Photo by Ash Daniel
John Murden of CHPN
Who would have guessed that a home renovation would lead John Murden to emerge as an inspiration to community journalists?
Murden began chronicling progress on his house on Fairmount Avenue in 2003 through a blog, “This Decrepit Victorian,” intended for family and friends. One day, Murden was seized by a wild notion: Why not convert his blog into a larger news site focused on Church Hill and the surrounding district?
“I remember ripping the shingles off my house when the idea came pretty fully developed to my mind,” Murden, 41, says.
Church Hill People’s News, or CHPN, thus was born in 2004. The community news and information website celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. Murden estimates its coverage area includes about 17,000 people, based on 2010 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Soon after CHPN launched, Richmond saw a rash of similar local news websites and blogs sprout up. One of those hot on Murden’s heels was Ross Catrow, whose RVANews had similar humble beginnings, evolving from an aggregator of other local blogs into a collection of community news sites. This past February, the individual sites came back under the RVANews umbrella as nine different community sections; all of them make money through advertising. Like Murden, Catrow has seen other community websites come and go — one, North Richmond News, was even absorbed by RVANews, while others have stood the test of time — but he says “things seem pretty good” for the state of community journalism in Richmond today.
As far back as 2008, Richmond was receiving kudos for its neighborhood-based journalism. That year, a study by the Missouri School of Journalism noted that Richmond had the “most developed community of citizen journalism sites” among 15 metropolitan media markets examined. The report also directly credited Murden’s influence in helping inspire or launch other local community-oriented news blogs.
“John could see that citizen journalism makes for stronger neighborhoods. It gives people a voice on a range of topics,” says Jeff South, director of undergraduate studies at the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.
It’s worth noting that neither Murden nor Catrow cut their teeth as professional journalists. Catrow’s background is in web design and developing; Murden taught at Richmond’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School before becoming a stay-at-home dad. They both tap into a growing frustration with mainstream media outlets.
“The metro daily and the TV stations have a limited news hole, so they pursue the stories they think will attract the most eyeballs,” says South, who spent 20 years as a newspaper reporter. “That’s where the community news blogs come into play: They fill the need for micro news, and for localized discussions of macro news.”
Murden considers himself an observer or archivist – but he does have a news vision for CHPN. He wants it to provide Richmonders with a forum for community involvement that usually isn’t afforded by established media players.
Occasionally, Murden will do long-form reporting based on news articles that appear in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other local media outlets, but he shies away from regurgitating local news headlines. “I would say easily 95 percent of our content is original.”
News tips come from residents and neighbors in and around Church Hill, “which is like a little city unto itself,” he says. The content runs the gamut: amateur photos of police arresting someone on a nearby street, announcements of blood drives — even a recent entry with the headline “Tiny Bags of Poo,” including a photo sent by the Richmond Department of Public Utilities of bags of pet waste left under a tree by dog owners. “Every couple of weeks or so I see something on the TV stations that originally appeared on CHPN,” Murden says.
RVANews follows a similar formula. “We focus on putting useful and interesting content in front of our users,” Catrow says. “A lot of the time, that means creating it, other times it means linking over to another local media source. It’s definitely an evolution from where we started.”
The rise of social media has changed the landscape of community news coverage, allowing more voices to be heard across a number of different media. “Ten years ago, everyone with something to say did so on their own blog,” says Catrow. “But now, there are a ton of different mediums … on which regular-type folks can contribute to RVA’s collective pool of community journalism.” He notes that while there may be fewer standalone news sites, in fact “there are more people doing community journalism” than there were 10 years ago.
Likewise, CHPN has evolved with the times, and social media now plays an integral role in its coverage, including its own Twitter feed and Facebook page, plus a Flickr pool with about 6,000 community-contributed photos. Monthly traffic now hovers around a respectable 115,000 page views.
The challenge going forward will be retaining the sense of intimacy and community that enable these sites to stand out. Catrow cites RVANews’ “unique tone” and smaller size, which “lets us experiment in ways that would get caught up and slowed down at a larger organization.”
Murden isn’t sure how he’ll commemorate the 10-year milestone of CHPN.
For now, he’s content to know his site makes a difference in the tight-knit Church Hill neighborhood.
“People send me stuff all the time, so I know they find it valuable.”