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Teaching Online Journalism

Real true journalism on a very small scale

Cher Phillips lives in McIntosh, Florida. She started publishing the McIntosh Mirror in May 2006 to cover the public meetings in her town.

About 430 people live in McIntosh. Spanish moss droops from the majestic live oak trees that shade old Victorians and more humble Florida cracker houses. Every October the town holds an 1890s festival, and the setting is perfect. If you drive on Highway 441 between Gainesville and Ocala, you’ll pass through McIntosh. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it.

… when a meeting of the McIntosh Code Enforcement board broke down into arguments, accusations and what only could be called ugliness Wednesday evening, it was a harsh reminder that the unrest from the past year isn’t finished. The residents brought before the board did not roll over and hand over their property and their wallets. They hired an attorney to fight. Amid the yelling and arguments, it should come to no surprise, nothing was accomplished, and attorneys’ fees mounted. (Sept. 21, 2006)

Phillips audio-records the meetings and posts the audio files in the McIntosh Mirror — which is a blog on the free Blogger site (the same site as this blog). Meetings she covers include those of the town council, the code enforcement board, the historic preservation board, and the school board. She also posts PDFs and even JPG images of public documents, such as the town budget. She even published a “letter to the editor” passed along to her by the town’s mayor.

What’s truly awesome about Phillips’s blog is that the proceedings of such meetings used to be the meat and potatoes of local journalism. But most parts of the United States don’t have local journalism anymore, and citizens have no convenient way of finding out what goes on at these meetings in their towns, suburbs and cities today.

Breaking news: Council member Jim Strange filed a civil suit against Sportsman’s Cove owner Sandra “Casey” Girardin, Town Clerk Julie Musselman and Marion County Supervisor of Elections Dee Brown on Aug. 10. Records state this is a petition/complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief. (Aug. 16, 2006)

After an emergency meeting of the McIntosh Town Council Thursday night, Council Member Jim Strange said the lawsuit brought against a local business owner, the town clerk and the county supervisor of elections is purely a defensive action on his part and is not meant as an offensive move. (Aug. 17, 2006)

Phillips, a senior at the University of Florida majoring in journalism, is what we call a non-traditional student (that means she’s older than 25). She’s been out in the world supporting herself with jobs such as managing Borders bookstores in Indiana, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida. Most important, she’s lived in McIntosh for 7 years. It’s her town. Not her hometown — she grew up in Anderson, Indiana. But now McIntosh is home, and she cares about what happens there.

So do her many commenters on the blog — most of whom choose to be anonymous. At first, that concerned Phillips. In a newspaper, a letter to the editor would require a signature. She decided that in the blog, she would continue to allow anonymous comments.

“In McIntosh there has been a culture of fear for a long time,” she said. People might be afraid of retribution if they speak out. As an example, Phillips said, a resident might apply for a permit to make a home improvement; if the applicant had been seen a troublemaker, the responsible parties might delay approval for several months.

Some residents of McIntosh do not confine their commentary to the blog, however:

Someone pulled me aside one day in the grocery store to thank me for destroying the image that person had of McIntosh. No, I’m not saying who. But the point was that the McIntosh in the blog is a very different McIntosh than the one we see once a year in the city papers. (Oct. 18, 2006)

What I see in the McIntosh Mirror is a model for the future. Local journalism can help people understand how decisions get made about the things that affect their lives. That understanding can empower them to take an active role in the decisions. In the end, that’s what democracy is supposed to champion for everyone.

Tomorrow I will add a post about how and why Phillips came to start the McIntosh Mirror earlier this year. She was kind enough to meet me yesterday for a face-to-face interview.

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2 Comments

  1. Danny Sanchez says:

    Newspaper would be wise to hear the stories of people like her. If newspaper staffs are smart, they’ll start providing platforms for folks like her to get started.

  2. Howard Owens says:

    Fasinating stuff … good blog. It’s interesting to see how many comments there are for a site that doesn’t report a lot of traffic … obviously, she’s engaging the audience she does reach.

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