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Fear and Excitement about Online Community Building and Health Journalism

Fear and Excitement about Online Community Building and Health Journalism

Picture of Michelle Levander

Susan Mernit and Staci Baird, social media gurus, had a message for reformed journalists and New Media entrepreneurs participating in our pilot program melding online community engagement and health journalism.

"We come in peace."

It was said in humor at our opening dinner -- and everyone laughed -- but it was an apt expression of the challenges that would be confronted over the succeeding days as our fellows – entrepreneurs who started their own blogs and online news sites – wrestled with trying something new and everything good, bad, ugly and scary that can imply. 

The 11 Online Community Building and Health Fellows have a wide range of experience. To those who have yet to dive in seriously with social media -- Twitter, Facebook and the alphabet soup of other new tools – experimenting can seem like a confusing and even irritating set of "supposed-tos" with uncertain results.

Some of our fellows struggle to see the practical benefit when they already juggle day jobs, writing for their community sites, raising children and more. Meantime other Fellows are converts and see Facebook and Twitter as critical to their success.

For Pascale Fusshoeller, co-founder and editor of Yubanet, community engagement involves both online and offline connections. In the early days of her Nevada County site, she used social media and in-person community forums simply to get out the word that the site existed. These days, even though there is a local newspaper in town, Yubanet hosts candidate debates (covered by the local paper but hosted by her site) and holds community gatherings every six weeks. With social media, she serves as a critical resource for compiling and disseminating tips and warnings about fire danger in the Sierras. She's also become a consistent voice on local government. "I suffer through every board of supervisors meeting," she says. "I'm the Helen Thomas of Nevada County – without the lipstick!"

Social media also helps Elizabeth Larson stay ahead on breaking news stories in rural Lake County for Lake County News. When Larson recently heard word of a breach in a failing levee, she confirmed the tip, started tweeting immediately and put out the word on Facebook. Then she raced over to the levee, shot video and put it on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The video quickly went viral and before she knew it, she had received a call from ABC in New York asking for the video

Mernit and Baird aim to encourage fellows to use social media – and other techniques – to engage with their audience and – in some important ways – to rethink the relationship.

"We live in a world today where part of credibility is being willing to engage in a discussion .a dialogue," says Mernit.

The story doesn't have to be told solely by the journalist – or the news site editor. Community members who live the story can contribute too – through blogs, community opinion pieces and social media commentary.  

Mernit encourages those who struggle with this to think about online storytelling as an "iterative process" like open source software development that involves a community in telling the story and testing hypotheses. The story can be shaped by everyone's thinking over time – it's fluid rather than a finished product designed by one author.   

Should journalists just tell stories? Or should they also try to convene people – online and off – to talk about the subjects that have the greatest impact on local communities? One fellow said she liked the idea of having another non-profit convene gatherings, but that she saw it as outside her role as an independent reporter to work with local non-profits who might also be serving as her sources, especially on polarizing topics.

Here are some of the questions we grappled with during our long weekend together. 

  • What are the ethics and boundaries that online sites should establish in partnering with local foundations, non-profits or businesses?
  • What roles are appropriate for funders? For community partners?
  • Do you have a code of conduct that you rely upon to establish the rules for engagement on your site? How has that helped you?
  • What is your publishing strategy for Twitter vs. Facebook?
  • Which social tools serve your goals and which seem like a waste of time?

Please share your thoughts. 


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Picture of Yvonne LaRose

You raise some interesting points and share backgrounds of the fellows that are good to know.

I was recently referred to some of the reporting done by the fellows as examples of what you're looking for from them. After reviewing about three, all I could see was cookie-cutter stories that merely changed themes. Quite unsatisfying. It made me wonder whether that is what is now journalism and being a health journalism fellow. Your post tells me it is not.

What I also gained from your post is the myriad of ways news can be aggregated and broadcast to a very large audience. It made me aware of the many overlooked FREE tools available to do self broadcasting. The only requirement is to know HOW to enable and use the tools.

But therein lies yet another issue - being seen as a professional; being taken seriously for your endeavors. I don't see that any of your fellows suffer from disabilities. I don't see that they have gone through the necessity of dipping deeply into their own pockets year after year to cover the costs of producing their stories (and simultaneously building their entrepreneurships) nor fighting off the social wolves and vultures in order for their product and them to survive.

Nope. I keep being told what I'm doing is a hobby and nothing to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, the outline of what I want to convey keeps getting frazzled because of the sheer volume and mangnitude of the issues confronting the population. However, the positive (in spite of becoming part of the ghettoes other unsavory environments I endeavor to shed light on) that derives from these many trials and errors is that I'm very definitely still learning. The cost of the lessons seems to indicate I'll never savor the sweet taste of success from actually delivering and having the message heard, having the audience benefit from the message.

Picture of Michelle Levander

Yvonne: Thanks for your thoughtful note. It sounds like you are confronting a challenge faced by many people who follow their passion and launch their own site: figuring out how to make a living doing it. It's an issue that was very much a topic of conversation during our recent fellowships program for online entrepreneurs. I'm hoping that others in your shoes will share their stories on the challenges of trying to tell community stories online. Keep it up!

Best, M

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