In defense of online, citizen journalism

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Darren Johnson
Publisher

I own 631politics.com. It’s part of the “new journalism,” like it or not. It now gets about 8000 real hits a day and over 100 posts. On election night, 16,000 people checked in. Obviously, the vast majority of people read it but don’t post. The regular posters, therefore, are the storytellers. They can spread truths (that the standard newspapers often stay away from), or they can create whispers. Some usernames are more trustworthy than others. If you read it enough, you know who to stay away from and who may have a point. I know at least a hundred people who at least occasionally post. I know that the site is bookmarked in government offices across the New York Metro area. The usernames are like CB “handles” — they give the regulars a clue as to the ID of the writer. Regular posters pay the site fees, making it free for everyone else. About 20 of them were at a party recently in Riverhead.
The posters on 631politics are mostly everyday people, and they have better typing skills than the people posting on most newspaper sites. Most people I meet don’t know I own the site, but when I go to networking events all over Suffolk I hear people reciting information that they could have only gotten from 631politics. Yes, to local newspapers’ editors chagrins, the site has been critical of most incumbents at one time or another, and usually deservedly. Long Island papers endorse incumbents at an 80% clip, it seems; a counter-balance is needed.
The site has had some accomplishments and led to some county legislation and action. Considering how close many elections are, maybe it swayed enough votes to turn the tide in a couple of races. Also, a minor party I used to organize, the Integrity Party, would not have gotten 10,000 petition signatures each summer without the site as a networking vehicle. We would have had the same sorry tally of 2000 or so signatures we had with previous minor party efforts and likely knocked out at the Board of Elections.
I’ve seen local smalltown journalism drastically change in the past 10 years. Maybe some of the quality local papers in my area, Eastern Suffolk County, are the last bastion of the first amendment, but I can tell you it’s disheartening when I hear that some reporters for Long Island weekly papers also sell advertising on the side. When you see not only cable news channels but also the City ones shamelessly promoting some trendy product during the broadcast, or see local reporters get jobs in town hall after regime changes, or you hear about non-journalist plants at press conferences tossing softballs to the holder of the conference — and no one notices — or you know about major daily papers in the area holding back stories until after election day as not to damage the editorial board’s candidate; it makes you think maybe the Internet is our last hope for the future of some sort of honest journalism. It’s messy right now, and it’s new-fangled, but every medium seems to have growing pains as it fights for an audience.
Let’s face the economic reality of the situation. These smalltown papers pay what? Thirty g’s a year for an experienced writer with a college degree? These same people can get at least double that in almost any other writing-related job on the Island. With the massive increase in local cost of living, it’s only going to get harder and harder for traditional papers to attract and keep good writers. Any advertiser worth its salt won’t advertise in a poorly written paper. So what could happen? These small weeklies become the Pennysaver. My part of Long Island, which has several award-winning papers (the best in the state, according to NYPA contests), seems to defy these journalistic trends, but for how long?
The people who post on posting board websites — for free — should be lauded, not criticized. Most of them are reporting things in their neighborhoods feeling it’s a civic duty, and it is. Would you rather they spend their idle time passively, playing “Madden 2010” or watching “American Idol”?
Traditional journalists take cracks at people’s anonymity on the web. Well, before I mentioned how most regular posters are known in some way by somebody — but even if they aren’t, it has been proven time and time again in the courts that anonymous speech is free speech. The American Revolution was partially fueled by anonymous pamphleteers.
I’m very proud to offer an outlet for people who previously felt stifled or helpless. They keep posting because they see that often their posts have results. God bless them.