Citizens reporting news at Brattleboro paper

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(Host) At a time when resources for local coverage are shrinking at newspapers around the country, a tiny new paper in Brattleboro is training citizens to report the news.

Backers of "The Commons," a free, nonprofit monthly, see it as part of a movement in which people who are dissatisfied with the media can take local news into their own hands.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more:

Sound of bustling room getting quiet

(Keese) It’s media mentoring night, a monthly event in Brattleboro. In a library meeting room, aspiring citizen-journalists listen as Max Breiteneicher, a freelance reporter, shares what he knows about interviewing.

(Breiteneicher) "When you’re doing a story on somebody you’re taking something sacred into your hands, that is you’re essentially representing them, as individuals, to a wide audience.  Your role is not to make a judgment or conclusion or push an agenda or anything like that…"

(Keese) Later the would-be writers split up into pairs and practice what they’ve learned by interviewing each other.

(Man) "When  you’re listening to interviews or watching interviews, do you ever put yourself in the place of the interviewer."

(Man) "Once I got into print, I had some clips and I could propose stories…(Woman) Actually that kind of ended up being a closed question, didn’t it?"

(Keese) This is one of an ongoing series of workshops sponsored by The Commons, the paper most of the people here would like to write for — or already do.

(Jeff Potter) "I have probably 70 to 80 writers on my email writers list. I send out just an update every month with some story ideas but also inviting people to pitch things."   

(Keese) That’s Jeff Potter, the Commons editor speaking from the paper’s small, spare office overlooking Brattleboro’s down town. Some of Potter’s contributors are accomplished writers. Others are novices, looking into things that interest them, with a local’s sense of what matters and why.

The Commons was born almost five years ago — out of disenchantment with the local daily, the Brattleboro Reformer. The Reformer’s parent company had fired a popular managing editor. Local activists railed against the paper and its Denver-based owners.

Potter, who became editor last year, says the area had a citizen-media infrastructure of sorts. There’s i-brattleboro-com, the popular local blog and at least two low-power community radio stations. Potter says a citizen-powered newspaper is an old idea that’s been renewed in an age of media conglomeration.

(Potter) "I think there’s been new attention to the citizen journalism model because of the variety of technologies available on  the internet et cetera have put tools in the hands of ordinary citizens for reporting on their communities."

(Keese) Some of the paper’s early backers were known for their left-leaning politics. But they determined that the Commons had to be for everyone.

Potter says Windham County may be liberal in the aggregate, but a third of its people vote Republican.

(Potter) "And my goal as editor is to give that 30 percent a proper place."

(Keese) The paper would also like to publish more frequently, something finances won’t allow right now. The Commons is supported equally by ads, grants and donations, and there’s still a long way to go. But ad revenues are growing Potter says.

And there are other hopeful signs. He points to two wooden plaques that haven’t yet made it onto the wall.

(Potter) "We have two first place prizes from the New England News Editors annual Better Newspaper Contest."

(Keese) One  of the awards is for general excellence. The other is for a news story that took a long look at racial incidents unfolding in a troubled Brattleboro neighborhood. 

Potter says times have changed for newspapers, and any tensions with the Reformer are in the past. Reformer Editor Tom Derrico says he considers his staff community journalists as well, and Potter doesn’t dispute that. He says the more voices that are out there checking facts and looking for the story, the better off everyone will be.

For VPR News I’m Susan Keese.

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