Home sweet foggy home!
If Saint John is good for anything, it’s the fog – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. If there is one thing I miss since coming to school in Fredericton it’s the creepy cool mist that hangs over Canada’s first incorporated city (circa 1785).
Saint John is hard to pin down. Primarily settled by loyalists and immigrated Irish, the Port of Saint John has become a tourist destination because of the rich history and Victorian architecture. Last year the city was “designated” a cultural capital of Canada, unfortunately the popularity doesn’t do much for the crippling social and economic divides between Saint John’s neighborhoods. Saint John stinks. And it’s not just the smell of the Irving pulp mill pumping fumes into the salty air.
With a total population of over 122,000 (if you include the outlying areas, like Rothesay and Hampton) there are many reasons why Saint John needs a little help get it’s community groove back.
Although it’s been reported that connecting to a specific location means ultimate demise these days for the independent news source – the PEW research institute, in their ‘State of the News Media‘ came up with some surprising data indicating that the ‘younger demographic’ is getting interested in community news.
It’s no secret that the population of New Brunswick is dwindling and the average citizen is ageing with the architecture; it’s for that very reason that I believe, specifically with Saint John, but across New Brunswick there should be conceded effort to create online-community media projects, in order to share the wealth of awesome New Brunswick culture between our younger communities, instead of just pimping it out to cruise ship passengers.
In the case of a community news source, there is a basic need to communicate news, locally, provincially and federally (with an emphasis on local news) but a further purpose would be to encourage and celebrate growth in local art and industry. Two very broad flags for the diverse nature of the city’s inhabitants, but both lack diversity and interest.
The goal is to find a balance between news and arts, that allows for both to develop independently, but still maintain the same operating principals. In this case, there will have to be some sort of mission statement dictating the terms of service that the website will be providing.
I see the website developing like the CBC website has, connecting two separately developed pages, to cater to both CBC Radio and CBC News. This gives you the ability to develop a ‘salon’ type section (which would include a specifically developed music and radio features section) as well as a news/opinion/features/long-form section.
I know I’m starting to outline a pretty big project, but I believe that if there is a significant amount of infrastructure already developed (which is usually available if you’re creating your website through a third party service like wordpress) and once there’s a pretty good idea of what the layout should be like for either website, that will indicate to the writers what they can produce.
As it gathers content, and possibly revenues (I’ll be talking about that later on) the content can develop from there.
To begin with, the ‘Salon’ section could start off with interviews/radio sections/performances from musicians, photo-journalism or picture of the day features, and coverage of upcoming events, and then evolve to include streamed radio and pre-recorded podcasts.
Similarly, the web page for the news section can start off as an updated news section with links to the weather network or something similar – and then develop sections that adhere to people’s different interests. This could include a ‘healthy living’ section or ‘letter to the editor section’. It all depends on what kind of content the website is able to attract – which also means the website also has to attract writers.
Innovate – working around finding writers
This is not the easiest task – especially if you can only afford to pay a small staff. It would be ideal to be able to attract freelance writers from the city, but what I thought my be an interesting added touch, is specifically attracting high school and university students to the project. Their writing might not be the best, but any writer with a little bit of guidance (i.e a good editor) can be writing full featured articles in no time.
Now, this idea is a little half cocked, but I was thinking that if there was some way to include the services of a full fledged class (while I was in high school there was a journalism class offered and we made a high school paper) that would be awesome. There would have to be a lot of conditions – like they couldn’t be sent to anything 18+, so their ability to collect stories is limited – but they could be put on the trail of “downtown stories” (two of the major high schools are located less than a ten minute walk from the downtown mall) and they could be asked to pursue their own story ideas and come back to class to discuss strategy for covering their independent ideas. The class could also include teaching the kids how to use camera equipment, recording equipment, and develop their skills, like we have in the journalism program here, but possibly to a lesser degree.
I also feel like this might be a good place to mine for artwork, musical acts and poetry/stories. In high school we were encouraged to develop skills like that, but we were never given advice on how to pursue the skills past the option of going to university. It’s been 4 years since my time in high school, and I know a lot of time and money has gone into developing the ‘tech’ aspect of high school classes, (I worked in a middle school last year and they were using mac books to make short music videos – it was ridiculous) but I think the kids would benefit from having a chance to learn what it means to develop and produce a product.
This similarly could be brought to UNBSJ as a club. I think it would require knowing someone affiliated with the school, but it shouldn’t be that hard to advertise for.
News vs. Advocacy – is there really a difference?
In terms of their goals as writers, I think it’s also important to cover all bases. Their writing would be directed at developing Saint John’s independent culture, but also try and act as a muckraker for social problems and watchdog for the local government. That being said, the mission statement is going to be crucial for avoiding controversy. It will first outline who is writing for the website, and that they are entitled to their own personal bias. It is important to recognize that the website isn’t necessarily a straight up news source, but a community advocate.
