On the other hand, two of the Journal Sentinel’s most popular recent features were a readership survey on whether the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback, Brett Favre, should retire, and an invitation to local chefs to send in their favorite recipes for grilling bratwurst. This, in turn, prompted readers to share many hundreds of their own favorite recipes. “It’s amazing how many ways there are to cook a bratwurst,” says Web editor Mike Davis. Before civic journalism advocates look down their gourmet noses at the bratwurst crowd, it’s worth recalling that sports and local cuisine were always a way that print newspapers bonded with readers. If you want the new interactive Web journalism to promote civic interest in, say, land-use planning, it may be shrewd to wash it down with some beer and bratwurst.

Some of the most creative service journalism on the Web comes from small papers. At the Naples Daily News in Florida, readers can get podcasts, videocasts, and photo galleries; check hurricane damage or local high school sports, or dig into an ingenious database of 80,000 recent local housing transactions—and more. The designer of this hyper-local site, a thirty-five-year-old self-described Internet nerd named Rob Curley, became a Web legend for his award-winning Web work at the Lawrence Journal-World and the Topeka Capital-Journal, in Kansas, and the Hannibal Courier-Post in Missouri. Last October, Donald Graham of The Washington Post hired him away from Florida to be vice president for new product development at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. “We have learned a great deal from the Web operations of small papers,” Graham says.

“They hired me to do the same cool stuff, only with more resources,” says Curley. “The only difference is that they don’t wake me at home at 3 a.m. when the classifieds go down. And don’t tell me that what I do isn’t journalism.”

A slicker, more explicitly business-oriented project called Newspaper Next, launched by the American Press Institute in late 2005 in collaboration with a team of Harvard Business
School professors, is promoting a similar model. Harvard’s Clayton Christensen, who advises the project, counsels newspapers to “engage, enrich, empower, and entertain” members of their larger communities, taking advantage of their branding and the Web’s interactive potential.

Newspaper Next is trying out variants of its model, working with seven newspaper companies. At The Dallas Morning News, the target audience is 700,000 busy mothers who are online every day, but only 15 percent of whom currently read the Morning News or its Web site. The idea is to build the ultimate site for moms, called GuideFamily.com, and match the traffic with prospective advertisers.

Other major chains have their own variations on this community approach. E. W. Scripps’ version is called YourHub, described as “a network of community-based Web sites featuring stories, photos, blogs, events, and classified ads posted by community residents and supported by local advertisers.” It’s a little ironic that a model of community journalism that was created before there was an Internet is now being seized on by the business side as a road to profitability.

Can it also enrich the journalism? At their best, these experiments promise to revive community connections and revenue opportunities, as well as local journalism, and to lift newspapers out of their revenue and morale funk. But absent serious investment and commitment from publishers to devote adequate staff, such Web sites can deteriorate into a stew of bratwurst recipes, police blotter, high school reunions, and inane comment.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.