"Hyperlocal" Journalism And Community

Many of my friends and readers of my national commentary know that I am also the founder of a web site called Rockville Central, which is an example of what the Knight Citizen News Network would call “hyperlocal journalism.” Rockville Central is a citizen-produced, all-volunteer local blog that is intentionally designed to embody the kinds of participatory-democratic civic ideas that many of my readers share with me.

I am happy (and proud) to report that the National Civic Review, a well-respected journal on public issues published by the National Civic League, has an article about Rockville Central in the latest (Fall 2008) issue. While copyright restrictions forbid me from making the original available freely, if you simply email me (by responding to this note) I can send you the final draft version without restriction.

In any case, I thought you might be interested to read an excerpt from the conclusion:

I set out with Rockville Central to engage in a kind of civic experiment. I wanted to see what would happen when an online space popped up that had a very particular set of sensibilities. In essence, I wanted to try to embody many of the approaches and ideas espoused by the civic sector.

I learned that, with just a small amount of care, such an enterprise can be successful in a small way. I doubt the ability of something like this to be commercially viable on a large scale. Indeed, insofar as Rockville Central has provided a new space for people, it needs to remain on a human scale; growing too big would kill it.

However, I can honestly say that I hope for the model to proliferate. I’ve pursued Rockville Central specifically with the idea in mind that others could replicate it. Whenever there was a free way to do something, as opposed to an expensive way, I chose the free way.

While it is not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea to be a civic blogger, literally anyone could create something like Rockville Central. There are no special skills required and no training. It does not require access to capital or to fancy foundations.

So, for those who may have had their interest piqued by the story of Rockville Central, I offer this handful of lessons learned. They are things to keep in mind, if you choose to move forward.

  • Impact and Scale are very different things. Based on grateful emails I get, the fact that almost the entire senior staff and governing officials of the City reads it, and from anecdotal stories of ordinary people choosing to take actions they would not otherwise take because of something they read in the blog, I am certain Rockville Central is having an impact. However, its “scale” is relatively small and I have no plans for it to grow simply for growth’s sake. Scale does not interest me. Impact does.
  • Try little things, if you fail so what? The history of Rockville Central is littered with ideas that did not pan out. Our year of existence (so far) has been marked by quick attempts to try new things, followed by equally quick admissions of failure where they occurred. . . . There was the time I thought I would adopt an informal approach to a series of video interviews with City Council members. It was 100 days into the term and I wanted to follow up on campaign promises. My first interview featured me in a ripped pair of jeans. It caused such an uproar that I publicly apologized. People demanded a bit more decorum of me. Lesson learned! This was not the first, nor the only, time I have publicly apologized for a mistake on the blog. After each of these episodes, messages came in praising the change in course. People appreciate experimentation, and understand that mistakes may be made — and they appreciate forthrightness about it.
  • You don’t need an organization to have an institution. Rockville Central is literally two people who just spend time volunteering. There is nothing official about it, no phone number to call, no office to visit. Its only real expense is its domain name — about $6 per year. Yet, it is enough of an institution that some members of the Mayor and City Council have chosen to release statements through it. In City Council meetings, office holders as well as citizens have spoken about something they have read in Rockville Central. While it is unorganized, it is still a community institution.
  • People want fun — it draws them in and gives them a reason to return. Rockville Central’s most popular pages are shopping and restaurant reviews. This troubles me not at all. It’s important for us civic junkies to remember that we are oddballs: most people are just trying to live their lives, not “be better citizens” or “become more engaged.” I firmly believe that one of the most important aspects of Rockville Central is that it is not a drag. For instance, every weekday morning’s “Photo Of The Day” is sometimes dramatic, other times silly. I am very idiosyncratic about my choices with it. More than one reader has told me that it is the POTD’s that keep them coming back.
  • People need reminding about the rules of the road. Every few months, someone begins posting anonymous, vitriolic comments. I typically delete them and post an article about what I have done. I welcome such episodes, because each one is a chance to reinforce the norms that Rockville Central is trying to promote.
  • “Politics As Usual” will try to use anything it can. Prepare for candidates and community organizations to seek to use the blog as a way to gain advantage. . . . [S]ome office holders have begun to try to feed tips and ideas in order to generate articles that will further their objectives. None of this is really a problem — it is how politics unfolds in most places. However, a blog like Rockville Central is trying to stay aloof from such things while still being relevant. It is a fine line to walk and it takes a willingness to resist flattery, threat, and cajoling.
  • You must earn trust. Shortly after I sent an initial email to all candidates for City Council, asking for an interview, I got a call from one. She was very skeptical of my motives. I explained I was just trying to be helpful. She didn’t buy it, and said she did not believe someone would put the time in that it takes to do this work for simply an altruistic motive (I am paraphrasing). She agreed to the interview reluctantly. Over time, through being dedicated about being transparent and fair, this person has come to trust Rockville Central and is one of its best friends. Her initial reaction, though, was completely correct. There is no reason anyone ought to trust my neutrality simply because I claimed it — I had to demonstrate it over time.

