in Houston, Texas

Citizen journalist lets the sun shine into Somervell public meetings

Monday, Mar 16, 2009, 10:40AM CST
By Jennifer Peebles
Glen Rose, Texas, is not exactly a town most folks would think of as pushing the envelope.

Situated in Somervell County, population 6,800, this a rural place, about an hour's drive southwest of Fort Worth, whose biggest claim to fame is dinosaur fossils -- the nearby state park has plenty of them.

But out on the Internet, Somervell County is the site of true grassroots citizen journalism that rivals any other such project I've seen in Texas.

This week -- national Sunshine Week -- is a chance for all Americans to appreciate how important freedom of information laws are for all of us. And many of us in the press will spend this week rolling out special stories or series of stories geared toward public records and their use.

Texas Watchdog is doing something a little different for Sunshine Week. We wanted to give some special praise to citizen journalists who use freedom of information laws to help the public know what's going on in their communities.

And that's how we come this week to point our lens toward Somervell County, home of the blog known as the Somervell County Salon.

The Salon is a rollicking place with multiple regular bloggers -- you have to register to get access, but it's free registration -- and like many blogs, it serves up commentary on national and local political issues.

But that's not all: The chief blogger goes out and records her own video and audio of city and county public meetings and posts them on the Salon web site -- thus making it possible for many Somervell Countians to get access to public meetings that they can't attend in person.

I talked the other day by phone with the chief blogger -- she writes under the username "Salon," so that's how I'll refer to her.

When her family lived elsewhere in North Texas, she said, seeing public meetings was easy -- all you had to do was turn on the TV, practically any time of day or night, and watch the reruns of meetings on the local cable-access channels. But that's a luxury not often enjoyed by people in more rural areas.

She recalled for me the first time she showed up with a camera at a public meeting in Somervell County to record it, and she got some pushback from an official there who didn't seem to quite understand that the public can't be prohibited from recording a public meeting. But she went on ahead, and since then, she's become a regular.

(Story continues below photograph. Click here to jump down.)

A screen grab from the Somervell County Salon

No, she said, she didn't start out with the intention of being a journalist or even a citizen-journalist -- she started the blog largely on national political issues that she wanted to speak out on. But as she asked more questions about the things city and county government were doing, she became more and more interested in them, which led to still more questions.

At the same time, though, national politics is still a frequent subject on the blog. The Salonners are a pretty Netroots-y bunch. When I'm reading their site, I always get the feeling like I'm hanging out at a small, intimate bar with some folks who are old friends -- inside, it's a blue-state kind of place, Obama posters on the walls, and outside the bar is miles and miles of red. I can't always mentally keep straight all the local political goings-on being discussed -- who is that person you just mentioned, again? -- but I enjoy the conversation and, most of all, the questioning attitude.

But that brings up an important point about citizen journalism and the changing media landscape we live in: Folks like me, the people whose business cards say "journalist," we're supposed to try to be objective (though I know critics on both sides would laugh at that statement). But the citizen journalists don't have to check their opinions at the door. Whether they are on the left or on the right, they can speak their minds. And as we "pros" become fewer and fewer in number because there are fewer jobs in our industry, I think our society will rely more on citizen journalists for real news, not just opinion.

And that comes back to our original point: Here's a citizen journalist giving folks in her community access to public meetings that they probably couldn't get anywhere else. That's a real commitment to the idea of freedom of information.

But enough from me. "Salon" e-mailed me some additional comments I can share with you. I'll let her talk:

People tend to think of news as being the province of those with the title 'Journalist.' And the complaints that inevitably come are due, in part, to believing that what one is interested in is not being covered, or isn’t being covered to the degree one wants, or in the way one wants. I don’t believe that is the fault of any media venue, because the media is attempting to make money by highlighting stories that will generate interest, or avoiding issues that might run off advertisers, or simply doesn’t have the space or time or staff to pursue stories to depth. The problem arises when people see newspapers failing, and journalists being replaced by talking heads, and content restricted for various reasons, and they don’t realize they, too, can pursue and share items of public interest.

The mindset that says that information is the province only of a class called 'journalists' needs to change. Because of open records and open meetings acts laws, anyone that has an interest in a subject for which their elected officials are passing laws, raising taxes or otherwise making decisions that affect their lives, can go see for themselves what the public record says. And the beauty of the Internet is that what a citizen journalist discovers can be shared with the local community and/or the world. I think that those who have the ability or equipment to do so and the time ought to take advantage of doing so. For example, going to a public meeting? Take along a video or audio recorder -- information is so much richer about a meeting when you can hear the inflections in a voice, or see the expressions made by the presenters and those in the crowd. Recording a meeting helps prevent misinformation from being spread, and those who watch or listen can make up their minds for themselves from first-hand content.

Your community is your neighborhood, and who better to see what’s going on than you who live there and have an interest, particularly on issues that for whatever reason aren’t considered in depth. That’s what open records are made for.

Do you know of other citizen journalists in Texas who are using freedom of information laws -- getting into public meetings and getting access to public records -- to report on their communities? Give them a shout out by posting in the comments section below.

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