On February 20, 2003, 100 young men and women who went to The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island never came home. The band began to play, sparklers flashed, and the soundproofing foam on the walls caught fire. Flames spread, the music stopped, and the dying began.
There was no way to know the names of everyone who was at the Great White concert that night. Identifying some of the dead and badly burned took days. Rhode Islanders banged on local news Web sites looking for the latest bit of information. The Providence Journal Web site published news nearly around the clock, not waiting for the newspaper’s next day’s press run.
Initially, we created The Station Fire Weblog to collect links to news coverage of the fire elsewhere on the Web. I searched with Google’s help and found fresh information in victims’ hometown papers, on roadie.net
, on Internet “heavy metal” sites, and net radio station KNAC.com in Los Angeles (hometown of Great White), and on the Web site of guitarist Ty Longley, who died in the fire. I also scanned newsgroups for messages by survivors and friends of the fans and bands.
By constantly updating this blog and publishing information live, we conveyed to readers that any news they sent would be acted on and published immediately. A link at the top of our Weblog asked, “Seen something this blog should point to? E-mail Sheila,” and it gave my address.
Readers responded. Amid the confusion, people were trying to sort out what had happened and looking for more information. Journalists, government officials, firefighters, medical professionals, witnesses, survivors and friends pooled their knowledge, and I blogged it all. Friends and relatives of victims e-mailed the URL’s of pages friends had made to track the condition of victims and solicit donations for their medical and living expenses. Survivors had started discussions at the Yahoo Groups site, and they wanted to get the word out. Readers with expertise in pyrotechnics, insulation or firefighting contributed information and speculation. I passed these and the other pieces of this story gathered through the blog onto the newspaper’s editors leading the fire coverage.
Still today one can revisit the chronology of this “reporting” process as it unfolded by reading from the bottom of Week One of The Station Fire blog. There’s no equivalent for this experience in print.
A Blogging Journalist
The Station Fire Weblog was an ad hoc blog created to handle the huge flow of information created by a breaking news story. I maintained this in addition to my daily blog, Subterranean Homepage News on www.projo.com
Day-to-day I am a newsroom blogger on the mainstream news site of The Providence Journal, which is the major metropolitan daily in the capital of Rhode Island. I’ve been online since January 1990, when I assigned a story about local computer bulletin boards and then wrote a column about my adventures in connecting to them. After 14 years as a features editor at the newspaper, I moved to projo.com four years ago. As our Web site’s features producer, I sit among reporters and editors in the paper’s newsroom. As its blogger, I often discover that I’m about three days and a world of information ahead of my print colleagues. As I sit in the thick of story changes and newsroom buzz, my brain is always partially on the Web.
Being a Web-savvy reader, I often found myself bored by much of the news. I wanted more than the traditional fare of politics, government, cops and courts, relieved occasionally by chirpy features. In no time at all, my browser’s bookmarks filled up with links to Web sites I liked and trusted—sites that tracked stories about our digital future, niche magazines, the best of somebody’s smart daily finds.
Early blogs gave me a sense of who was pulling these links together and what they cared about. It was news their authors considered important to their lives. I found I agreed. The art and music news I cared about was not the celebrity doings of The Associated Press entertainment wire. Blogging artists and musicians show us what they like, what’s happening. They spread their culture to anyone who seeks it out. I came to understand what I think of as the giant brain on the Web, a vast aggregation of human knowledge distributed among millions of computers.
Thanks to the Web, the world seems exponentially better reported than it was a dozen years ago. Good bloggers, like good journalists, like to gather interesting information and share the desire to pass it along. We serve our readers. This message has been drummed into me during my 18 years as a newspaper editor.
