G-Sync: The Rapidian Is Koning

I am not one of those people who subscribes to the idea that publishing is dead. Instead, I believe it is experiencing a transition, much like when books first arrived on the scene. It is all about delivery. And, boy, have we come a long way since the very first books were devoted to art and left in caves.  

This transition, while playing out internationally, is also hyper local, since I have experienced a decline over the years of a voice yelling from a distant room, “You better not be reading the Sunday New York Times on the comforter; it’ll get ink on it.” The new indicator scenario or form of dialog sounds more like this: “Stop reading. The light from your iPad is keeping me awake.”

The need to read is deeply ingrained in many of us, and yet the sources of reading and how we gather material has greatly shifted in just a few short years.

It is no surprise that five years ago, Rapid Growth became one of the featured new models for reading and communicating that moved our eyes away from paper. We bonded with the glossy photos and engaging texts in the form of a weekly magazine sans the ink and pulp. We joined a publishing trend that has been quietly filling the void left from the demise or near-demise of the country’s newspapers and magazines. Paper publications began to shift their model, often sacrificing some of the hyper-focused local news and in depth commentary toward the more common break-it-now Twitterverse race to be first.  

It can be exhausting hanging out with any of my friends who are in this world because they constantly jump back and forth from their handheld device to their beer. Into this vacuum, many publications like Rapid Growth emerged over the last five years, but one new partner, The Rapidian, which began in 2009 created a forum that is, for all its freshness, really a nice, old model transformed.

In 1982, Dirk Koning was hired to ramp up the city’s new public access center, GRTV, in the cave-like lair just below the Grand Rapids Ryerson Library. The subterranean space, which would go on to launch many careers in communication from WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf to filmmaker Wendy Jo Carlton, felt more like a basement in your home with its (now) antiquated switchers and tube cameras pointed at a set with furnishings that more seemed more porn than Charlie Rose.  GRTV in the ‘80s was much rawer than the current (and very professional) Community Media Center of today.

Perhaps a little raw around the edges, the programming was appreciated by viewers who quickly became enamored with Koning’s bold style. He tirelessly worked out his concept that the public should have a platform from which to broadcast their message as well over the cable lines.

In the ‘80s this was radical speech and placed Grand Rapids on the map with free speech advocates all over the world as Koning preached a new vision for our future that harnessed technology to give the citizens (public) a voice, too.

GRTV upended the model of free speech by allowing ordinary individuals access to the cable airwaves if they were willing to be trained in how to work the production gear. Anyone, with a little effort, could produce a television show. The center would go on to grow at a rapid clip acquiring and creating many local programs that followed the principals of public access.

Fast forward to the Fall of 2009 when the Knight Foundation, as a part of a national level push, would begin to aggressively offer grants to communities seeking to create a citizen journalism platform aimed at filling the void being created as publishing began to shift.

It is at this point in The Rapidian story that our local Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s fiery red ball of energy -- Roberta F. King, VP of Public Relations and Marketing --stepped up to the plate to shepherd the citizen journalism project. Her efforts, including the right placement of this project with their long-standing relationship partner, the Community Media Center, produced a homerun as the number of citizen reporters and readers have grown at a stunning pace. The community on every level responded beautifully.

According to Holly Bechiri, Rapidian Managing Editor, the secret of this rapid success has been their mission to be hyper local and to provide a platform where breaking stories are not the focus, but rather articles that unfold under the care of a citizen reporter.

"A really important part of what we wanted to make sure to provide was a space for real and respectful conversation,” says Bechiri, who insists all content providers -- whether article writers or commentators -- must reveal their real name. "There's something about having to stand behind your own words that keeps people from turning into their worst selves. The need for respectful conversation is a great one I think. Not in Grand Rapids specifically, but throughout the country, as we share most of our information online. It can become too disconnected from real life, and we can forget that these are our neighbors we are talking to, calling names and making fun of.”

This model is one that other publications have struggled to adopt. The Rapidian clearly believes that the model is one that makes our community stronger because we can engage in real conversations to promote understanding.

And lest you think the Rapidian is all business and no fun, well, just ask Bechiri about how the beats and bureaus drum up excitement not just around a topic (beats), but how their bureaus section can help one determine a narrative around space. It is a stunning and yet simple act of community organizing.

“It is funny, but our most popular stories tend to be around beer,” Bechiri confesses in a recent email,. “And yet we do not have a beat reporter for this area.”

It is worth pointing out that other topics trending high at The Rapidian include stories about civic history, Grand Rapids politics, nonprofit concerns, art and culture events -- “and no, not just ArtPrize,” says Bechiri.

The growing community over the last few years has expressed a lot of interest in justice issues that are trending nationally, but happening locally, too. Often what happens nationally has its inception or connection in the local scene somewhere. Citizen reporters have filed inspiring stories about children fighting back against bullying and scored some of their highest shares and reads around the Holland equal rights issue for the LGBT community.

Looking at their stats, which show a traffic increase of 135% between first quarter of 2010 and first quarter of 2012, the readers are clearly expressing they want to know more about their community.

But Community Media Center’s Executive Director and The Rapidian publisher, Laurie Cirivello, has a warning to those who think they are looking to replace MLive or any other publication.

“Citizen journalism is important not as a replacement for, but as an enriching adjunct to, mainstream news and journalism,” says Cirivello. “The stresses of the traditional industry, coupled with the often chaotic web environment, have fostered a gap that citizen journalism can help fill to strengthen community knowledge, engagement and connectedness. It is also a fertile platform for locals who want to volunteer to enrich the community in this way.”

Truly, this is the magic of what the Community Media Center does so well and still, to this day embodying the legacy of Dirk Koning’s vision: That all of us have the ability to ring a bell and in the simplest of forms, communicate with the tools before us.

The Rapidian is not a new concept, but the democracy of tools via the Internet and creative commons, open-sourced software has enabled people to move beyond producing a TV show (a service GRTV still provides),  standing on a soap box in the town square or even returning to the cave to scratch an image on the wall.  It also is proving to be a place where people can hone their writing skills as a few have gone on to pick up paid assignments with other publications.
The democracy of communication has changed the world and in our own community. The Rapidian has enabled people a chance to tell our story as we the people come to understand who we are in this city settled beside a mighty Grand River.

“The free flow of news and information is critical for a well functioning community,” says Cirivello, “and citizen journalism is playing an important role in Grand Rapids.”

Starting the week of April 16, The Rapidian will begin Education Week before rolling out their very first fund drive on April 23. It will be a call to action fundraiser, seeking to entice 250 people to donate to this sustainable campaign. The Rapidian staff members hope to continue their mission, so that their easy access platform continues long into the future.

All of us here at Rapid Growth, but especially me, who has benefited over the years from the tools that the Community Media Center have provided me, wish them all the best in this next chapter of their story. We are all watching, reading and rooting for your continued success.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen, Lifestyle Editor
Email:  [email protected]

Photos by Terry Johnston

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