By Sheila Gibbons
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
"Placeblogs" serve millions of Americans with hyper-local news and commentary and women run many of these operations. Sheila Gibbons says this new news niche is a welcome alternative to media whose efforts to serve women have failed.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Long poorly served by newspapers wedded to traditional definitions of news, women are creating "placeblogs," or online information sites abuzz with hyper-local news and commentary.
Their creations have the potential to offset deficiencies in the way news organizations depict women and the amount
--and type--of attention they give them. Not surprisingly, women have repaid this neglect by walking away. Thirty percent of women say they regularly watch network evening newscasts, compared with 37 percent of men, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which also says that 47 percent of men say they regularly read a newspaper. Only 37 percent of women do.
Placeblogs represent a new form of reporting--"participatory journalism" or "citizen media"--that moves newsgathering out of newsrooms and into communities where readers can generate content and commentary.
To my delight, women have embraced this new media platform, as founders and contributors. How refreshing to read about essential life activities, and to avoid a daily dose of Paris Hilton's antics, what Nancy Pelosi and Queen Elizabeth II are wearing on their rounds, or what Washington madam Deborah Palfrey might reveal about her clients. How pathetic that traditional media focus on these things and not on the basics that animate women or, for that matter, men, who are flocking to placeblogs in nearly the same numbers as women.
Placeblogs seem to be developing as the antidote to the mainstream media model that has caused its female audience to dribble away.
"For sites that are associated with real-world communities, the more women they have, the more successful they are," says Lisa Williams, who developed the cleverly named H2otown.info for the residents of Watertown, Mass.
"Women bring more social behavior with them online," says Williams, a technology analyst turned media consultant. "They're more likely to use buddy list features to bring in their friends. They're more likely to spread the word about the site and use their part of the site to congratulate members or say happy birthday. These kinds of activities have a huge encouraging effect on the community at large, like watering flowers."
Placeblogs provide "fusions of news and schmooze," says a 2007 report by J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Some are rolled out by newspapers seeking a stronger relationship with readers (and advertisers). More, however, are independent operations and according to J-Lab's report, many have been started by women attuned to the hunger for community connections.
"Women, as we know, can juggle a lot of tasks, work hard, turn copy fast and are good listeners to the community," Jan Schaffer, J-Lab's executive director, told me.
In H2otown, Williams reports on municipal meetings, makes barbed observations about the behavior of public officials and acts as a consumer advisor.
When her car was due for inspection, she asked her readers to tell her where to go, took the car to the business that got the most recommendations, and promised to report back on the experience. As interest in H2otown grew, people began contacting her with ideas and story tips, some writing notes they placed under her car's windshield wipers.
The online world is notorious for verbal flame-throwing, and Williams makes an effort to keep it civil so female members are not driven off.
"When people took a no-holds-barred stance in larger online communities, you lost women, and you lost people over 55. As much as I love pugnacious young guys, I'm not one of them. I wanted a community that was as inclusive as possible," says Williams. That has meant monitoring and restricting the types of comments that readers can post.
She also has developed Placeblogger.com, an index with excerpts from placeblogs worldwide.
Williams estimates 103 million Americans live in communities with a placeblog, with the most likely setting being a suburb that borders a major metro area. One of the top placeblogs, she says, is Baristanet.com, which J-Lab calls "an edgy blend of local comings and goings" in three affluent New Jersey communities: Montclair, Glen Ridge and Bloomfield.
Liz George partners with founder Debbie Galant at Baristanet. They and Annette Batson, their daily editor, provide most of its content.
After reading several days' worth of posts, I told George I thought the "voice" of the site was definitely female.
"We have a little bit of tone," she said. "It's playful. We sound sometimes like somebody's mother, sometimes like a girlfriend."
Baristanet offers "the small stories that the big newspaper probably wouldn't do," says George, who is also an editor at the New York Daily News.
One recent story highlighted a woman who had rescued a stray dog and was seeking a home for it. Another featured a woman who blogs about motherhood for a site called Alpha Mom. Baristanet's comment, penned by an acerbic "Barely Adequate Mom," essentially was, "We like the blogger, we don't like the Alpha Mom label," George says.
Baristanet is profitable, and she and Galant are exploring how to replicate their model for another community. George says the gender breakdown among those who post comments is about even. Among mainstream media news sites, there is a more pronounced gender gap: in general, the number of men reading online news is 8 percent to 13 percent higher than women, according to studies by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Mary Lou Fulton is vice president of audience development at The Californian in Bakersfield, an independent, daily newspaper serving the San Joaquin Valley.
"We (newspapers) have done a really good job of discouraging people from participating through the years, other than in a limited area, which is letters to the editor," says Fulton. Her mandate: Fix that.
In 2004 under her direction The Californian launched NorthwestVoice.com, recruiting Bakersfield institutions and community groups to contribute. Individuals quickly jumped in to add personal announcements, commentary on local issues and shout-outs to people deserving recognition for community service.
"Though not designed to appeal specifically to women, the majority of participants have been women," Fulton says. "Women, who are more the keepers of the social fabric in the community, would be the ones to share the pictures . . . and take the lead on local issues that would have greater impact in the community."
On placeblogs, personal experiences receive more attention than in a traditional newspaper. A posting by radio host Rachel Legan on Northwest Voice, recalling her 21st birthday when her husband was convicted of raping another woman, prompted the launch of a program to help young women in abusive relationships.
Citizens are quick to claim ownership of sites that connect, Fulton says. There was an immediate uproar when the print version of the Northwest Voice ran an ad picturing a woman in a revealing blouse. Readers saw it as a violation of the "Northwest Voice way." The ad was quickly pulled.
What's gratifying to me, as a longtime observer of the nexus between women and media, is how quickly and effectively women have moved to occupy this new public space.
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers.
J-Lab, "Citizen Media: Fad or Future of News? The Rise and Prospects of Hyperlocal Journalism":
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