Old-media journalists are losing jobs everywhere, while new-media journalists often lack the resources and expertise to fill in the gaps. But Ryan Hopkins hopes his effort to combine old and new media will improve local news reporting and create greater government transparency.
Hopkins, the founder and president of Pittsburgh's nonprofit watchdog organization The Public Square Project, plans to launch an online news site in April dedicated to high-quality citizen journalism. The program, called PittPoint, will provide the public -- bloggers, community activists, concerned citizens -- with a forum to publish their writing on local issues, while offering writers the professional training and resources of mainstream news organizations.
"We're trying to replicate the professional journalism model in the citizen-driven world," says Hopkins, a local lawyer who started The Public Square Project in August 2008 to make government information more available and understandable to the public. "We want to create a community of citizen journalists to explain what's happening in local government."
But, he cautions, PittPoint isn't meant to replace the mainstream media.
"A lot of people think we're trying to circumvent the media, [but] we're really trying to build a capacity to cover local government," Hopkins says. "We're trying to take the energy and interest created by local bloggers and add the techniques of professional journalism."
The Public Square Project held its first PittPoint workshop on March 5, drawing roughly 20 interested local bloggers and community activists. During the workshop -- the first of four free meetings to be held each Thursday in March from 6-8 p.m. at the Union Project in Highland Park -- Hopkins explained how PittPoint, which will be funded with the help of a $9,500 grant from the Sprout Fund, will be modeled after citizen-journalism Web sites in other cities. These include New York City's Gotham Gazette (www.gothamgazette.com) and Chicago's Chi Town Daily News (www.chitowndailynews.org).
"[PittPoint] is going to be very much like a news site," he announced, projecting a Web-site template on the wall.
Hopkins says he's unsure yet whether the site, designed by Pittsburgh-based Bearded Studio, will sell advertising. Contributors to PittPoint will not be paid, and the copyright will be owned by The Public Square Project.
Freelance reporter Charlie Ban, who writes primarily for Tarentum's Valley News Dispatch, led a discussion on the basics of interviewing during the March 5 meeting. Ban touched on basic ground rules, like allowing sources to go off the record, as well as ethics.
To help make PittPoint's reporting professional, Hopkins says he's reaching out to local reporters, editors and freelancers from mainstream news organizations to help edit stories and coach writers through the reporting process (He declined to name possible contributors or specific local news organizations, since they are just starting to search for help.). "We'll help you craft pieces into publishable pieces of journalism," he said, adding that professional journalists will help teach writers how to access public documents.
So far, Hopkins says PittPoint has received professional guidance from Gregg Ramshaw, a former journalist and producer for PBS' NewsHour. He says Ramshaw will likely be a frequent contributor to the site.
"I'm satisfied that trustworthy and unbiased reporting will be a critical component of this project," says local blogger Steve Sikora (artofangles.blogspot.com), who attended the workshop. "I'm hoping to increase my skill set to better represent what's going on in my community."
Community activist Kenneth Miller says he's interested in uncovering government corruption. And he's optimistic that PittPoint's effort to merge the skills of professional journalists with the passion of bloggers and community activists will help improve government transparency.
"We're looking for a big team of investigative reporters," he says.
Still, some say getting bloggers to work as a team might be easier said than done.
"All of the bloggers I know are divas," says blogger Bram Reichbaum (pghcomet.blogspot.com). "Is this going to be like herding cats?"
"That's a great question," Hopkins acknowledges. "The answer lies in getting people to think of themselves as a team of writers."
Although Reichbaum says it's uncertain how some bloggers will respond to the criticism of editors, he's looking forward to improving his reporting skills. "I could definitely benefit from some more professional polishing," he says.
Still, even though PittPoint will utilize professional media resources, Reichbaum is skeptical that the site will be taken more seriously than blogs. "As long as it's appearing online, without a print edition, I don't know if it's going to be more credible," he says. But "If [PittPoint] gets more people involved, it's definitely all for the good."