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July 31, 2013, 10:08 a.m.

Lessons from a veteran: What 10 years of community journalism has taught iBrattleboro

These Vermonters have more experience than most navigating the challenges of building local community online.

iBrattleboro.com is a citizen news site for Brattleboro and surrounding southern Vermont. The site has had over 46 million pageviews, 22,000 stories, and 103,000 comments since it began in February 2003. Over 2,500 people have registered to contribute stories, events, photos, and videos, in a town with a population of just over 12,000.

When we began, cofounder Lise LePage and I set a 10-year plan to grow from an unknown upstart into a vital resource for the town. Blogs were relatively new, there was no YouTube or social media, and people were used to passive reception of news from their newspapers and televisions. Our radical idea was to allow people to write their own news and to use the web to communicate between neighborhoods.

It worked. New users often registered as news impacted their lives, such as fires and floods. Others joined to express views on town projects and politics. Others enjoy having place to discuss the little things of town life, or to be able to stay connected when mobility is an issue. Real-world friendships have evolved from online interactions. But as sweet and useful as the site can be, it can also be a source of debate. Depending on the issue, the debate can get quite heated.

With 10 years’ experience running iBrattleboro.com, we thought we’d share some of the biggest challenges we’ve faced. These are the tougher issues we’ve wrestled with while carving out a niche known as citizen journalism.

1. Who said that?

iBrattleboro allows for pen names, but some readers want to judge the author as well the content of their submission. They feel it is necessary to know the real name of a writer, and would like to rid the world of “anonymous attacks” by those using a pseudonym. But using a pseudonym is not the same as being anonymous.

Other readers recognize a piece written with a pen name as having an author, and are happy to be able to keep their online identity distinct from their real world interactions. Many people are known by their nicknames around town and wouldn’t be recognized if we required their real name.

Using one’s real name has not been an indicator of quality or civility of contributions, either. Some of the best information is supplied by those using pen names, and the sole libel case we’ve seen involved users using their real names.

2. What’s civil discourse?

It’s easy to say that we allow and encourage civil discourse, but “civil” means different things for different people with different ages and backgrounds. What I consider fair game may not match up with my neighbors’ impressions.

Is a comment harmful or just embarrassing? Should some speech be limited or deleted? Is anything gained by knowing not everyone in town agrees?

3. Who is a public figure?

In a small town, many people are well known for their work in the community. They serve on boards and committees, lead local organizations, and publish their views on blogs. Are they private or public figures?

Should there be a different standard for writing about public figures, or should we all be held to the same standards? Can someone be both public and private? Where do we draw the lines?

4. Can it be wrong to ask a question?

Some people are made uncomfortable by questions. They think some questions are rude or disrespectful (see #2 above) and should not be allowed. What’s fair game for discussion?

Can someone’s motives be questioned, or is questioning those motives slanderous? Can citizens question the process by which a project was approved? Can someone have questions about the events of 9/11?

5. Is criticism an “attack”?

Some feel criticism is like an assault, and use physical terms like attack, pounce, and destroy to characterize what they see as unfair. Others feel they are offering fair and useful feedback on an issue. Is criticism an attack? If someone is thinking it, is it all right for them to write it down and share it?

Members of the community each have their own perceptions of what is fair. (Again, see #2 above.) Some people are unable to tolerate any criticism at all. Some appreciate a wide range of views and encourage debate and feedback.

6. Is an error forever?

Some of the most important stories develop over time. Is it okay to allow information to come out as it becomes available? What if some of the early details are incorrect?

When there is a big fire or crime, the earliest information is often less accurate than details known later on. Citizen news encourages assembling the pieces of the puzzle using group effort as it happens. If someone gets a piece wrong, others may be confused temporarily until it is sorted out. Should that information be deleted, or should it remain as part of a historical record of what people thought was happening?

Are we helping to spread a rumor, or is the rumor being given a chance to be controlled with feedback and fact-checking by neighbors?

7. Are readers idiots?

Do readers believe everything they read? Some feel that if something negative has been written by someone, everyone will read and believe it.

Others think that trust develops over time and writers earn that trust from readers by building a reputation for sharing useful and reliable information. These people judge a work by the content, not the author.

Site moderators can be seen by some as endorsing the worst opinion by allowing it to be said. Can we trust readers to be smart enough to come to their own decisions?

8. Should someone be able to delete the record?

Someone uses the site for a long time, then requests that their submissions be deleted. Should they be able to purge the historical record? What if they are applying for a job? What if it is a public official concerned about their reputation? What if it is embarrassing but true?

And with nearly instant search engine crawling and archiving, can anything actually be deleted at all? We may get rid of something from our site, but that doesn’t remove it from other archives.

9. Are obnoxious jerks a part of the community?

We’ve banned a handful of users for ongoing disregard for the site policies, but it never feels good. Are there some members of the community who shouldn’t be allowed to participate because they are rude or obnoxious all the time? What if they think they are just being funny?

Are we fascist censors for helping to shield others from comments they find distasteful, or are we Orwellian overlords sending legitimate, real history down the Memory Hole and limiting free speech? We’ve been called both.

10. How flexible with the rules?

iBrattleboro has policies. Some view them as rough guidelines. Others see them as hard and fast laws that others must obey. How much leeway should someone be granted? Can someone have a bad day? What about the person who rides a fine line to narrowly skirt the policies on a regular basis? If you let one person slide, must you allow all the same flexibility?

Ultimately, in the hearts and minds of the community, we are responsible for everything on iBrattleboro regardless of what the laws say. If there is a heated issue and the debate happens on our site, we are seen as encouraging and allowing it to happen. But if the site went away tomorrow, heated discussions would still take place around Brattleboro. We plan to keep going, and to continue to wrestle with the difficult issues of online community news and discussion.

Christopher Grotke cofounded iBrattleboro.com in 2003 and has been creative director of MuseArts since 1997.

Photo of downtown Brattleboro by Professor Bop used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 31, 2013, 10:08 a.m.
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