GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN — Grand Rapids-based The Rapidian takes the concept of grassroots citizen journalism to heart. A community-wide project, operating under a for-us/by-us ethos, The Rapidian was created by the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, a nonprofit media and technology support organization for the Grand Rapids area. The Center began as a public access television station, and currently operates two television stations, a noncommercial radio station, and a theater for film and live performances; it also offers media education services, as well as IT and web development for local nonprofits. The Rapidian was conceived in response to shrinking local news outlets, which resulted in limited coverage of news on the community level.
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The Community Media Center is a private 501c3 nonprofit organization. To create the Rapidian, the CMC collaborated with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, an organization which fosters community giving in and around the city of almost 200,000 residents. The two nonprofits put together the concept for the Rapidian in early 2009, and applied to the Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge. The Knight Foundation awarded a matching grant to establish the site.
The Rapidian boasts solely original content and does not aggregate. The site employs only one full-time staff member—managing editor Holly Bechiri—-but also utilizes the part time services of four others, including a business developer, community engagement specialist, and Laurie Cirivello, the Rapidian’s publisher. Additionally, Cirivello serves as executive director of the CMC.
The hallmark of The Rapidian is its citizen journalism. The site boasts roughly 400 contributors, each with varying levels of experience and contributions. New reporters are assigned editorial mentors to help teach them reporting and journalism methods. A new reporter must first publish three stories before they can report independently of their mentor. Mentors include the staff of The Rapidian, as well as community volunteers with journalism backgrounds. There are currently about ten mentors, including Rapidian staffers. Of the 400 reporters who have the authority to report, thirty-five to forty of them are regular contributors.
Stories are as varied as the community members who report them: a profile of notable Grand Rapids residents buried in its local cemetery; a story about a local photographer’s love of sailing “tall ships” on the Great Lakes; a review of a locally-grown theater performance highlighting the issue of race in America; coverage of an event known as Art Prize, which features local artists and eateries. One of the more highly trafficked stories featured an Army veteran who posed as a homeless man for two days in Grand Rapids’ Heartside neighborhood. The story generated interest in the community, as it exposed the ills and underbelly of the homeless problem in economically embattled Grand Rapids.
The Rapidian is truly a community forum. Its open membership facilitates and encourages journalistic development amongst members of its community. The Rapidian provides a common space to voice ideas, opine over local issues, or exercise one’s creative impulses, all within the confines of good practices of journalism. The strength of The Rapidian is the feeling of ownership and connection it allows between members of the community. As publisher Laurie Cirivello observes, “Citizen journalism is a very high-touch endeavor. It may be based on technology and zeros and ones as a platform, but to make it work it takes relationships, continuous cultivation, support, respect, all of those things, on a very intimate basis with people.”
The Rapidian Data
Name: The Rapidian
City: Grand Rapids
Principal Staff: Laurie Cirivello, publisher; Holly Bechiri, managing editor; Chelsea LaForge, community engagement specialist; George Wietor, new media planner.
Affiliations: Funding from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. A project of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center.