The writers would be encouraged to keep their personal feelings out of the articles and projects they produce, and investigate thoroughly, but I think it’s important to allow for some slack in terms of opinion based writing. Just because it’s not the lack of opinion that the website is geared for, it’s the depth of opinion that appears within the city. I think what a community news paper needs to achieve is an adequate reflection of what the city is, the little in’s and out’s behind what makes it tick.
Along with the writing that’s going to be available on the website, I think it’s important to encourage the discussion, so there will definitely be a comments board. All comments would have to be approved before they’re posted, to protect the younger writers, but to also make sure that there are no hateful comments. I think it would be an interesting exercise to use first names, to encourage less offensive commenting, but that could be a bust because some could be discouraged because who they are can be determined more easily. There should also be some element of social media, allowing people to log into the website and connect to their twitter and Facebook accounts so they can share content with their friends.
A whole lot of spending money.
The site and writing staff will not come cheap, so I expect that the project will have to start with a initial budget, and then once it’s established (even while it’s being established) there is going to have to be a steady source of revenue. I think in this case the site could sustain itself on donations and ad revenue, but it’s going to be a constant sell. Ad buyers will need to know before they invest whether or not the site is drawing in viewers. There is going to have to be a lot of leg-work, getting people around town to start talking about it. The city will have to be plastered with advertisements that grab attention, and have a clear message. The website will probably have to be operational, and posted to before you can try and sell it to others.
Also, targeting specific businesses around town that don’t get a lot of press, like Backstreet records, because they are smaller operations that don’t do a lot of advertising. There are areas around the city like that, night clubs and places like that. It would also be beneficial to form relationships with these types of venues because they attract a lot of local musical talent. The Saint John Art Center is another place that could benefit from getting more exposure.
What’s the funding for?
Funding is going to be a finicky challenge. The project will need a start up budget but once the infrastructure’s been put in place, the hope would be that after the roots are placed, ad revenue or concerned donors would be able to keeping the site running.
Initial cost (undetermined at this time) would cover the cost to put down the basic framework and design of the web pages, hiring someone who has a dedicated knowledge in web design would be useful, but it would also be useful if they knew about producing journalism – just because they might know how to make the design fit the purpose a little bit better. Layout will have to be simple, and easy to navigate. Minimalism is an asset when trying to reach people on the internet. As soon as you confuse them or they get lost, they’re going to leave the site. A good example of simplicity would be PBS.org. Pictures are easily navagable, and a hyper-link directory at the bottom of the page is useful navigating to the different sections. The mission statement will also have to be easy to find, if not partially quoted on the front page.
Next step would be hiring a dedicated writing staff. These writers would be the base, the Teen Girls Squad of writing staffs. They roles they’d fill would fall along the lines of: ‘the newsy one’, ‘the artsy one’, ‘the sporty/eventy one’ and ‘the investigative one’. As such, they’d be providing the grit and hopefully be enough man-power to man the different sections available to write for. Obviously they would not be trying to produce as much as a news station, and their goals would be quality over quantity. They would also be editing any of the free-lance writing that came in for their sections.
Overall there would also have to be a dedicated editor/manager. They would be in charge of tracking down advertising, managing payroll and settling disputes while making the tough decisions regarding content and how it’s going to be presented.
If the high school student idea pans out, there will also have to be someone with dedicated time to go in and teach the class – meaning they would have to have a background in journalism, but also have skills enough to delve into different mediums, and be able to demonstrate and instruct the students about journalism.
All of the full-time/part-time staff would need to be paid on a regular basis, and in an ideal situation free-lance writers would also be paid a moderate sum for what they produce.
The goal is to create an adequate reflection of the city. The people in it, the businesses that have lasted/are getting started, and the arts/public service stuff that people should know about and appreciate. Success, besides being measured in revenue, should be determined by how close of a reflection you can create, showing Saint John as real beautiful instead of the stupid polished beautiful it pretends to be for tourists.
Besides being a place that just collects information, the site should act as a community bulletin board. After the site’s developed ad the majority of the kinks are worked out different features can be added – like debates on current affairs, which could be collected into podcasts, and even a streamed radio element could be an added element as well.
The demographic I believe should be targeted is the younger population. It is kind of evil to prey on kids who idolize musicians and boss-buisness people, but if you can show them just how interesting their own community is, it could give them reason to invest their time in the city or stay in the province. It is also important, especially within Saint John, that the website is dedicated to starting a discussion about the welfare of the city – not just between friends, but between people who don’t know each other, who’ve had different experiences, who are not afraid to voice their opinions.
The road before the rainbow
The obstacles are similar to those that face other news sources: readership, funding, getting writers. This model relies heavily on personal influence around town. Community reporters have to be dedicated and involved in the community they’re writing about. To start you have to identify what’s already there, what goes unnoticed and shouldn’t. Once you’ve infiltrated the community that far, all that remains is getting them to love the site for what it gives them. They need to see that the website is useful, and that it provides a community service.