Friday, May 08, 2009

The fourth annual Brooklyn Blogfest, the plethora of candidates, and why we need more journalism

The Brooklyn blogosphere has grown and matured significantly, as indicated last night by the large crowd at the fourth annual Brooklyn Blogfest, organized by Louise Crawford of Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn and a host of volunteers, and held at the powerHouse Arena in DUMBO.

(Photo by Flatbush Gardener)

It's overdue to observe that, while the act of blogging--using a self-publishing platform as an independent writer--might once have been unusual, there's not much commonality between place bloggers and mommy bloggers and craft bloggers, to pick a few categories in the "Blogs of a Feather" get-together, which at least was a sign of the growth in blogging. (After all, staffers from magazines serving those constituencies don't compare notes much.)

Some report. Some opine. Some take photos. Some keep watch on building permits. Some aggregate news. Some focus on their neighborhoods. Some have a rich set of commenters. Some post daily. Some post weekly. Some post randomly. Some post press releases verbatim. Some have contributors. Some take ads. Some offer personal musings. Some promote their businesses or brands. Some aim to create community. Some identify themselves by name and biography. Some mix various elements of the above.

"It's getting harder and harder to define what a blog is," Crawford said in her introduction. "It's what everyone in this room is doing." OK, but that doesn't get us far enough. 

(Update 5/9: Here's Crawford's play-by-play of the event. Here are reports from Bed-Stuy Banana, Found in Brooklyn, and Pardon Me for Asking, source of the photo of the panel below.)

Blogs and journalism

All have their virtues--more information is better than none, right, and there are many gaps to be filled.

Still, relatively few people in the “bloggiest place in America” (to quote Outside.in, whose erroneous formulation of Clinton Hill as the "bloggiest" neighborhood was cited twice from the stage) provide what we need most: solid civic information, "holding institutions accountable on a daily basis," to quote author, "The Wire" writer, and former reporter David Simon's testimony Wednesday before Congress.

I think professional and amateur reporters using blogs can do some of that "journalism of verification," but, even as Atlantic Yards blogging may be an important example of unpaid response to a controversy, I believe it's not that easy to duplicate.

The Brooklyn blogosphere, not least because some laid-off reporters have been writing for blogs (see Aaron Short and Sarah Portlock), has begun to provide more journalism, but there's much more to cover.

Candidates' night

A sign of the importance and implied power of Brooklyn bloggers--especially given the anemic print coverage devoted to Brooklyn--was the presence last night of a plethora of candidates for elected office.

I might have missed some, but I spotted the following City Council candidates:
33rd: Jo Anne Simon; 34th: Gerry Esposito; 35th: Medhanie Estiphanos (whose webmaster, um, borrowed, an AYR post, which the candidate said he'd take down) 36th: Robert Cornegy; 39th: John Heyer, Brad Lander, [added] David Pechefsky, Gary Reilly, and Josh Skaller. Also present: 33rd District Council Member and Comptroller candidate David Yassky and Jim Vogel, a member of State Senator Velmanette Montgomery's staff.

(Apparently I missed how some of the candidates got up for the mostly-ignored "Shout-out" for new bloggers at the after-party, held at Galapagos across the street. Here are Twitter posts #blogfest.)

Both the print press and especially bloggers have covered the race in the 33rd and 39th; Crawford, whose OTBKB has been mainly a hodgepodge of essays, photos, bulletin board, reader contributions, and news repostings, has gone to the next level with valuable candidate interviews and forum coverage; Noticing New York's Michael D.D. White has gone to the forums and followed up with some close interviews and analysis.

But who's covering the race in the 34th? In the 36th? There's a fascinating video on Brooklyn Ron's site featuring 36th District challengers Saquan Jones and Mark Winston Griffith--Jones's biggest beef with Griffith is that the latter, not unreasonably in my eyes, thinks that homeownership is not for everyone--but I'd like to learn more. After all, incumbent Al Vann voted for the extension of term limits; surely that's stirred some outrage in his Bed-Stuy district.

One featured blogger in the "Why We Blog" panel last night (which could have had more discussion and less self-indulgence), Sharon Kwik of Bed-Stuy Banana, has done an admirable job walking her neighborhood, taking notes and pictures, and starting sometimes uneasy conversations. So it's not her job to address the City Council race in detail. But someone should.

More reporting

Reporting can be done by professionals, but many people are capable of some level of reporting. The starting point is simply stenography--taking notes and reporting on civic meetings, including public hearings, political debates, and meetings of precinct councils and Community Boards. (If that's too hard, why not just film it and put it on YouTube?)

While it would be better to go beyond stenography--to offer analysis while reporting, based on knowledge and links to other documents and reportage--even the vaunted New York Times often reverts to stenography, such as in this report on a speech by former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff.