When I started Subterranean Homepage News, my daily blog, in March 2002, I wanted to show readers the news and ideas I was finding under the radar of traditional media outlets. Although the Web site and my blog are considered part of the Journal, the staffs are separate. My Web-savvy managers syndicate my blog, offering it to 23 other Belo sites including The Dallas Morning News. They seem to consider the blog cutting-edge online journalism and encourage experimentation. I have never been reproached for anything I have written. I do run potentially controversial items past my boss. The only time I have been told not to run something was when I attempted to link to the union Web site (that I also maintain) during a byline strike. I was told that the lack of an equivalent company site was the reason. They promote my blog by name on the cover of projo.com every day I publish and seem pleased by the recognition it has garnered in serious online news and Weblog circles. As a senior editor, trusted to observe the ethics and principles of journalism, I have enormous freedom to explore the possibilities of blogging as a new way to gather and report news and information of interest to online readers.
My default blogger hat reads “Wire editor for the Web.” I write in my own voice, not my official “journalist” one, and create “blog items” from pieces available. To be interesting, the blog must have a discernible human voice: A blog with just links is a portal. At times, I might link without comment just to help a good site or story rise to greater attention. Even when bloggers don’t editorialize much, their interests and bias will be evident in what they choose to point to. On my blog, my news judgment operates in the information-rich environment of the Web; I write for a more informed reader than the newspaper does.
Moving Past the Gatekeepers
If the news media’s power is in setting the nation’s agenda, bloggers enlarge that agenda by finding and flogging ideas and events until traditional media covers them in more depth. Good stories have that kind of energy; they behave on the Web as though they are alive, ready and eager to spread. If enough bloggers find something important and blog it, expressing opinions and linking to others’ opinions, then the idea rapidly multiplies. Very quickly, the story has legs and often will enter into the mainstream media and bubble out to readers, listeners and viewers. Perhaps some kind of action will result because of this news. But one thing is certain: More blogging about it will occur.
I assume my readers are getting daily top stories elsewhere, so I don’t usually blog those. I want to find what other news is percolating out on the Web. It’s from obscure fringes of the Web that my blog’s news springs.
To understand better the Web’s participatory journalism, listen as David Weinberger, the coauthor of “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” explains why he volunteered for presidential candidate Howard Dean:“They understand that it’s about giving voice to the ‘ends’ of the Net (aka us), that it means they lose some control of their message, that they need to enable groups to self-organize, that it’s about listening and conversations more than about center-out broadcasting.” Web-savvy news organizations understand this, too. When only news organizations could afford publishing technology, all journalism was “top down”: We publish, you read (or view or listen). But the Web offers everyone low-cost access to a vast readership.
Last September, David Gallagher interviewed me for a New York Times story on journalist bloggers. Only one sentence of our e-mail interview was in his final story, so I published the entire exchange on my blog for those who might find it interesting. I was probably not the first blogger to do this, but the involvement of two high-profile Web journalists bumped the story up and caused quite a stir in news circles and was widely linked. Subsequently, a reporter from the American Journalism Review interviewed me for a story about the incident and its implications; that reporter published the entire interview as a sidebar.
Some journalists were troubled by this “bottom-up” approach—the notion of the source, not the journalist, deciding what to publish. It exposes the reporter’s selection process, provides context for quotes selected for publication, and could be used as a “gotcha” by disgruntled interviewees. (Gallagher, who is also a blogger, wasn’t fazed by my parallel publishing.) The important point is that widely available, inexpensive Web publishing lets anyone get out his or her story and perspective. Bloggers then link to it and thereby spread the word. News organizations are no longer the gatekeepers on stories—the Web has flung the gates wide open. But sometimes only the Web journalist has both access to the full story and the means to publish it widely.
Newsroom bloggers, who have unlimited free access to the newspaper’s archives, can also allow a story’s building blocks to remain visible. Closed, paid archives at many news organization sites lock up the journalistic record. Two days before Providence’s former mayor, Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, Jr. entered federal prison to serve a 64-month racketeering-conspiracy sentence, Morley Safer, on the CBS television news magazine “60 Minutes,” let him whitewash his history, unchallenged. Safer’s story suggested that Cianci was a colorful victim of overzealous federal prosecution. Many Rhode Islanders, who had decades of experience with both the quick-witted mayor and his sordid past, were shocked.