Come visit Rockville Central! And — more important — if you feel so moved, start something like it yourself in your own community. I would love to hear about it.

My PJTV Segment: It’s Like The Sopranos!

These are my notes from yesterday’s Pajamas TV segment, which was live yesterday. If you check this page, you can see the video. I’m slated to be on again this Friday, October 24, at 6:00 pm Eastern.

It’s easy to pick on the Garden State of New Jersey, almost too easy. Like shooting fish in a barrel. Former Democratic state senator Wayne Bryant, who is embroiled in a corruption trial, has asked the state elections authority for permission to use his $640,000 campaign war chest for his legal bills. The authority said no and yesterday a state appeals court heard arguments on the issue.

Bryant is accused of conspiring with the dean of a medical school to steer state money to the university in return for a no-show job that would boost his pension from $36,000 to $81,000. I’m telling you, it’s like The Sopranos! Only there’s more. Stay tuned . . . .

* * * * *

Bryant is not the only New Jersey state official using campaign money to pay for corruption defense. Former state Sen. and Newark Mayor Sharpe James (D-Essex) and former Sen. Joseph Coniglio (D-Bergen) used their campaign money for their legal fights – only they didn’t ask permission first.

Coniglio used $90,000 leftover in his war chest when Feds were looking into whether he took money from Hackensack University Medical Center in return for steering money to the hospital. He was indicted on that in in February. And former mayor James spent $50,000 of campaign money for his defense against conspiracy and fraud charges. He was convicted in April and is serving 27 months in prison and had to pay a $100,000 fine.

What’s incredible is that, in fact, New Jersey’s rules are stricter than the federal election commission’s when it comes to using campaign money – on the federal level, battling corruption charges is deemed to be an expense “relating to the duties of a federal office holder.”

So there’s something to think about next time you whip out your check book to support a candidate – might this guy end up using the money to defend against being a crook?

I’m On TV

In case you are interested, I’ve got two TV-on-the-Internet segments coming up that you can check out. Not a big deal, just wanted you to know.

First of all, I am scheduled to be a guest on Pajamas TV (the new Internet video venture of Pajamas Media, where I publish commentary occasionally and where my role appears to be to infuriate people). They’ve asked me to talk about stories the mainstream media has been giving short shrift to. (Please email me if you have ideas you think I should consider.) The PJTV segment is slated for Wednesday, October 8 at 6pm Eastern. To watch, just go to this link.

Secondly, some of my readers know that I have long been involved (at least, until recently) with the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. I helped them design a unique training program for first-time political candidates (the program is centered on ethics but also has a lot of hard-hitting and useful advice). I also have led sessions for their flagship leadership program, which is one of the better ones in the nation. The 2007 Sorensen class is the subject of a recent PBS documentary called “Across The Aisle,” and (while I have not seen it yet) I am told one can see yours truly in the show.

The documentary is airing in various markets around the country. But people everywhere have a chance to see it in its entirety coming up, October 5 through October 11, at 9pm each night. On those days it will be running on Norfolk’s Channel 48 — watch live here (click the button to launch).

Here’s a bit from an article on the documentary from the Charlottesville Daily Progress:

The Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia will be the focus of a new public television documentary set to air at the end of May.

The documentary, “Across the Aisle: Returning Trust, Civility and Respect to Politics,” follows civic leaders enrolled in the institute’s political leader training program.

Over the years, numerous Sorensen graduates have been elected to public office. Sixteen alumni currently serve in the Virginia General Assembly.

In the documentary, the institute is held up as a national model for returning civility to America’s increasingly bitter political landscape.

The film focuses on seven of the 35 students in the Sorensen Institute’s class of 2007. The cameras tag along as the students debate and discuss politics with ideological opponents, tour state government facilities and confront their political biases.

Over the course of the 90-minute film, one of the Democratic subjects opts to run for a seat on her local school board in a heavily Republican district.

