RICHFIELD, MINNESOTA — Mark Plenke, a journalism and communications instructor at Normandale Community College, created 55423.info during his recent yearlong sabbatical, envisioning the site as both a news outlet for the town of Richfield and a hands-on course for his students.
Before launching the site (which takes its name from Richfield’s zip code), Plenke conducted a survey of 43 community members at a Fourth of July parade to gauge reader interests. The results showed an overwhelming interest in parks and recreation, with 42 votes, and safety and crime, with 31 votes. Coverage of city government received 21 votes, tied with gardening tips.
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Plenke has been in journalism since 1973, when he covered the county beat for the Brookings Daily Register in Brookings, S.D., earlier if you count his time with the student paper at Minneapolis Lutheran High School, which he doesn’t. He describes his current news venture as old-school coverage with a new media approach, or “community news plus.” He and his students may put together a photo slideshow of a high school sports event, or a video profile of a school board candidate. Need-to-know pieces like information about the ongoing Vikings stadium controversy and public safety updates remain a steady area of focus, but plans to open a branch of the popular local pizza chain Pizza Lucé also earn the site’s attention.
Though the site has been active since July 2010, Plenke’s vision for a largely student-produced publication has met with a number of obstacles. The challenges of bridging the gap between labratory learning and daily reporting have meant that Plenke is so far producing 75 percent of the site’s content himself–far more than he’d like. Many students struggle to balance the demands of the news cycle with class schedules and full-time jobs. When students do find time to report, they often meet skepticism from sources, fielding questions like, “Is this a class project?”
Despite these challenges, Plenke sees the site as an important part of his classroom.
“I’m a big believer in active learning,” Plenke explains. And because the site has relatively low “journalistic stakes,” it’s a good start for the students.
Student contributions will have to ramp up first, but Plenke imagines his eventual role as that of “super-editor,” giving all stories a once over while coaching students through weekly learning modules. Each student would also serve one week helping edit the site’s content.
Securing funding for the site has also been a challenge. “It’s Mark Plenke-supported,” Plenke jokes when asked about financing. Normandale Community College does not support the site monetarily, though Plenke says the school will eventually provide support through access to computer labs and digital equipment. Plenke hopes the school will even pitch in for things like maintaining the domain name, stylebooks for the students, and some promotional materials.
So far, Plenke has spent $6,500 of his own money on the site. He has no advertisers, a decision made partly due to conflict with the school newspaper (for which Plenke serves as advisor) and partly because he didn’t want to compete with other for-profit outlets in the area.
AOL’s Patch arrived in Richfield four months after Plenke started his site. Suddenly, the town of 35,228 people–which for years had been covered principally by a weekly newspaper with one reporter splitting time between Richfield and another suburb–had two new outlets of its own.
“When I started in 2010, I was sometimes the only reporter in the room at both the city council and school board meetings.” Within a few months, things were different. Patch came to town, a new reporter was hired to cover Richfield exclusively for the aformentioned weekly, and Twin Cities TV crews began an effort to do more local reporting.
“I went up to the superintendent after a meeting and he said, ‘Boy, things sure have changed here,'” Plenke recalls. He feels competition is good for his students. And it’s good for the community. “This past fall, there were fifteen candidates for school board. The previous election, there were just as many candidates as openings,” he says.
While things have improved for Richfield news consumers, the challenges facing a staff of student reporters aren’t getting any easier. One of Plenke’s current interns works a fifty-hour week, takes a full course load, and would love to do some sports reporting. Plenke recently asked him, “How do you think you’ll do the sports coverage?” He responded, “I don’t know, I was hoping you’d help me with that.”