Situations like this contribute to a growing credibility gap between what the media report and the public believe. Providence Journal columnist Bob Kerr published a powerful column about the shabby journalism done on “60 Minutes:”
“Viewers will hear Cianci discuss the infamous night in 1983 when he invited Raymond DeLeo, a onetime friend, to his house in Providence after learning DeLeo and Cianci’s wife were having an affair. They will hear Cianci say he and DeLeo ‘had a fight.’ They will hear Cianci say that the cigarette involved ‘wasn’t even lit.’ They will hear Cianci say that he ‘lost a happy home’ because of the confrontation.
“What viewers will not hear is that DeLeo was unable to fight back because of the presence of an armed Providence police officer and a group of Cianci friends. They will not hear that the corner of DeLeo’s left eye was burned by the cigarette. They will not hear that the Cianci’s marriage was already over at the time, that they had been to court to start divorce proceedings.”
Kerr’s words were behind the registration wall of the news site and thus made no sound. Access to news on projo.com is available only to readers who will answer demographic questions about themselves. Bloggers, search engines, and even many reporters often will not link to stories that require registration to read. At Subterranean Homepage News, which can be read without registration, I blogged excerpts from both Kerr’s column and the 1984 report of the mayor’s court appearance at which he admitted, under oath, to the charges as part of a plea agreement. The evidence that the mayor was lying was buried in our paid archives. Our attempt to correct the bad journalism done by “60 Minutes” is headlined, “To 60 Minutes: Here’s Buddy Cianci’s 1984 admission of guilt.” I hope soon every newspaper’s archives will be freely available on the open Web. There is a constant need for public access to these records.
After a Rhode Island State Police raid last month on a tax-free smoke shop opened by the Narragansett Indians, Indian activist Sheila Spencer Stover of Bunn, North Carolina, whose Indian name is Firehair Shining Spirit, wrote an e-mail to the governor of Rhode Island, to the secretary of state, and to me, the projo.com blogger. She wrote in support of the tribe’s claim that it’s a sovereign nation, subject only to federal warrants.
Firehair wrote: “Remember after Hurricane Bob, then Tribal Chairman John Brown was asked if he was going to be helped by the state of Rhode Island? He replied, ‘We are a sovereign nation, we do business with the federal government’—this article may still be archived with your paper.” She used this incident to argue that the tribe had established a precedent for sovereignty by getting federal aid directly from FEMA after the 1991 hurricane. Back then, as she reminded me, smiling state officials beamed with pride at the groundbreaking move.
I dug the 1991 “Tribe to get $12,000 for hurricane damage” story out of The Providence Journal’s archives and published it along with her e-mail. Later, I asked Firehair why she had written to me. “I went hunting on Google for email for the ProvJournal, and for whatever reason, the link to your page is what hit me in the eye. There are no coincidences—it got to the right place, now, didn’t it?” she replied.
Indeed, it did.
Rhode Islanders were having a hard time understanding the tribe’s claim to be exempt from state law. While the tribe’s views were mentioned as part of longer news reports on the incident, only the most attentive readers were able to wade through the legal claims and counterclaims. Firehair pointed readers to this clear precedent, as reported years earlier in The Providence Journal. And, as a blogger with an unlimited news hole, I could offer space for her sidebar and resurrect the 1991 story so Rhode Islanders could read it.
Participatory journalism is likely to become the norm in the future: Inviting informed readers to participate in stories can only bolster our credibility and trust. Excluding their reports will lead to rogue publishing that challenges the truth of our reporting and our relevance.
Sheila Lennon is features and interactive producer at www.projo.com, the Web site of The Providence Journal. Her Weblog, Subterranean Homepage News, can be found at www.projo.com/blogs/shenews/ and her after-hours Weblog, The Reader, can be found at www.lennon2.com.