Community journalism encourages members of the community to participate in the news process, not just as passive readers, but as active producers of the news itself. This direct connection to the product is similar in many ways to the kind of community building that goes on in open source development. Perhaps that's why it's not surprising that Patrick Phillips, who is Editor of the Vineyard Voice, a publication based in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts (an island off the coast of Cape Cod), has developed a community participation model for his publication while delivering the publication using the open source content management software, Drupal.
This dual role gives Phillips a unique understanding about the connection between the two communities and how each one encourages and promotes positive social interaction on the internet. I asked him recently about his use of these two types of online social systems and about the role of community in each of these projects.
RM: It seems many traditional journalists and publications are threatened by inviting the community into the conversation. Why do you encourage it?
PP: I think encouraging conversation is not the real threat. Yes, it may be a threat to the eyeballs to ads revenue model of traditional news. It changes the business model and potentially democratizes (distributes) the process of sharing news and information. But the real threat is the demise of the informed community that comes with a highly aggregated and controlled news product. As we all know, the model of traditional news is one of "content and audience."
If content is controlled and the audience is fed, it really is not much more interesting than a feed lot — we also know what kind of diversity comes out of feed lots. Distributed news platforms enable a broad and often divergent conversation to occur. The social matrix, also known as the community, is activated. An active community conversation is inherently not controllable; it's largely just channeled. As an editor and publisher of a community news and information magazine it is my job to sense the community and "curate" the conversation, not control it. Bottom line, it is the potential to inform the community through curating the conversation that motivates me.
RM: How does involving the community in your publication enrich your content?
PP: The Voice is an interesting model. I not only invite users to publish their own articles, photos, videos and audio, but I convene small editorial advisories for each issue. On the one hand, providing access to community publishing enables people who have something to communicate — event information, book announcements, artwork — to share their information locally and web-wide. Self-publishing creates what I call waves. They are like the waves on top of a deeper community context. An example is a current piece published by someone who is only eating food she can find within 100 miles. It is an individual, personal story, but it is relevant to the whole community conversation on local food and sustainability. This person's experience and writing is more authoritative than if I'd written the article as the publisher.
These waves ride a deeper conversation. To tap into this conversation, the Voice collects topical stories from the community by asking several editors to shape a key question — on health, on energy, on food — and to share that question with as many people as possible through email and hand written notes. These editorial advisories garner responses, shape stories and draw perspectives in for publication. One current advisory is working on what health means to people on the island. What all this means is that I simply orchestrate a community conversation that is made meaningful through the participation of people who know and care. The result is socially relevant and meaningful content that matters to people who live in the community.
RM: What could larger traditional media properties learn from your model?
PP: That's the billion dollar question, and it'll take 10 years to work itself out. But I think it all comes down to local context and the real value of an informed public. Disintermediation is a threat to money. Democratization of media is a return to local context. The problem with the whole media model now is that local context is a threat to money because local context in papers, radio and TV just doesn't meet the conglomerate's shareholder expectations.
There is the possibility that, through what they call a "high touch" engagement with the community traditional media could play a role. A McClatchey newspaper in Fort Meyers turned to the local population last fall to assess a government report, and the community as a whole did a month's worth of digging in a day. This kind of distributed use of the community to uncover inconsistencies is powerful, but it requires a fine-tuned editorial practice and a whole lot of trust. I think the key is there needs to be a recognition that growth and consolidation in community news and information is not just economically unsustainable, but it is socially destructive. The keys to the kingdom for national media must be handed out to the people of the community. In turn, with a lot of risk, relevance will be built back into the local conversation. Otherwise traditional media will pacify the country with top-down pablum. Risk giving away the store, and in the process gain the story. It'll take time to see if it will be this approach, or a two-tiered internet. One or the other is coming.
RM: You use Drupal to manage your site’s content. How did you come to choose Drupal from the many content management systems available?
PP: I researched. At the time I knew nothing about Drupal. I had investigated other larger systems, but their proprietary workflow structures and often exorbitant licensing fees ruled them out immediately. Around the time I was first investigating open source options, IBM came out with a white paper detailing the modular benefits, the solid programming and the seriousness of the worldwide community of Drupal developers. This pushed me down the road quite far.
I had considered Joomla!, but the deep comment threads on Joomla! convinced me that the Joomla! development community was not as committed and was far more controlled, and it served a different market. This made me nervous, because I felt it may have limited software innovation and my options. Even though at this time Drupal demands at the very least a "tinkerer mentality" when it comes to building out sites, coupled with the IBM report I opted to attend a weeklong workshop and see for myself. After a stint with the Lullabots I was hooked.
RM: Why do you use open source instead of a proprietary product?
PP: Proprietary products must meet pretty rigid R&D guidelines. Their development is tied to a group of people with a range of knowledge working under a product launch deadline. These development conditions narrow the scope, the process and the product. Add to them the marketing and fee structure tied to a perceived value of the product and a limited life-cycle, and at the very least I think there is the possibility for a costly, unhappy marriage.
Sure, the idea of trusting your organization (your baby) to an unknown world-wide community of developers is risky. But the rewards are tremendous. Drupal is standards tested by some of the most focussed and brightest developers who are committed to continuous testing and transparency. Sure, the community has thin spots. But just as the community of news providers and the social context we all live in, the Drupal community reaches out to each other and sees well down the road. Drupal is already developing a rich RDA framework for compliance with the semantic web — something Yahoo and Google are just now beginning to roll out. Besides all this innovative thinking is fun, and the people tremendous.
RM: Do you see a link between your choice of open source software and involving community in your publication?
PP: Drupal is built by some of the best minds in the community building movement. It's well known the organizations like moveon.org and the Howard Dean campaign at one time figured out how to use technology to connect people. They were early adopters. It is not a political thing — there is no red or blue Drupal. So answering your question goes to a deeper relationship of what open source software and community.
Communities building communities is not tautological or redundant. There is that adage that form follows function. Well, in this case form and function are the same. In open source communities the form of the community — its flexibility in addressing concerns, agility in relating to immediate needs and vision to grow from experiences — is its continual recipe for success. It depends upon these formal aspects in order to be functional: to produce great useful software. There is at the very least a practical synergy between the open source community and my choice to use it for the Vineyard Voice.
Often the current context of innovation in the community of developers is in sync with the current context of need of the community. What I mean by this is, for example, should I, in conversation, discover a great way to deliver video RSS feeds to my community someone has likely followed that trail in development ahead of my need. But conceptually, the synergy is simple. In terms of technical delivery think, act and respond within the Drupal community simultaneously with the needs of the Vineyard Voice community. So, in this way there is more than a link; there is a deeply embedded social factor that enables me to think and act in a fluid rhythm. Hopefully this will be my and the the island community's continual recipe for success as well.