One of the best examples of reportage, analysis, and community is Streetsblog, run by Brooklynite Aaron Naparstek, which has filled an important void locally and nationally regarding urban and transportation policy. (Streetsblog deploys video brilliantly.) If only other blogs could be funded by a progressive nonprofit.

Photographer like Tracy Collins (featured in the panel last night) have provided another kind of reporting, documenting changes (in his case the Atlantic Yards footprint) that otherwise might have been ignored. There were two impressive videos last night, produced by Adrian Kinloch, of Brooklyn photo-bloggers.

Growth and quality

The late Robert Guskind, to whom the event was dedicated and who was palpably present in a memorial video, last year suggested that more neighborhoods needed blogs and, indeed, blogs have sprung up in places like Sheepshead Bay and Sunset Park. So there's more ground-level notice of neighborhood events and controversies, if not actual reporting.

And some bloggers have stepped up. Miss Heather of New York Shitty, whose blog began as a chronicle of messes on the street in and around Greenpoint, has gone on to chronicle larger and more civically significant messes, like poorly constructed buildings and "nondos" turned into illegal guest houses.

That said, I mostly disagree with the comment last night by Gothamist's Jake Dobkin (with the mike) that "I don't think Brooklyn needs any more neighborhood blogs." He spoke in the context of relatively well-blogged neighborhoods like his own Brooklyn Heights, urging bloggers to not start anew but to collaborate. Fair enough.

But lots of neighborhoods still need blogs, both the ground-level blogs that take note of building permits, new businesses, and eyesores of various sorts, as well as blogs that take on the more difficult challenge of reporting. (Last night's event gave various neighborhood bloggers a chance to meet each other.)

While I'm skeptical that the unpaid model can provide as much reporting as we need, I also think more of it could and should emerge.

So I'd hope future Blogfests, should they occur, address the issue in a spirit more of challenge than celebration, rather than offer tips for new bloggers that have nothing to do with journalism.

(Given the enormous gloom in the newspaper and magazine worlds, as publications close and downsize, last night's cheery atmosphere, to me at least, was a bit disconcerting. I mentioned the importance of the "journalism of verification" when I spoke at the second Blogfest in 2007; I also spoke briefly at the first Blogfest but not last year or this year.)

Outside.in's odd Brooklyn list

One odd element of last night's event was the countdown Crawford read, in three semi-dramatic installments, of a list provided by aggregator Outside.in (an event sponsor) of "the top topics, places, and neighborhoods in Brooklyn that got buzz and traffic so far in 2009."

Keep in mind, as I learned later, that these were topics that got buzz and traffic via Outside.in's site and its partners; the list was not a measure of the quantity of posts about a topic. That's why, for example, Atlantic Yards--source of the "bloggiest" neighborhood claim--was not on the list. (I'm pretty sure people looking for Atlantic Yards news go to NoLandGrab well before Outside.in.)

10. House of Yes in Bushwick

9. Aero Restaurant in Bay Ridge

8. Clinton Hill

7. Toren Building

6. Sunset Park High School

5. Atlantic Center mall (in part because of FIPS' videos of the Target in the Atlantic Terminal mall)

4. Park Slope

3. Trader Joe's

2. Pomegranate Market

1. Alex McCord of the Real Housewives of New York

To which I say: WTF.

I'll point out, for example, that the last post on Pomegranate via Outside.in (click on graphic to enlarge) is from last August.

These topics may indeed have a lot of "buzz," at least according to Outside.in's metrics. But they don't necessarily correspond to issues of journalistic importance.

2 comments:

  1. I have to say the most interesting was hearing Gothamist talk about organizing similar blogs into a network or single force.

    (Full disclosure) As a former reporter myself, it sounded a lot like organizing a home-based newsroom. Would love to see that happen out my way in Prospect Heights.

    You definitely have the market cornered on AY developments.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The list outside.in compiled was coming from a different angle than "bloggiest" place or neighborhood, which we presented last year. We know that Brooklyn is the bloggiest city in the country because of the high concentration of great citizen journalists and content producers we saw last night at the 2009 Blogfest. This year, we wanted to share the topics that interest our users the most to help blogfest attendees think about potential posts that will interest local readers and show how tagging your own content in http://outside.in/geotoolkit is useful to get more traffic to your posts. We do have crime reports and other stories on our Atlantic Center Mall page (http://outside.in/places/atlantic-center-mall-brooklyn) -- but again, we didn't track the bloggiest place, just the places/topics/nabes that got the most attention via our site and our partners' sites.

    Chrysanthe, Community Coordinator
    outside.in

    P.S. Nice to meet you in person last night!

    ReplyDelete