About a week ago, I was able to spend some time in one of America’s most underrated communities – Grand Rapids, Michigan. I went to pick up a special award for Tanner Friedman and was expecting a nice evening in a first-class art museum located in a vibrant downtown. But, the evening actually exceeded my expectations as I learned of a community actually doing something (other than complaining) about the contraction of traditional media.
That night, I learned of The Rapidian. The more I think about this new media innovation, the more impressed I become. Just hearing the basic descriptions when I was in town and exploring it on the Web didn’t give me enough. So, the other day, I spoke with Roberta King of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, one of the organizations that made The Rapidian possible, to get more details to share with you.
In 2008, frustrated by the inability of traditional media in West Michigan to continue to cover community news like it used to (before extreme cutbacks affecting newspapers, TV and radio), the Community Foundation and the Grand Rapids Community Media Center (which has an impressive history of operating public access TV, radio, theatre and Web) applied for a Knight Foundation grant. The Knight Foundation wanted to give to community foundations to create platforms for local news and information. The Grand Rapids proposal won the grant, The Rapidian was born and so was mission-driven community journalism in West Michigan.
King (also now The Rapidian’s writer covering running) told me, simply, “We needed to do something to keep local information in the community.” So, The Rapdian hired a part-time Content Coordinator to serve as the editor of the site. The reporting is done by volunteers – Citizen Journalists – who receive ongoing training from the site’s organizers. About 30 community members are pursuing their reporting interests on subjects that traditional media can’t or won’t cover. Primarily, they are covering arts and culture but recent stories have also included education, the environment and happenings in Grand Rapids’ neighborhoods.
The Rapidian is only leaning on local nonprofits to contribute content, submitting to a growing section called “Nonprofit Neighbors.” So far, the nonprofits realize the PR opportunity and are participating.
The Citizen Journalists are driving traffic to the site through their own social media pages and that’s helping traffic grow. In the last month, the site received about 8,600 visits, with a three minute average visit length. Those numbers are growing month by month. Now, King says, the Community Foundation must raise money to match the Knight grant and keep the site as a sustainable enterprise.
For centuries, journalism thrived as a profit-driven enterprise. In many cases across many communities, that may no longer be possible in the same way it has been. That’s when communities may need to start taking charge and creating new, innovative ways for important information to not get lost in corporate downsizings. The Grand Rapids example could be the beginning of a trend and is worth watching in the months to come.