Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Conversation with Lisa Williams - Blog Queen of Watertown

Last week, the Watertown based community blog H2otown celebrated its second blogaversary. I chatted with H2otown's proprietor, Lisa Williams last month about her experiences with that blog and her newer endeavor,, which is an aggregation of local and hyperlocal blogs from around the country. I asked her about her experiences placeblogging here in Watertown and why she thought it was becoming more popular across the country.

(As an aside, I'd like to point out that I am user #3 at H2otown. So excited was I at the prospect of a Watertown community blog that I signed up before accounts were even working)

Q: First of all, why don't you tell me a little bit about how you got involved with Placeblogger?

Well, I ended up interacting with people interested in online journalism because of H2otown and there seemed to be such a huge pile of assertions surrounding sites like H2otown -- they were journalism/no they weren't; there were thousands; there were 12. I thought, well, this is knowable information. I was curious myself to know how many there were. Turns out there's more than I thought.
Read the rest of conversation inside...
Q: How many have you found?
I expected to find about 1,000, but now there are more than 1,600, and rising. There are also a lot of people trying to do platforms that let people do local stuff, like American Towns Network and the people, and Wikinews, etc. Placeblogger is based on the same software used at H2otown. So running H2otown gave me some insight as to how to do a directory-based site using the same tools in a different way. It's been pretty popular and got a lot of traditional press coverage.
Q: Who is the audience for Placeblogger? Do you get people interested in the minutia of each place?
People who want to find local blogs; journalists who want to find local sources. I think of the "Headlines" area as being the Very Not Ready for Prime Time AP. But Placeblogger is mostly about search, not about keeping you there to read content. My intention is to get people to local blogs, then send them on their way.

Also, there's now a community of placebloggers talking to each other, something that wasn't available before. Journalists have a community of practice; placebloggers don't.
Q: What sort of things are you placebloggers learning from each other?
When I was doing the initial collection, one thing I noticed was that most placebloggers didn't know any other placebloggers. Well, a bunch of them are looking at the feed and getting ideas about approaches to coverage, tone, use of photos, polls, etc. On the listserv, a lot of the questions are about access -- how can I get the police blotter? how can I cover meetings? etc. -- and about community management (EG, what do I do when people start calling each other Nazis?)
Q: I bet the police blotter is placeblog gold!
Oh, yeah. The thing about local life is that, at least here in the US, most places are basically comic operas with real estate taxes.
Q: Do you have any examples of people doing interesting things that you've brought to your own site?
I have ideas; one thing that appeals to me strongly is integrating social networking into H2otown. That is, you can have "friends" on the site, or you could start a group of people with similar interests on the site. So users could define interests, "sports" "politics" "food" "east end" and see users with similar preferences, create buddy lists, etc. My feeling is that people don't come to placeblogs for news: they come to connect with other people. You know a placeblog is successful when people start hanging out in the comment thread mostly to talk to one another.
Q: That's interesting. You'd think that since placeblogs focus on a small area, that people would do their connecting in the real world, rather than the virtual.
That's the thing, though, they aren't. Civic participation has gone way down.
Q: So placeblogs are a way to fill the void?
Yeah, they probably have as much in common with the Elks Club as they do with a newspaper. In fact, parts of H2otown are explicitly modeled after civic fraternal organizations.

But your initial email to me was about local blogs and politics. So I was doing a little thinking about that. My sense is that political blogs and placeblogs are different genres. They do overlap, in what I'd call "statehouse blogs." Things like Blue Mass Group.
Q: H2otown can certainly get political sometimes. I'm thinking most recently of the teacher's contract discussion, and of course you try to cover town council meetings.
I know, jeez, I go away for a day and people start throwing "thug" around! I guess what I mean is that local blogs tend to be political but less explicitly partisan perhaps because the nuts and bolts issues don't lend themselves as easily to a partisan approach. I think labor negotiations, and maybe tax overrides are an exception.

But meetings are important to H2otown, and to placeblogs in general. Many placeblogs are concerned with simple access to civic life. Placeblogs are most likely to spring up in suburbs that share a border with a major metro area. These are the places that have been pinched the most in the last two decades by media consolidation.
Q: Is that because the local news focuses mainly on the city? I've noticed that here, in particular. You can't get coverage in Watertown unless something's on fire.
Exactly. There're two problems: 1. Not much "news" happens in Watertown, which is how we like it. 2. The regional daily sucks up ad revenue, which limits resources for the weekly. So overall, less coverage. Circulation at papers in general has been dropping, column inches are dropping. I think the Globe and the TAB probably are making the right decisions in how to fill those column inches, but that doesn't mean that that satisfies the appetite for local news. It's just all the local news the paper can afford to put out.
Q: Do you see yourself as a supplement to the newspaper or a replacement?
But to be serious, placeblogs aren't replacements for newspapers. Anybody could look at even the best of them for fifteen seconds and say, what a crappy newspaper! Placeblogs are about the lived experience of a place; newspapers are about the tiny fraction of that experience that is news. The thing is, people like news, but they also want to talk about what they had for lunch. Or where to get winter gloves. But in newspaperese, these items sound dumb: "Frustrated by soggy crust, East Side Man Switches Pizza Allegiance." But that kind of "pizza" stuff is the backbone of a placeblog.

