By drawing on web 2.0 tools to promote citizen journalism rabble.ca provides a template for others. This sneak preview into the relaunch of the popular news site shows that grassroots media has never been more accessible.
rabble.ca is Canada’s most-read, online, alternative news and views site. Since it was founded nearly seven years ago, rabble has had ample opportunity to learn about and play a role in shaping the directions taken by web-based media. It was created by a group of inspired activists, determined to offer new voices and views to the existing media mix, and to support social movements in the process. The site began as an early form of a mashup, bringing together edited original news pieces with reprints of articles originally published in the mainstream media. It offered an early form of citizen journalism, a discussion board, a portal for news directly from the social movements and NGO sector, and a national events calendar. The site also featured a component called ‘three minute action’, and hosted debates, an advice column and more.
rabble launched with the support of foundations and individual donors who saw a vacuum in the media world. Over the past seven years, rabble has met the challenge of changing technologies, and has succeeded in the struggle to remain financially stable in a field dominated by much bigger players. In Canada, fewer than 4% of all newspaper dailies are independently owned, with over 84% of Canadian media owned by the five largest media companies. rabble saw the potential for something new: a place for journalists, social movement groups and community members to report, interact and discuss issues.
In 2001, a news publication that existed only on the internet was rare (and is still not very common). The medium of the web allowed (and continues to allow) us to connect to social group websites and online initiatives in ways that print does not. Perhaps most important, the web allows us to reach a much wider audience than would have been possible with print on such a small budget. Significantly, rabble’s goal has always been to provide new opportunities for readers to interact with the site and with each other. Our discussion board, babble, was in many ways an early social media tool.
Originally, rabble was a project of an Ottawa-based NGO, and later one based in Montreal, with physical offices in Toronto, Canada’s largest city. When, within its first two years, rabble moved to a fully virtual operation, it wasn’t a large leap. The move to a virtual space was made for financial reasons, but it strengthened the organization and helped it to become truly national in scope. We now have staff from across the country who can connect better to local communities and have reduced our overhead costs dramatically. To stay in touch we use Basecamp project software, internet phone calls (using Instant Messenger, ICQ and now Skype), email, Facebook, and occasional face-to-face meetings for collaborative work. Project software and wikis, where groups and subgroups can share and edit documents, collect email correspondence and track versions of documents, have been key features of our virtual office systems.
From the beginning rabble sought to pair news reporting with the public exchange of ideas that goes beyond simple comments or letters to the editor. Original news stories, posted with related content, links to news stories and a discussion board, ‘babble’, were part all of the design. All of this was built on open source technology, using Action Apps for content management delivery. Since then, more than 14,000 people have registered to join the discussions on the dozens of moderated topics on the babble board. These are moderated by paid and volunteer moderators. Over the years, a clear code of conduct has been developed for users, with the goal of fostering constructive dialogue, not knee-jerk name calling. Without moderation, website comments can often drift away from good discussion.
In 2004, incorporating feedback received from a users’ survey, rabble began two major initiatives, the ‘rabble podcast network’ (rpn) and the ‘rabble book lounge’. The technology behind the podcast network was developed in-house (there were no alternatives at the time), and the podcast network has been an important step in both increasing access by content user/producers, and broadening reach. Now, rabble hosts (for free) more than 35 podcast shows, produced by people across Canada, covering topics from storytelling to politics to movie reviews. Our own flagship show, ‘rabble radio’, is also broadcast on a number of community radio stations across the country.
We are committed to continue to develop and promote podcasting as an exciting aspect of community radio and offer online training in podcast development, especially for equity-seeking groups, and have hosted public training courses. Training and support for podcasts has been an important aspect of increasing the quality of the programmes. rabble is now launching a volunteer peer-to-peer feedback programme where podcasters who sign up give each other criticism, comments and general feedback on ways to improve their shows.
Launched at the same time as the rabble podcast network, the rabble book lounge is an independent section of the site that includes original reviews, book-focused podcasts, book event listings, a bookstore with a focus on independent Canadian publishers and an online book club. The book lounge promotes good books and good discussion, and provides a source of revenue for the site.
In 2008, rabble will be undergoing a complete change in our content management software, incorporating web 2.0 tools, and at the same time expanding the services and options to visitors, including new opportunities to interact with the site. Over time we’ve seen a shift in how users engage with the website. While the site hosts a homepage, there are several points of entry – from the rabble.ca homepage itself, babble, the podcast network, or the book lounge. Many readers arrive at rabble through Google searches. The site’s redesign will take all of these changes into account, finding ways to increase traffic between sections of the website.
