There is nothing that represents a rural community like a straw bale. Friends in Ferndale built a house out of straw bales this year. And in these pages, Amy Stewart taught us how to build a vegetable garden on top of one. Now I want to show you how you can build a news publication with one.
That's because I worry about the health of local news. The Internet increasingly provides more goods from outside the area than stores can provide in it and so the advertising model that used to produce nice profits doesn't work in isolated communities anymore.
But we need a way to know what's going on here in our local community. So, inspired by Amy Stewart, I thought I'd make public my secret recipe for a straw bale newspaper. That way, the next time some wealthy newspaper owner pulls the plug on your local paper you'll still have a source of reliable news.
Ingredients you will need: One straw bale. You can get it at the Farm Store for less than $10. One cell phone that comes equipped with voice mail or, in lieu of that, a roam phone and an answering machine. A computer and Internet connection. You don't necessarily need broadband. Despite what everyone tells you, as long as you have a lot of time and patience a slow modem will work fine. A pen and notepad. An e-mail address.
Step One: Put the straw bale in a place sheltered from rain and wind. Sit down on it with your phone, pen and notepad.
Step Two: Start calling everyone you know and find out what's going on around town. Write down what people tell you. Make sure you when you write down a piece of information you write down the name of the person who gave you that information. The first way to build credibility as a citizen journalist is to make sure your readers know where you got your information. And don't think you will remember. Your memory is not your partner in this venture and will try to play tricks on you.
Step Three: Go to your computer and create a blog. That's a name for a Web site where you post information for other people to read. Some people use it for personal diaries. Other people use blogs to showcase their art, music, poetry or philosophical musings. You can use it to create a news publication. There are a number of free blog hosting sites. One, through Google, is Blogger.com. There are more sophisticated, hipper and, I've been told, easier ones. But Blogger is pretty simple to figure out. You will need a valid e-mail address to sign on, but otherwise it's free. Give your blog a clever name that you think you could stick with a long time and that will outlast you when you hand the job over to someone else.
Step Four: From all the information you got on the phone from all those people you know, determine three things that you feel other people in your community might not know about but should.
Step Five: Go to the scene of the crime. By that I mean wherever the news originated. It might be City Hall or the police station or a business in Old Town. Here's where you have to get off the straw bale that has been so good to you until now to find out if the story is true and to get more information about it. You can call, but in the beginning you will get the best and most complete information from people when they know who you are, and they can't do that as well over the phone. Ask for exact numbers -- how many, how much, how long.
Step Six: Here's where you turn each of those three news items into a little story for your readers. Grab three different sheets of paper. On each paper write the subject of one of the stories and this list: "Who, What, Where, When, Why and How." Allow for plenty of space between the six. Who is the news item about? Whom does it affect? Who will score and who will be screwed? Then go to the "What." What is happening? When did it happen or will it happen? Has it been happening for a long time? Is it temporary or permanent? Then "Why?" Will it solve a problem or improve lives in some way for some people? Will one person make a killing on it? Then "How?" How the heck will it work? How will they get the money to do it? What's the process that is involved?
Step Seven: Now write your stories on your blog. Here are some general pointers. Readers are usually more interested in the What than the Who, unless the Who is someone everyone already knows.
Write as if your reader will be the most clueless, most disinterested person you know who is also blind. Go slow, don't rush through your news items. Show as much as possible by recreating actions through words and by describing sights, sounds and even smells from your visits to the crime scenes.
Post your blog and ask readers to call or e-mail you with news items. Recruit trustworthy friends and relatives to sign on to your publication as citizen journalists who can keep their ears open for news and who might be willing to go out and get information. If you have a staff of five volunteers and each volunteer writes three stories you will be able to report 15 new stories a week. If you can do this on a consistent basis, you will attract readers. Then you might be able to sell a few ads. Don't count on getting rich. But like many ventures in a local community, it's about creating a sustainable resource that people need. You could form a non-profit organization and raise money to pay your staff.
When you can handle simple text, start adding audio and video. An iPod with a microphone makes a terrific digital recorder. And you can get a Flip video camera that takes great Web videos that you can plug right into your computer for super-easy uploads for about $220.
And oh, the recipe works fine even if you don't have a straw bale.
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. With the dissolution of the Eureka Reporter, she believes this column has outlived its usefulness. If you think otherwise, or want to urge her to end it with dignity, e-mail Hank Sims at firstname.lastname@example.org.