Citizen Journalism in Bakersfield

In May 2004 a subsidiary of the Bakersfield Californian (newspaper) launched a citizen journalism site called Northwest Voice that posts reader-generated content on its website every day. Every two weeks the best of this citizen journalism is culled into a free print edition that is dropped on every doorstep in the area. In April of this year this formula was repeated in a second citizen publication, Southwest Voice, that serves a different part of the Bakersfield area with the same mix of online news, generated by readers on a daily basis, and a “best-of” print edition dropped free in the circulation area. It’s an interesting experiment in citizen journalism as an offshoot of a newspaper.

I haven’t been to Bakersfield to see the print editions or interview the principals so what you will read is that which I could glean or surmise from online sources.

These sites are run by a subsidiary called Mercado Nuevo a division that also produces some Spanish language and other online sites distinct from the Bakersfield Californian. The subsidary is run by Mary Lou Fulton who is “vice president for audience development.”

An article in eContent magazine outlines the project and describes her thusly :

“Fulton—who holds a degree in journalism from Arizona State and has worked for community papers for years, followed by a stint in the then-burgeoning online community at Geocities and AOL—emphasizes that newspapers never abandoned the people they served.”

That is to say Fulton has designed the Northwest and now Southwest Voice to be hyperlocal. I fooled around with both sites last night and found stuff like recipes, announcements about church event, things that would interest no one outside Bakersfield but which may not be findable any other way. Northwest and Southwest Voice use blogging and content management software from the Canadian firm, according to eContent and some of the other articles on the sites. (Correction added 17 July: the Voice started with iUpload but has since developed its own site software. See related posting.)

The most novel aspect of these publication, in my opinion, is the hybrid online-print advertising model. There is some sponsorship advertising on the web sites but I would gather that the real money is in the free print edition produced every two weeks and dropped on doorsteps. This is called a “total market coverage” edition and it is a standard business tactic of many newspaper companies — only the source of the content is different in this case. wrote about Northwest Voice when it launched a little over two years ago. Here is one extract from that article:

“Community content is a great idea, but many news organizations have struggled with developing consistent sources of reliable contributions. In order to ensure this happens, The Voice has developed four content streams:
• Core contributors. The Voice identified a lead person at every school, larger churches, youth sports organizations and the parks district. This “Top 25” group is contributing about 50% of the content
• Columnists. Six columnists write about community interests (off-roading, horses, pets, gardening, parenting and restaurants). About 25% of the content comes from them.
• Occasional contributions. About 10% of the content comes from occasional contributors.
• Editor-created. Editors write a cover story and some inside items, which makes up about 10% of the content. “

In April 2006 when the Southwest Voice was launched, Cyberjournalist offered a brief update article, and pointed back to a previous Q&A with Fulton that provides a good many additional details about how the operation gets contributors, sells ads, deals with the possibilites of errors and slanders, etcetera. What follows is Fulton’s parting advice in response to Cyberjournalist Jonathan Dube’s closing question of what she would tell other newspapers considering similar experiments:

“Choose an area where there is a strong or emerging sense of community identity. Do some serious business planning to identify a target audience, your core of content contributors that will connect with that audience, and the appeal for advertisers. Invest time in product design, both print and online. And don’t listen to the people who tell you it will never work.”