However, my experience running H2otown goes against the general criticism of Americans: they're only interested in fluff. Coverage of the town council is the most popular thing on H2otown. Apparently people really DO want hot zoning gossip.
Q: Speaking of the town council, do you expect H2otown to be more of a factor in the town elections than it was in 2005?
Yes. If only because many more people are reading now.
Q: How many readers do you have in an average day?
Midweek peak is just under 3k; weekend trough is generally around 1400-1800. That's hits, not unique visitors. I actually use an old crappy free web counter, so I don't do really sophisticated tracking. There was a big increase in traffic around the 2006 election.
Q: Really? Why do you think that is?
I think elections do drive traffic. Also, people want access to candidate information and at the local level that's not always easy to come by. Plus, they want to talk smack about their guy/gal's opponent.

I think one of my big questions is: What if the Globe decided to do what H2otown does on a bigger scale?
Q: Could they? Isn't part of the charm of a placeblog that people from the place are doing the blogging? Could such a thing be driven by an outside entity?
It's a good question. They have cultural limitations. For reporters, the holy trinity is objectivity, accuracy, the First Amendment; for bloggers, authenticity, transparency, the First Amendment. Newspapers have a tough time with blogging and online community because doing it right requires them to break their "appearance of objectivity" taboo and managing a community requires some amount of censorship. I think it can be done, actually, if they could manage not to get wrapped around their own axle. And actually, I think wrapping a community around a newspaper's site may be the way they survive.
Q: I would think that authenticity would be a problem as well. One of the criticisms of the Tab, for example, is that their reporters don't know the town. I could see the same thing happening with a professional media placeblog.
Yeah. Some do a better job than others, but natives have an edge. In any case, I decided that I'd keep doing H2otown for as long as I wanted to, even if local papers started to do something similar. When I started H2otown, one of the things I thought about was: how could I get H2otown to last 100 years? Now that seems like a ridiculous question. How can you get a website to last? I think the only way it could is for it to become useful enough to the other participants that they'd pick up the ball and run with it if I wasn't anymore. I can imagine, for instance, some descendant or descendants of Craigslist being around decades from now.
Q: What keeps you wanting to?
I think that people probably get the sense from reading H2otown how much fun it is for me to do it. First of all, local politics is really funny. Second, doing H2otown gives me a new way to live in the place that I live. Before I started H2otown, I didn't really know a lot about Watertown. I had lived here for almost a decade, but when I needed something, I'd drive to my hometown because I knew where things were there. I think I was like a lot of people in that I never really bothered to get connected to the place where I lived. In the words of George Carlin, "my house is a cover for my stuff." But that's a really impoverished way to live, really. H2otown was me doing my learning process in public, with the idea that my neighbors, who were, in the winter, getting up in the dark, and returning home from work in the dark, could ride along on my coattails.

Also, no one was tapping into that fundamental humor. I think local papers can't do it, because they're an authority figure in the community and someone who's an authority figure and pokes fun is called a bully. So there's this layer of local life they know about but can't talk about. Also, humor is a big signal to the readers of H2otown about how to read H2otown. "Please read this with your critical faculties fully engaged. Author is just some random person." And it's written in this weird eccentric way -- I write about myself in the third person -- to ensure that basically, all the jokes are on me. H2otown is a sort of more self-absorbed, indignant, and even more gadget obssessed version of me.
Q: What advice would you have for aspiring Town Councilors who might want to use H2otown to reach people before the 2007 town elections?
I would say, log in and experiment. We've had candidates use H2otown as a way of talking to people directly. And it's a way for candidates to take control of how -- and how much -- they get to talk to voters. They don't have to squeeze it through the narrow pipe of a newspaper. I'm actually entirely agnostic as to whether they start their own blog, or blog on H2otown. If they blog on their own, I'm happy to add it to the newswire and I'll certainly be reading; if they want the convenience of doing it on H2otown, where they don't have to spend any time on setup, that's good, too. I have written candidate guidelines on the site. I think candidates should really work on putting out information on their issues. For instance, this year, expertise on development, healthcare, and finance would be big.

Also, to this point, I haven't done endorsements. But I might this year. I remember after the last municipal election, someone coming up to me and saying that I influenced the election. And I thought, I gotta improve my aim, because those aren't the people I voted for. Also, I'm interested in individual members doing their own endorsements, but it's never taken off. I think if it's going to happen I'm going to have to go first. Also, I have no problem with being right out front with my opinion in fact, I feel like readers should know where I stand on things and let that inform their reading.