Brattleboro’s virtual meeting place

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(Host) There’s a lot of talk these days about media ownership being consolidated into too few hands. In Brattleboro, a couple of Web designers have created an Internet soapbox and local information exchange. It’s open to virtually anyone.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) The Internet has created a new kind of community that has little to do with geography. Typically these virtual communities are made up of people separated by great distances, drawn together by common interests. But what if people shared an interest in the place where most of them actually lived? Then you might have something like

(Lise LePage) “Today is a slow news day. We’ve got somebody suggesting that we start a Starbucks. This article is all a discussion on Vermont Yankee. So we’ve got a lot of people today discussing whether or not we want VY and what we would do if we didn’t have it.”

(Keese) The woman at the computer is Lise LePage. She and her partner Chris Grotke operate out of the Brattleboro apartment that also houses their Web design business.

Grotke sees the Web site as a cross between a blog – sort of an online diary – and a local paper or magazine where the readers are also the writers.

(Grotke) “Anyone can cover an event write up an opinion. And it goes up on the site and then everyone who’s a reader can comment on it. So it keeps people honest. You can’t write some really slanderous thing because everybody will say, ‘That’s not true!'”

(Keese) Grotke and LePage started the site last winter. Part of their motivation was to create a news outlet without the space limits newspapers typically have. They started by developing lists of meetings and events. They created links to every local service and business they could find that had a Web site. They printed up some fliers.

(LePage) “And to our amazement within two weeks we had lots of people who weren’t us on the site posting stories and comments.”

(Keese) When the new Thai restaurant opened downtown, the site buzzed with reviews. A legislator from a neighboring town used it recently to air his thoughts on the administration’s new energy plan.

(Grotke) “We have a high school student who regularly chimes in with really good ideas about town planning. Who would think to go ask a high school student about town planning? We also have a section on the site for rumors and they can be true or untrue.”

(Keese) Like the rumor that the town’s new parking garage is actually a launching pad for UFO’s. If a rumor seems libelous or harmful, the couple say, they’ll keep it off the site. But enough of the rumors have turned out to be real news stories that local reporters regularly check the site.

(Grotke) “So it is a way for anyone if they have an important issue and there’s an important story that they want to tell and it gets on to the site, which it can easily do, it may get picked up and moved up the chain to other forms of media.”

(Keese) The ground rules for are different from the ground rules for a newspaper. The Brattleboro Reformer almost never uses anonymous contributions. Kate Casa is the Reformer’s managing editor. She believes people should be held accountable for what they say.

(Casa) “There are a number of checks and balances at the Reformer that may not exist on a Web site. A number of people make the assignments check the quotes, check the facts. You can be first in a lot of things, but I think reliability is important.”

(Keese) Casa says the format is too unwieldy for a newspaper.

(Casa) “But for those that want the access, I think it’s good they have it.”

(Keese) Grotke thinks is unique, or nearly so – though, it’s hard to know what’s out there on the World Wide Web.

Grotke and Lepage aren’t making a killing off They’ve seen about $500 in ad revenues so far. They say they wouldn’t mind making some money at it. If they did, Grotke adds, laughing, they’d probably throw a big party and invite everyone to come.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Brattleboro.

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