The documentary also focuses on how several of the subjects with entrenched political beliefs begin to see issues from a different perspective after they spend time with people from the other end of the political spectrum.

WHTJ, Charlottesville’s local PBS member station, produced the documentary.

If you tune in, I hope you enjoy!

White Men Can’t Talk

The article by me first appeared in Pajamas Media.

There is a priceless moment in Oliver Stone’s unfairly maligned The Doors, when our heroes are prepping to go on the Ed Sullivan Show. They are met by a stage assistant, a real twerp, who informs them that, “The network guys have a problem with one of your lyrics. ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much higher.'” He goes on: ” You can’t say ‘higher’ on the network, so they asked if you could say instead: ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much better.'”

The band looks at him, bemused. He finishes with: “Could you dig that?”

That dork’s use of the word “dig” in this context perfectly illustrates what often happens when mainstream folks try to appropriate street talk: they get it wrong, either by not understanding proper usage, or just plain sounding silly. While we play such things for laughs, they ring true because we see the same thing every day.

I remember a song by a milquetoast rapper named Vanilla Ice, called “Ice Ice Baby.” You probably remember it too. It’s your standard 1990’s fare, filled with braggadocio about the protagonist’s many fine exploits. I can’t help laughing when I hear some of the lines in the tune. Vanilla says he is “Rollin’ in my 5.0” at one point. We all remember the angular 5.0 liter Mustang that was popular then. Vanilla spends three couplets on his “5.0,” with evident pride not just in its fanciness but also in his street cred for knowing such slang. Thing is, that’s not what the term “5-0” meant at the time — it meant “police,” as in “Hawaii 5-0.” (Vanilla, whose real name is Rob Van Winkle, is a far more mature person now and a new crowd has come to enjoy his music.)

All this came back to me as the David Shuster saga unfolded. In an intemperate moment, our chalk-stripe-suited host says that Chelsea Clinton is being “pimped out” by her mom’s campaign.

This has generated a firestorm and Shuster is now suspended for uttering such a derogatory remark. For my part, I would have wanted to suspend him for not understanding the language he was trying to use. He pulled a Vanilla Ice.

Dig: “Pimped out” means “made very fancy,” as a stereotypical pimp might decorate something. There are overtones of exploitation, too, as in when something is “tricked out” — that is, made alluring enough for a trick.

What Shuster probably meant to say was that he felt Chelsea was being “pimped,” as in “exploited.” It’s a small slip, like Vanilla Ice’s slip when it comes to his car, but it matters. On its face, Shuster’s remark meant the campaign was dressing Chelsea up. In context, it was incoherent. In trying to appropriate so-called street lingo, he botched the job and made the same mistakes any foreign speaker makes when idiomatically out of their depth, with similarly hilarious results.

When I was in high school, I hosted an exchange student from Belgium. He fancied himself quite the Casanova, but most of my friends thought him the opposite. We taught him that the term “doughbrain” was our slang expression for “ladies’ man.” I regret it, now, as it was just mean — but, man was it funny at the time.

If I were advising my exchange brother now, I would say to watch out and double check what idiomatic expressions mean, because you might just wind up sounding like a real Newman.

I guess David Shuster could use the same advice.

ADDENDUM: Looks like I made a mistake, and relied on my recollection and the lyric sheet when it came to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” — instead of re-listening to the song itself. He doesn’t say “five-oh” (which is what I remembered) but says “five point oh.” Commenters at Pajamas Media who have pointed that out are right. Kicking myself. You should, too!

They’re also right that it knocks a big leg out from under my point, but not entirely: Shuster sounded really silly saying “pimped out,” like a suit trying to talk street, and (this much I still maintain) misusing the term in that way.

Hard, Ain’t It Hard

This column first appeared (with a different title) in Pajamas Media.

There’s not much I do that’s actually difficult anymore. It didn’t used to be that way.

When I applied to colleges, it was suggested to me that I create a number of tiers of schools: the long-shots, the probables, and the back-ups. I collected catalogs and applications from a number of schools in different parts of the country. To do this, I had to find telephone numbers, call admissions offices, get on mailing lists, and wait to receive my material. I wound up with a stack of applications, each one differently shaped, with different numbers of pages, and different requirements.

I dug in. The first application was a number of long, narrow pages. (It looked a lot like a real estate contract, but I didn’t know that back then.) It asked me to print my name and Social Security number at the top of each page. What a pain. I set it aside, and looked at the next application. This one seemed easier, until you got to the essay requirements. They were asking for multiple essays.

