Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Back in 2002, a small group of us had a radical idea. Sure, we also decided to start a progressive weekly newspaper in the heart of Mississippi, but the really cutting-edge idea was what we decided to do online. We started blogging.
From the day the JFP launched in September 2002, readers could comment on our stories. We started a conversation online, we argued and debated with readers, we made lots of online friends (and a handful of enemies who didn't want to see "other" ideas discussed in these parts). And we blogged about what we saw in other media (and didn't see).
This may not seem radical today, but when my partner Todd Stauffer suggested that we launch the JFP site on a blogging platform, this just wasn't done by newspapers. And there were no blogs to speak of in Mississippi. You couldn't comment on newspaper articles. (Talk back to the media!? Whaaa?) They hadn't even considered user-generated content, as far as we could tell.
But Todd—or the iTodd, as Casey Parks dubbed him—was thinking differently. He had just written one of the early books on blogging ("Blog On," McGraw-Hill, 2002) and believed that the strongest use of the Web was to give the people a voice so they could "be the media" without going through corporate media filters. There was never a question about whether readers would be able to comment on JFP stories. Of course they would.
When I met Todd 13 years ago, we were both writing technology columns for a magazine owned by a daily Colorado paper. He was one of those young geeks who "got" computing before most others did; he was hosting a radio show and a soon-to-be Emmy-winning TV show about computers and the Internet; he was also writing books about them. Back in 1993, he even had suggested to skeptical CompUSA corporate types in Dallas, where he worked just out of college, that they sell stuff online. They didn't bite. (Then.)
I, on the other hand, knew nothing about how computers work (still don't), and was writing about the social and political implications. Todd convinced me that the Internet could change the world, but not based on fake dot-com quick-wealth bubbles.
The Internet should not be about irrational market valuations, we believed (OK, he believed, and I followed). It should be about the democratization of information. It should be about giving everyday people the power to tell stories, talk back, organize, communicate with people around the world. And this was vital in a time when corporate media were riding high, with their invincible 20-something percent profit margins, shrinking news holes and layoffs of investigative journalists. It seemed clear to us that, like the dot-com bubble, the corporate media mediocrity boom would fall to earth as well. It has. And how.
Sadly, corporate media are reacting exactly wrong to the Internet. They keep shrinking their budgets for good writing and reporting of local news (the Ledger just moved most news off their site's front page), and putting resources into starting and buying rags they "push" on you in your mailbox or yard, so they can then claim you as a reader when they pitch advertising.
Gannett newspapers, including the Ledger, are even moving away from being newspapers online, dubbing themselves "information centers," regardless of how much good information you find when you get there. And even as reports are showing that corporate newspapers, including Gannett's, are actually losing readers online, they are using dumb-guy math and claiming that every page view they get (including from the people who meant to look at, say, a Jacksonville, Fla., newspaper) means they have a large online readership. This is the same trick they use by lumping together the freebies they mail and chuck into yards, adding it to the shrinking Ledger circulation, and claiming they reach "79 percent of the metro." They hope readers (and advertisers) here are too dumb to figure out the scheme.
It's been amusing to watch the corporate scramble to catch up with our blogging and commenting. We've watched the Ledger site go through multiple re-designs since we've launched, and each time they seem to ditch archives of reader commentary, showing a complete lack of respect for how important historical threads are to readers. And each time, the replacement design seems to get more complicated and distant from the readers, with some anonymous Big Brother voice patting readers on the head when they complain about the disaster their forums and blogs have become, if they respond at all. (Go click on a blog post, if you can find one, and look at those four-line URLs, or try to read the comments from the bottom up to get my drift.)
Uh, that isn't giving people tools to "be the media"—which is not the goal of media conglomerates like the Ledger—they are just trying to compete as they become increasingly irrelevant, especially to readers under 40.
All of this is to say that the JFP is proud to unveil our first re-design of our site in years. Todd has worked for months to fashion a unique site that keeps what our readers love and expect, and gives you new tools for conversation and networking, not to mention accessing real information to help you make good decisions, whether about voting or where to go tonight. He quietly launched the new events calendar (JFP Events) in December, providing the most extensive calendar/planner in the state. Now, with the help of new Web designer/events editor Vince Falconi, we've taken it to stage two, with the JFP online site family (like jackpedia.com, Jackson's take-off of Wikipedia) starting to congeal.
We're not done, yet. More puzzle pieces are on the way—some simply bedazzling. For now, go post your own events listings (yes, you can), especially those scheduled months from now or even next year, in order to make jfpevents.com the planner that we all use to avoid scheduling conflicts. (Add the date for a future fundraiser to hold the date or e-mail it to [e-mail missing]; we can add more details to it later). And if you haven't, go add to Jackpedia—don't be afraid to help tell the world what it needs to know about the city and our people, including yourself. (And help us prepare for the second annual print Jackpedia, a user-generated guide to Jackson, appearing in August, in time for college.)
More importantly, spend time on the site and lend your voice. It's been hot, heavy and thought-provoking for nearly six years now, and there is a reason for that. See for yourself at the site.
Six years, huh? Cool. :-)
Crazy. It's been a blur. I'm getting people now telling me they've been reading us since middle school! Six years in September -- on my mama's birthday. ;-)
Middle school? Well, don't feel too bad. Sometimes I feel old when I remember seeing the Olsen twins on TV as infants.
I think this makes me old now.