

“I see a lot of errors creeping into the media. It’s not just that things aren’t being covered. It’s that the reporters who are left have so much on their plates, that they’re not doing the kind of checking and double-checking that was always demanded of them.”

Whatever the answers to those questions, Driscoll notes that his experiment in Rye has already had an impact on how other local media, however constrained by budgets, cover Rye.

“I went to cover the selectmen’s meeting, and who was there but the reporter from the city newspaper in the next town. She said, ‘We’re going to start covering meetings in Rye again.’ It’s clear their editor, who’s a pretty aggressive guy, is fed up with stories popping up that they don’t have any idea about.”

POSTED     April 15, 2009, 9 a.m.
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