This was before the computer had entered the bedroom of every student, so rewriting essays was not just a small effort. I passed on that one.

Finally, I found a state school application that looked reasonable in what it was asking of me, and they had “rolling admissions” which meant that, if I applied early, they would tell me early. I shoved all the other applications in a drawer and filled out the state application, which had the added benefit of being far from home. If they said yes, I would be spared a lot of trouble.

Getting into college is just one example of the hoops we all used to go through without really thinking about it. Sure, we’d try to avoid them (just look at my college admissions strategy) — but we did not resent them.

Similar examples abound: I recall a time when, if something irritated me in the newspaper, I’d have to go through a number of steps before I could find any contact information for someone to tell. Even if I took the easiest route and wrote a letter to the reporter, I had no way of knowing if they would get it and even if they did, it would be days hence.

Nowadays, I routinely get messages fired off in anger, the sender secure in the knowledge that her or his opinion will immediately reach me. The children of my friends apply to multiple colleges in an afternoon. Job seekers turn resume-sending into a project unto itself, applying to hundreds of companies. If I hear a song on the radio that I like, I can download it into my iPod in less than a minute.

Choice. Ease. Speed. Bliss.

But, there are downsides. Intemperate opinions fly around and I send messages I might wish to have slept on, necessitating corrective action. The competition to get into colleges is through the roof in part because it’s so easy to apply. Employers seeking to fill positions must wade through hundreds of ill-fitting, scattershot cover letters that may or may not even get the company name right. And, perhaps worse than all that (at least for me), in seeking out only music I am familiar with, I miss the discovery of new bands that the record store used to bring me.

These drawbacks are all well-known and well-discussed. But there is another, more insidious and creeping downside to the culture of information-ease in which we now live: We resent anything that takes time or effort.

The New York Times discovered this when they tried to make a little money off of the popularity of many of their key columnists. They created TimesSelect, a subscription-based area where you had to pay if you wanted to read Maureen Dowd. People from across the political spectrum complained and jeered, and how! You would have thought the National Archives had decided to charge a sawbuck to look at the Declaration of Independence. The Times backed down.

The Gray Lady is just one example. But they’re all over. Journalists no longer pick up the phone to talk to a spokesperson, they quote from an organization’s web site instead. Young scholars would rather cite an article from the Web than a book – because getting books requires taking the trouble to mosey on down to the library, while I can get that link in just a few clicks. iTunes is only profitable insofar as it tends to provide the illusion of free downloads by making songs so inexpensive and the playback rights so liberal that I may as well have just pulled that tune down off of Gnutella. And woe betide Apple if it restricts overly much.

In our personal, day-to-day lives, where things really matter, how often do we choose ease over energy, and resent the notion that we might have had to put in some effort to get what we want? How many businesses have you growled at because they don’t have a good enough website, or don’t have a way to order online, forcing you to actually go somewhere to obtain goods or services? How often have you excoriated (at least inwardly) a government agency for not having public records online? How many gas stations have you passed up because they don’t have pay at the pump?

It’s this growing sense of entitlement that worries me. We are turning into a culture where everyone feels — and acts — entitled to know whatever they want to know, contact whomever they want to contact, and say whatever they want to have, whenever they want to. And we resent it when things are not this way. This feedback loop squeezes out deliberation, thoughtfulness, and restraint and, on a personal level, human development.

It’s hardship, large and small, that improves us and forces us to grow. As we shift from a culture of personal industry to one of personal effort-avoidance, what will spur us to reach further tomorrow than we did today? What will teach us that, no, we can’t always get what we want when we want it? What will push us to grow up?

From where I sit, easily typing away in my basement, I don’t see it.

Please Don’t Run

obamaDear Sen. Obama:

Just a few days ago, on one of many Debate Days, I saw that photograph of you and your daughter, Sasha, in the bumper cars at the Iowa State Fair. You are both so happy, sharing the simple joys of the lurch and heave and jolt. Looking at the photo, I imagine you to be running in a large circle around a knot of cars, preparing to swoop down onto an unsuspecting driver. You know the move I mean.

Looking at the photo, the thought came to me unbidden: Please don’t run. It was both an expression of hope for you, as a man, and also for our country.

I want, as a fellow human being and fellow father, to see you stay just the way you are: able to experience the joy of parenthood and the simple thrill of the state fair midway.

