Ann Arbor’s Fifth Estate: The Citizen Journalists

Wherein a new television series is announced; scroll to the bottom for the schedule.

As I’ve written before, if you want to know the news about what is going on in Ann Arbor, you can no longer just pick up the newspaper.  You have to work harder, and mostly to go online.  We’ve listed a number of the available news sources.  But how can we really get to the core of issues and events affecting our city?  One option is to accept the help of some citizen journalists.

At a recent training workshop given by the Online News Association, we were told that “Ann Arbor is ground zero” for a new era in journalism.   Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute gave us a lecture describing what she and others are calling the “fifth estate”* .   McBride emphasized the rising importance of citizen journalism, including bloggers and other (non-professional) news and opinion gatherers.  This interest in citizen journalism is apparently getting stronger as traditional new vehicles like printed newspapers are falling by the wayside.  Another Poynter associate listed all the types of people who might be part of this “fifth estate” and characterized them this way: “a frame that sees that the freedoms and responsibilities of the First Amendment empower not just a professional caste of news gatherers and distributors, but potentially every citizen.”  As I have mentioned before, there has been increasing attention to this phenomenon.

Our workshop was indeed attended by a number of “citizen journalists”, grading into “real journalists”.  Several staff from AnnArbor.com were there, and Clarence Cromwell, a journalist who has a blog,  freethenews.net, about this very subject.  (He also has a print news publication forthcoming but no announcement yet.) Matt Hampel, one of the major contributors to ArborWiki, a maintainer and moderator of Arbor Update (a hotbed of fifth estaters if ever there was one), and the instigator of the Ann Arbor Area Government Document Repository,  attended the evening workshop. I was there (a citizen journalist-blogger) and so were quite a few of the “citizen bloggers” recruited by AnnArbor.com.  These included Linda Diane Feldt, Alice Ralph, Cathy Theisen, and a columnist,  Frances Kai-Hwa Wang.  I’m sure I missed several more who didn’t happen to sit at my table.  I am impressed by the effort that AnnArbor.com has made to recruit individuals from the community, with the leadership of Edward Vielmetti.  It is a rather odd mixture, with articles by professional paid staff followed by volunteer bloggers, but it is working to provide a mosaic of interest and perspective.

Why do we all do it?  Partly to fill a perceived need, I believe, and also because the software and easy linking has made it much more possible than in the days when publishing even a newsletter was a big production and expense issue.  I know that the reason I started “Local in Ann Arbor” was that I saw a need to document things I cared about, and to help start a discussion about them.

One of the most impressive local examples of this civic impulse is the new “Other Perspectives” series which is not online, but rather on television.  Nancy Kaplan, a Second Ward resident who has been an adult education teacher and physical therapist, started this series on CTN’s Channel 17 recently.  Here is her reasoning in her own words:

After the Ann Arbor News announced its closing, I was talking with friends about the forthcoming absence of the ‘Other Voices’ column. It seemed then that the News frequently took the perspective of the mayor and council and generally did not support change or welcome a differing perspective. So the idea came up of doing a CTN program that would fill that gap and provide for a more complete perspective on issues and thus the “Other Perspectives.”

Originally the show was to be co-hosted.  While this did not work out, a CTN instructor tutored and guided me through it all.  The program is crewed by volunteers.  I am fortunate to have a  great crew who have been with me for all the shows. The process requires getting a recording date that the crew and guests are willing to commit to. Recording is done in the evening after most of the crew and guests have put in a full days work.

I find the preparation for each show to be like doing a research paper.  I learn a great deal and get to meet some very interesting and community-involved people. My objectives are to discuss topics of interest and importance and to provide information that is well organized for the listener.

This town has a wealth of involved, knowledgeable and articulate residents. My aim is to interview these residents  on a wide range of topics from politics to the arts.  I hope the audience will become engaged and make suggestions as to topics and guests of their interest. I want the program to be informative, interesting, relevant, and, of course, open to other perspectives.

Her  initial one-hour program discussed the politics of Ann Arbor and city council. The second segment looked at the city budget and possible city tax.  Excerpts of these (September) programs are on the Other Perspectives blog. The current shows recorded on Friday,  October 23,  focus on the November 3 ballot issues.  One program discusses the WISD Enhancement Millage Proposal : Pros & Cons.  The second show has two segments: The Charter Amendments A & B— Vote No and  an interview with the 4th Ward City Council candidate challenger  Hatim Elhady.

Here is the schedule:

Other Perspectives: WISD Millage – Pros & Cons

Premiere:    Tuesday, 10/27         7:30 PM
Replays:     Wednesday, 10/28    10 PM
Thursday, 10/29        2 PM & 7 PM
Friday, 10/30            10 AM & 8 PM
Saturday, 10/31         2:30 PM
Sunday, 11/1            1 PM & 8 PM
Monday, 11/2            2 PM & 6 PM
Tuesday, 11/3           1 PM

Other Perspectives: Ballot Issues  (First half, Dave Askins on charter changes; Second half, Hatim Elhady, candidate, 4th Ward)
Premiere:    Wednesday, 10/28    12:30 PM
Replays:     Wednesday, 10/28    10:30 PM
Thursday, 10/29        2:30 PM & 6 PM
Friday, 10/30            10:30 AM & 8:30 PM
Saturday, 10/31         3 PM
Sunday, 11/1            1:30 PM
Monday, 11/2            2:30 PM, 5:30 PM & 8 PM

*Note: This is a reference to the concept of the “estates of the realm”, first named during the era of the French Revolution as the clergy (First), nobility (Second), and commoners plus everyone else (Third).  Later, journalists were named as the “Fourth Estate”.

UPDATE:  I should have mentioned among the citizen journalists Julie Weatherbee, who has been doing a great service with her Arbor Update reporting on city council agendas.  Julie was part of a panel for the first evening’s discussion that also included Mary Morgan of the Ann Arbor Chronicle and Josie Parker of the Ann Arbor District Library.  The AADL website includes an update on many community issues and a couple of blogs.  It is difficult to place this between “citizen” and “professional” journalism since the Library is a public institution, yet Julie (also a library professional) made the point that the AADL led the way on this type of website for libraries.

SECOND UPDATE: A new print publication, The Bohemian, hit the streets on the weekend of November 14.  Its publisher, Clarence Cromwell, tells me that the November issue will be available (free) at a number of locations.  It will be a monthly and there will be a website, still under development.

THIRD UPDATE:  The Bohemian’s website is now up and going.

FOURTH UPDATE:  Local bloggers should be aware of new FTC guidelines about product endorsements on blogs.

FIFTH UPDATE:  The Bohemian has folded after 3 issues, according to a story on AnnArbor.com.

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