Thursday, January 8, 2009

News, blogs, and community

I live in Seattle. My city--hell, my entire region--has been in the news a lot lately. Snow and ice! Buses dangling over the interstate! Torrential downpours! All major roadways closed! (They are, too--right now, the only way to get out of western Washington is to fly.)

Yet for all the news coverage, the kind of local, community news--is that major arterial out of my neighborhood closed? Is there a hardware store anywhere in West Seattle that still has snow shovels? When is Public Utilities going to get around to collecting trash again, anyway?--that people find most useful during even minor crises was frustratingly hard to get ahold of. City news channels got some of it, but they cover the entire city. Two major sources of frustration--city utilities and transportation--were either impossible to reach, even by phone, or were unable to provide useful information.

Enter the West Seattle Blog. It came to prominence during a previous bout of wild weather--a massive windstorm two years ago that knocked out power to some parts of the city grid for over a week--but I'd been following it for awhile because I happen to live in West Seattle and, to be honest, had found the community newspaper rather lacking.

The blog has a number of cool features and interesting characteristics, but the most intriguing thing about it, which is key to its success, is that it's run by a couple of traditional-media veterans who encourage and capitalize on active community participation. Would the site be quite so popular if the 2006 windstorm hadn't happened? Probably not. But it's an excellent example of a virtual community serving a geographic or physical one, and as such, it has a number of characteristics that libraries would do well to emulate.

It's also an object lesson for traditional media: namely, to dismiss it because it's hosted on a blogging platform (which some sources that traditionally communicate with newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations have done) is to miss the point and miss the boat. It's a handy demonstration of how a blog CAN be a perfect community news and communication venue. Other community resources, libraries included, would do well to take heed.

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