As a fellow citizen of the greatest nation on the globe, I want you just as you are, right now. Though it is long past time that there be an African American in the White House, you yourself are too important to lose to the Presidency.

Your candidacy has galvanized many and given them hope. You speak a language that has long been out of favor among the professionals in public life. How can you let down the people who look so longingly toward you? For whom your very existence as a viable candidate gives them hope that, maybe, something can change?

But, how can you not let these same people down? I fear you won’t be able to keep up your humanity, stuck there in the West Wing. It seems to suck the soul out of those who work there for any length of time. I think of how old Jimmy Carter seemed as he left, of how tired President Bush seemed, of how tired President Bush now seems. Your approach to public life takes energy — energy to work against the status quo. Day in, day out, I worry the apparatus of the Oval Office will grind you down.

From your seat in the United States Senate, you have the clout to be heard and the safety that gives you room to maneuver. You do not have to calculate every statement against a global backdrop of ill will. You are free to speak truths that a president might not be able to say, but that must be said. You do not have to carry on your shoulders the burden of what our erstwhile allies and friends have begun to think of us, the burden of repairing broken relationships and strained friendships.

Were I a Democrat, you might say I was in the pocket of some other candidate angling for the nomination that will come months too soon. Were I a Republican, you might say I was trying to stall the candidacy of one of the freshest figures to come along in a long while. But that’s all just static. I do not know whether you are the most viable candidate, I do not know whether you really have a snowball’s chance, I do not know whether others, right or left, would do a better job. None of that is my point.

My point is this. Senator Obama, you’ve said that people seem to project their hopes onto you. That’s your burden to bear, no matter what. My hope for you is that you can remain the man you are now, the man who inspires a new hope.

Maybe it seems unfair to say such things openly. The time to make such a statement is long past. The die is cast.

But it was that photo, Senator, that moved me to write. That smile, on you and on Sasha. I want to see it again.

Thank you for your service, now and in the future.

Sincerely yours,

Brad Rourke

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty, by way of Andrew Sullivan

"I See It All The Time"

The Sheriff’s came to the neighbors the other day. Came twice, in fact. First time, they asked if I had seen them recently. I had to admit not since the weekend, when there was a lot of activity in the driveway.

The second time the Sheriff’s came, it was with a pair of laborers. They emptied the house onto the street. Trash day was tomorrow.

We’d kept our eye on that house. Two young girls, sisters, lived there, with what seemed to be two young men and two toddlers. You didn’t see them often in the day, but the lights blazed all night long and were still usually on in the early morning hours when I grabbed the papers from the sidewalk. One month garbage piled up on their porch for weeks until they finally moved some of it to the street for collection and hid the rest under their deck.

Beer bottles on the lawn and no curtains. This was a house in chaos and you felt for the kids subjected to growing up in it. You heard an awful lot of yelling.

The pile of this day’s refuse drew me like a car wreck. It was the size of two cars. It spilled onto the sidewalk. Ripped sofas, garbage bags full of clothes, stacks of books. A crib, a stroller, diapers. I thumbed through a notebook that looked like a minute-by-minute account of high school classes. An ironic, soiled book titled “Parenting Your 1 to 4 Year Old” was perched on an old tire, partially hidden under a box of canned goods.

They’d been evicted. Hadn’t paid their rent in months, said the first Sheriff’s man. Seemed to have up and left, taking what they could.

I roamed the yard. Next to the porch, I saw a handwritten note, blue ballpoint on a white paper Avon bag. “Please call me. I am worried about you. I want to help. If you are mad at me please tell me why. If you don’t want to talk to me, just leave me a message that you are OK. Love, Dad.”

I thought about his state of mind in writing that note. He must have driven from a distance — he left a number with an area code far out-of-state — to check on his girls. Discovering no one, he would have searched for something to write on, shoving the note into the screen door. Did the girls see the note and discard it? Would it have made a difference?

Feeling the father’s worry, I wondered what I could have done. There was that time one of the girls came over to use the phone. Could I have offered more help? Been more polite?

I know nothing I could have done would have changed the path this household was on. But I never even tried.

The second Sheriff’s man, the one with the laborers, came over to me while they were working. “I see it all the time,” he said absently, then wandered off.

So it’s happening all the time. Maybe I can do better in the future. Futile as it may be, each house in chaos is an opportunity to reach out. That’s what people do for each other.

It’s what that father would want, writing his worried note.