On the Front Lines
Political Partisans and New Media
Strut Stuff in Northampton Election
By Edward Shanahan
Northampton’s hotly contested and most divisive mayoral election in more than a decade has been fueled by a combination of anger, passion, and newly developed tools for running a political campaign.
There have many more forums and debates for the candidates and their partisans, sponsored by a range of civic and social organizations beyond the League of Women Voters and the Daily Hampshire Gazette, which used to be sole proprietors of such events.
A thicket of political advertising signs blight neighborhoods and byways of the city, and rarely
have we witnessed such partisan energy, other than during last fall’s grassroots insurgency by Barack Obama. Indeed, maybe it was the Obama success that encouraged the proliferation of these new campaign instruments and weapons that are now showing up at the local level.
I’m talking about the candidates’ websites, the bloggers, the podcasters, the urgent e-mail messages with recorded endorsements, the video taping of the forums, all of which make discourse available around the clock. It has been going on since before the September primary election and will continue until Tuesday’s vote.
An emerging new media made up of citizen journalists and conveyors of news, commentary and opinion at on-line sites have become key players on the local political landscape. Younger activists, bored with the traditional media, are looking elsewhere for alternatives sources of information.
That could not have been clearer than at the fascinating and informative debate the other night conducted by the Gazette, which once owned local election coverage and whose reporting was essential reading for citizens who wanted to know something about the candidates and the issues well before they entered the voting booth.
Sitting in the front row at the debate, more or less side by side, were Adam Cohen of the North Street Neighborhood Association, patiently video taping proceedings for subsequent viewing in perpetuity, and Mary Serreze, publisher of the two-month old Northampton Media site, an inspired news effort that seeks to aggregate political coverage from myriad local sources. Recording electronically all that transpired, she would quickly make it available on www.northamptonmedia.com
Both Cohen and Serreze, the new faces of citizen journalism, have been doing this for months now, focusing on civic life and municipal events that deal with substance—the nuts and bolts of government process—as well as raising questions about new approaches to urban issues.
For an audience eager to be more plugged in, Serreze and Cohen post material quickly and completely, without filters, and provide supplementary commentary and analysis to boot.
Still to come will be enterprise reporting, which requires digging under the surface for stories and issues, but that will require more resources and more hands.
Mary Serreze and Adam Cohen
In the past the Gazette delivered day after day, column-inch by column-inch political stories well in advance of election day. This time, it seems to be running a little late with a full court press only in the last seven days before the election. Post primary coverage has consisted mainly of election briefs run as “campaign notebooks” and a handful of stories based on debates. Not much substance, in other words. Only yesterday did I learn that there are four candidates for two at-large School Committee seats along with who they are and what their background is.
I recall attending a brainstorming meeting at the side room at Packard’s more than a year ago when Serreze, Cohen, and others , including Tommy Devine, two guys from MassLive, Mark Roessler from the Advocate and Mike Kirby were batting around the idea of creating a local on-line news cooperative that would be a new player in the local news and information mix in a modern format.
Having tried to do that for nearly 10 years with downstreet.net, I was supportive of the project but said I’d rather go it alone.
However, Mary Serreze and others persevered against all of the arguments about why their idea would not work when arrayed against the size and scale of local media monopolies.
And, in the end, the launch of the multi-faceted Northampton Media site by the energetic and committed Serreze appears to have been timed perfectly to take advantage of the hurly burly of Northampton’s 2009 municipal election.
Of course, the jury is out as to whether this kind of evolving, citizens approach to local news coverage can be sustained over the longer term.
But for now, it has shown that it has a place at the table and perhaps can actually run with the big guys with the deep pockets and establishment connections as well as entangling and sometimes crippling relationships with the establishment.
downstreet.net©2001. All rights reserved.