Recognizing a further shift in how users engage both with media and with websites, we have been opening up to new ways of bringing rabble to the reader. Our most recent expansion has been into social media such as Second Life (an internet-based virtual world) where rabble has a home ‘tree house’ on ‘better world island’. Here we have hosted book launches and discussions with ‘avatars’ (online representations of internet users) from far and wide. This initiative has been largely volunteer run and it remains to be seen how much traffic or interest the Second Life rabble home will generate, but this space is open to be shared with other organizations. Meanwhile, rabble has also been exploring sites such as Flickr, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
In the redesign rabble will be rebuilt, still using open source, but with Drupal as a base. The choice is political: using open source software supports the development and distribution of important software for public use, not for profit, and therefore promotes a more democratic exchange of ideas. People and organizations that are under-resourced can, therefore, still participate in internet projects. Financially, it also frees us to spend resources on adapting the software to meet our needs (which is then shared to a wider community). The redesign will also incorporate a flexibility to experiment with various web 2.0 tools.
Hindsight is perfect
There are few, if any, medium to large independent media initiatives in North America that do not rely in part on foundation or corporate support. While rabble received some foundation support at start-up, we do not have an endowment and depend instead on individual and organizational donations, partnerships and memberships. Recently we have attempted to introduce advertising onto the site. When rabble launched, as with many exciting new non-profit initiatives, not enough focus was given to long-term financial sustainability. One clear example is that advertising has been retro-fitted into the design of the site.
We have also had limited success with e-commerce. We worked hard to create an online store – an eBay of sorts for ethical shopping, but simply could not compete with large corporations. And it has been a similar story with the bookstore. While we get strong traffic on the book lounge, we cannot compete on price with large bookstores who sell select books as ‘loss leaders’ to attract customers, and who can get better margins on books. Our bookstore now is sustainable as it is volunteer run, but the work that went into programming Action Apps for this was significant, and will not be recouped. Again, this is an example of how our goals and work demand a more flexible platform.
The upcoming redesign will better incorporate advertising and also better meet the needs of readers, which should, in turn, increase our membership.
New horizons and opportunities
In the last few years there has been a significant increase in the range of high-quality open source software that allows, and encourages, a more social, participatory internet experience. From social tagging (where people collectively select and highlight important sites and issues), to individual and collective blogging, plus sites such as YouTube, Flickr, MySpace and Facebook, internet users are becoming less passive – they are now more willing to respond to and comment on content and to contribute than before.
Despite a long history of visitor involvement, rabble has reached a stage where we can take greater advantage of web 2.0 tools. With the move to Drupal as a content management system, we have also created a new look for the site to increase visitor-driven content and interaction, along with the use of multimedia such as video and slideshows.
Our model is to act as a host and a filter; we don’t run simply anything – it isn’t an open dumping ground. We mix edited content (news articles, opinion pieces) with unedited content such as podcasts, and soon video. For podcasts, however, we do have a formal arrangement with all contributors covering standards and protocols. We are also pursuing funding to launch ’rabble local’, where we will provide online training as well as a platform where local communities can report on issues related to their area. All of these locations will have a space on rabble, and will be merged with the general site through items such as an ‘editor’s pick’ or through podcasts highlighting contributions from different shows around the country and the world.
We see the ‘rabble local’ project as more than an exciting citizens’ journalism programme. We aim to make it a community development initiative. Not only will we report news and views from different communities and match key stories, we will also set up discussion groups and project software to connect these communities. For example, a small town on the east coast of Canada might be a ‘rabble local’ site and they may be reporting on, and involved with, addressing issues of homelessness. The same might be true of a town on the west coast. Not only will we report on these connected issues but encourage and support these groups to share information, strategies and ideas, outside of what is printed or produced for rabble.
To support community development elsewhere we are exploring hosting an ‘activist toolkit’ section, where community activists can share workshop designs, posters, flyers, and ideas for free to inspire and support others to do community development work. This section can be connected to our babble discussion board and of course may inspire more media content, such as videos and podcasts, comments and other web 2.0 journalism.
Such a model of encouraging a direct conversation between citizen journalism and citizen activism is certainly applicable anywhere the internet is available. Web 2.0 tools encourage dialogue but training and support are also key. Simply depending on the technology to create an exchange of ideas is not enough. With moderators, editors, training, peer-feedback and multiple ways for people to interact with a site, exciting and dynamic exchange and content can be produced and shared. At rabble.ca we are thrilled about the prospects the next six years hold.