By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The “Romenesko of citizen journalism”

One of the more interesting experiments in citizen journalism had its official unveiling this week. Placeblogger, a site put together by Watertown blogger Lisa Williams, is an attempt to link to every local blog in the world, and to make some sense of this growing phenomenon.

What’s a placeblog? It’s a term coined by Williams to describe a Web site that covers a community. A leading example would be her own site, H2otown, which is devoted to all things Watertown. (I profiled Williams and H2otown for CommonWealth Magazine a year ago.)

Placeblogger, a joint project of Dan Gillmor’s Center for Citizen Media and Jay Rosen’s PressThink, is a site that offers a directory of every placeblog Williams can find (she thinks there may be as many as 1,000), as well as her own efforts to make order out of chaos. Williams has said her goal is to establish Placeblogger as the “Romenesko of citizen journalism.”

In addition to being able to search for a placeblog near you, you can check out her top 10. New Jersey’s Baristanet, logically enough, leads the list; but anyone other than Williams would have included H2otown somewhere. The left rail is given over to “Placeblogger Journal” — currently a roundup of placeblogs in the New Orleans area — and “Placeblogger Headlines,” an automated feed of the good, the bad and the ridiculous.

The middle of the screen features a blog by Williams, which right now is fronting a commentary on Kearny on the Web, a placeblog in Kearny, N.J., that posted a video of a local teacher caught denying evolution and damning his non-Christian students to hell. The right rail has tools that let you find — or add — a placeblog.

“There are really way more of these than anyone knows,” Williams said at the Center for Citizen Media’s “unconference” at Harvard last August, where the Placeblogger project was first announced.

Are placebloggers journalists? Well, yes and no. And, of course, it depends on the blog. Williams defines a placeblog as being “about the lived experience of a place.” The blog may “commit random acts of jouranlism,” she adds, but it’s not a newspaper — not even an electronic version of a newspaper.

In November, at the unveiling of the beta site at Harvard Law’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Williams described Placeblogger as “one-stop shopping for what citizen journalism really looks like — kiss stale arguments and useless theorizing goodbye.”

Among her more intriguing ideas is to develop a standard method of “geotagging” so that it will be easier to find placeblogs. There could be a placeblog right in your city or town, but if you don’t already know about it, you could have a hard time finding it. Geotagging, in Williams’ view, could help placebloggers sell advertising as well.

Williams’ take on placeblogs sometimes seems overly modest — she is a self-described newspaper junkie, and she’s always careful to point out that she doesn’t want to see placeblogs replace newspapers.

Yet occasionally her larger hopes shine through. Last semester she spoke to my Journalism of the Web students, and talked about placeblogging as an entrepreneurial opportunity for young journalists. Why not? When I was a recent J-school graduate, friends and I talked about several ideas for launching community papers. We didn’t do so mainly because it was too expensive.

By contrast, you can launch a placeblog virtually for free, with the hope that, eventually, you can sell enough advertising to make a living. I would think that an aggressive young journalist who knows how to write, and can post photos, video and sound, could give her chain-owned community weekly fits. And there’s no need to settle for just “random acts of journalism,” either.

Placeblogger is a fascinating project, and well worth keeping a close eye on.

Photo: Lisa Williams announces the Placeblogger project at the Center for Citizen Media “unconference” last August. Photo by Steve Garfield; reproduced under a Creative Commons license.

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  1. Stacey A

    I think Lisa’s Placeblogger idea is fabulous. I’m a former newspaper reporter/current stay-at-home mom and I’ve been writing from my kitchen table since May. I figured there must be other people doing local news blogs but I only found them by accident or with considerable digging. When I read about Placeblogger in Romenesko a couple of months ago, I contacted Lisa and asked to be involved. Just this past week I’ve noticed I’ve been getting several hits a day from readers who found me through her Placeblogger site. It should be fun to watch where this goes.

  2. Anonymous

    “Young” journalist? Hey, don’t sell the old journalists short. Some of the best placeblogs are run by “old” (well, I guess if you consider over 40 old) journalists and ex-journalists. The rub really is the $ issue, though.

  3. Lisa Williams

    Hey, Stacey, Now that we’re up and running, please do join the Placeblogger email group, which is partly a place to discuss improvements to Placeblogger but mostly a place for placebloggers to talk about running their sites. Check it out here:

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