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Inform and Engage

By Cody Bloomsburg

Rethink ’08 was unlike any project I have been a part of, journalistic or otherwise. Instead of asking a handful of sources questions to uncover or support a trend, we set out to engage members of the Missoula community in an ongoing discussion about where they perceive the political energy of young people had gone after the 2008 presidential election, working from a premise pre-established by other journalists.

Cody Bloomsburg, tweeting the Rethink08 debate. Photo: Carmen Irish

This meant that I had to give up the control I have as a journalist. Instead of being able to organize sources and background information in a sensible structure before it is put out to be digested, the project had that happen in a public forum to some extent. And it perhaps should have done so more, given its goal of stimulating an ongoing, open conversation.

A discussion by definition is a back-and-forth exchange, and I think it’s hard for journalists to let things reach a conclusion out in the open. Yet this is becoming an increasingly important part of journalism, not least if you consider the implications of alternative journalism on the future of mass media.

In their 2008 book, “Alternative Journalism,” the first book-length study of the subject, Chris Atton and James F. Hamilton point to the fact that non-traditional forms of journalism have been around since the beginning of mass media, and that they have always helped change the direction of the mainstream, as I believe they are poised to do again. The blogosphere and all the other outlets for citizen journalism and commentary are becoming just as big of a part of the story as the candor of experts and the conclusions we draw when we sum it our reporting for our readers.

In their book, Atton and Hamilton define alternative journalism as stemming from “dissatisfaction not only with mainstream coverage of certain issues and topics, but also the epistemology of news.” Alternative journalism can take the form of  “newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations; blogs and social network sites; pamphlets and posters; fanzines and zines; graffiti and street theatre; independent book publishing and even independent record production.” Applying this to the Rethink ’08 project, I conclude that if we as journalists do not find a way to engage citizen journalists and commentators, we could be replaced by them once they find a way to establish credibility.

This is where social networking comes into the mix. While sites like Facebook have proven good for advertising and creating general awareness of events or discussions, I think they fall short when it comes to fostering and maintaining discussions. We saw that in the inverse correlation between the number of Facebook friends Rethink ’08 collected and the number of comments on the Rethink ’08 Web site, which was supposed to be a place to house discussion and add relevant, related content. In some ways the site fell short in achieving this goal because the discussion was slow to start and engaged only a handful at first. Yet this lack of initial momentum proved to be extremely successful as a learning process.

Where I think the site fell short in fostering lively discussion at the outset, I feel it could have succeeded had we tapped into ready-made communities of politically active young people. To work with organizations such as Forward Montana, a Missoula-based progressive group, to sort of prime the pump would have given the Rethink ’08 Web site a better start. We found an example of this at the end of the project when we hosted a live-chat debate in which a local politician, a political science professor and a graduate student from the Czech Republic discussed issues related to our topic and community members were allowed to join in on the discussion. The event sparked an ongoing conversation even after its conclusion.

In the end, I think what the general public wants is the ability to discuss issues with people in power and experts in a more casual setting, and that is why the debate was successful. Providing that setting and information about the issues will result in a better informed, more engaged public, and that is a new aspect of journalism I discovered through this project.

Read Cody Bloomsburg’s profile of Chavvahn Gade.

Check out Cody Bloomsburg’s story on youth activism after the Obama election.

Read Cody Bloomburg’s recap of the Rethink08 debate.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Byron Knutsen permalink
    January 8, 2010 11:53 am

    Cody,

    In March 2009 you wrote an article about my pioneer trail hunting hobby that I have. I have researched a trail that Fremont either used or established and would like to do a followup. Are you with a paper no?

    Byron Knutsen
    Preston, (since I left Malad in 2009)

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