On October 12, the evaluation committee for the Community Media Development Initiative recommended to Asheville City Council that they enter into a three year contract with Ponderwell for the development of our proposal for an online community media outlet. Council responded by voting not to fund anything. We were…surprised. Not necessarily by the decision not to fund our project, but by the lack of questions put forward about it. Opening statements from Council members indicated that we had not managed, in our initial proposal, to convey our vision of an online, community-based newsroom and what it could offer to the people of this area. Given the limited number of pages allotted for that proposal, that was to be expected. We had hoped, however, that through questions and answers we could paint a better picture of exactly what it is we want to create. Unfortunately, Council appeared to have already made up their mind. And that, as they say, is how the cookie crumbles. Or at least it was yesterday.

Today, however, we have two questions to answer: what have we learned, and where do we want to go from here?

What Have We Learned?

It takes a lot of time and effort to build a grant proposal, and it’s a nerve-wracking process when you care deeply about the idea you are proposing. It takes on a life of its own and becomes the only topic of conversation, the only topic of thought. You could take the lesson that you shouldn’t care so much. But, if anything, we feel more passionately about this than ever. Guess we’ll never learn that one.

There’s a lot of politics involved. It can be confusing and overwhelming. We’ve learned not to worry about it, and to stay focused on what we do best: programming and ideas.

Don’t expect people to understand the concept, and don’t expect them to ask questions. We’ve learned that we have to explain ourselves better and more concisely.

It’s not just us. We’ve spent years thinking about this project, and one worry going into it was that maybe we were the only ones who would feel as passionately as we do about it. But every time we started explaining it to someone, they got excited, too. They wanted to be involved, they knew other people who would want to be involved. There’s a real need in this community (as there is everywhere) for community reporting that is open to everyone and actually works.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Public consumption of media used to comprise almost exclusively print and broadcast media. At one time this meant that public access to media creation (“Public Access Media”) involved writing a letter to an editor or standing on a street corner with a placard and hoping that the television or radio journalists would report your sign or interview you. Efforts to make media creation accessible to the public therefore focused on allowing people the tools and station time required to make and broadcast their own content – a very expensive process which had the potential to reach a wide audience. Unfortunately this Public Access Media struggled for audience against slickly produced mainstream media and entrenched public viewing habits.

But broadcast media is, slowly, dying. Televisions are still more common in homes than computers, but not by much and the gap narrows all the time. People carry phones with cameras and often with internet and sometimes with video capability. Quite good quality still cameras, video cameras, and recording equipment have reached the hobbyist level and hobbyist prices. Anyone can very easily set up a blog or post their pictures to Flickr or their videos to YouTube. That’s very far from Public Access Media, however. The public’s attention is spread incredibly thin by the vast flow of internet information. There’s just no way to be noticed – it’s the same problem that Public Access Media had in the broadcast realm but magnified a thousandfold.

This is the problem Ponderwell set out to solve with our Community Media Initiative. First, we believe that for the public to be aware of its own story, the stories its members are trying to tell about what matters to them, they must have a local, community based outlet. Second it must be visible, so there needs to be a central point where these stories can be found for the community. Third, and most important, there must be a consistently high quality of material at this location. That means there must be a system, as there is in the mainstream media, for training, for editing, and for pushing the most immediately relevant and interesting material to greater prominence. Ponderwell’s idea addresses these three requirements and thus makes publicly generated media – video, sound, pictures and words – actually accessible to the community in which it is created. We believe that by making a site which is designed from the ground up to encourage a supportive community of contributors who make good content, we will make a place which the community turns to and values. A site which allows community to talk about community, to tell its stories.

This is important to us because we think that it’s the only way for a community to really function as a community, to care about itself. We’re very sorry that we couldn’t get this idea across to the City Council, but we’re not going to give up – the idea matters too much. So in the coming weeks we’ll be beginning the search for other funding, talking with more community members to gather even more ideas about how this project can serve the different facets of our area. If you have ideas you think we should know about, drop us a line, either in the comments below or through our contact page. We’re going to find a way to build this, yet, and we want all of you with us.