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HOPKINTON

Citizen journalists fill a niche with e-news

Robert Falcione is showing off his website HopNews.com when he hears the crackle of his police scanner. He abruptly stops what he's saying, picks up the handheld device and turns up the volume.

''Two trees [down] on the wires, I'm not going to go for that one," he says, waving off the police chatter with his hand.

But it doesn't take much more than that to get his journalistic juices flowing. He posts new photos and writes every day for his Hopkinton news site. Sometimes the scanner will tip him off to a fire or arrest or car accident. Other times he ambles around town looking for a good outdoor scene to photograph. He also takes photos and notes at community events and meetings, covering everything from a Christmas tree lighting to a political fight on the Conservation Commission.

Without knowing it, Falcione, editor of HopNews.com, has been on the cutting edge of a growing trend in e-news. Across the country people like him are diving into what has been dubbed ''citizen journalism." It existed before with printed newsletters or even small independent newspapers, but just in the last year or so, analysts say, online versions are proliferating.

''If 2004 was the year of the blog, 2005 is unquestionably the year of citizen media. It's taken off like wildfire since the beginning of the year," according to Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab, The Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland.

The reasons are many, she said. Technology has become less expensive and easier -- Falcione knows HTML, the standard language used to create websites, but he doesn't need it anymore thanks to new user-friendly software that requires no programming.

Schaffer said there are also more foundations like hers offering grants to such nascent efforts, and mainstream media outlets are putting ''fewer feet on the street," making more residents hungry for local news. Last year, her organization received 243 proposals for 10 grants for startup print or electronic news efforts.

''The common refrain is 'Nobody is covering us,' " said Schaffer.

Falcione, 58, started his site more than two years ago because he simply wanted an outlet for his photography. He thought he would post the police log too, just for fun. Then he got carried away one night when he took photos at a selectmen's meeting.

''I sat there and I said, 'I think I'll just watch this thing,' " he recalled. ''I wrote a little story. The church wanted a one-day liquor license for their event, their bazaar, whatever it might be."

Two years later, Falcione, who is originally from Dorchester and moved to town in 1979, is going to a couple of town board meetings each week and reporting on what happens. A few other people help write news and features, and thanks to some local advertisers, Falcione can even pay his freelancers for some of the content. HopNews.com also offers video and sound on the site.

Site traffic has almost tripled over the last year from 13,000 visits in November 2004 to 35,000 this November.

Falcione runs everything out of his Main Street photography studio, where he does portraits. Although he's a professional photographer and has done news photos in the past, he has little in the way of formal training in reporting or writing.

But that's not unusual -- and maybe not even all that problematic -- in the world of citizen journalism, according to Dan Kennedy, a visiting assistant professor at Northeastern University's School of Journalism.

''In a way what's going on is old-fashioned," said Kennedy, former media critic for The Boston Phoenix. ''Certainly you go back 50 to 100 years and look at the weekly newspapers in hometowns across New England and across America, you weren't really talking about people you'd consider to be professional journalists the way we do today."

Last summer Falcione found himself in the big leagues with a scoop he had to sit on. His photos of an alleged hate crime in Ashland attracted the interest of the FBI. At their request, he turned over photos of the crime scene he had already posted online and agreed to stay mum about the federal investigation.

''The FBI said, 'We'd rather you didn't say anything about this.' I said OK -- what else am I gonna do? It's the FBI," he said. When two indictments were handed up last month, Falcione was finally able to reveal the story.

To the extent that citizen journalists don't have formal training or an editor, they could run into difficult situations -- but then again, Kennedy pointed out, this hasn't exactly been a banner year for professional editors and journalists.

''This is not a priesthood. It's not even a profession; it's a craft," he said. ''Anybody who has some brains and is dedicated to learning the craft can do that."

Kennedy said he has tried to quantify such local news sites. He has not found a good list, but said there is no doubt the number is growing. It's no surprise that such sites are popping up in the Boston area, he said, because they tend to arise in places with Web-savvy people -- California is another hot spot for citizen journalism.

He wasn't familiar with HopNews but pointed to H2otown.info, which features musings on Watertown by Lisa Williams, a stay-at-home mother.

''She's smart and she knows what she's doing," said Kennedy. ''You're starting to get some real good citizens doing these."

Williams, 35, was a technology analyst before she had children. She started the site in February.

''I have two small kids -- you have to put off youthful fantasies of taking off for India. H2otown let me travel deeper rather than farther," she said. ''And that was probably one of the major reasons [for starting the site]. I needed to stay out of trouble. I needed to get a hobby."

Her site is more blog-like than HopNews, but she does commit what she calls ''random acts of journalism." For example, she covered the election recount earlier this month and wrote what can only be called a news article about what she saw.

The future is a question mark for sites like HopNews and H2otown. But there seem to be at least two directions they could take.

Schaffer said that volunteer citizen journalists have collaborated with mainstream news reporters at places like YourHub.com in Colorado, which is produced by the Rocky Mountain News but features stories from nonjournalists.

The other way to survive and maybe even thrive is through advertising, said Kennedy.

''Although I certainly don't think it's necessary that people figure out how to get rich doing citizen journalism, it would be nice to figure out how a two- or three-person operation could cover a community and make a living doing so, because if this remains a strictly voluntary effort, I think there's going to be a real limit to how far it can go," he said.

Williams said she can just pay for her Internet costs with Google ads now and has thought about trying to make her site more of a commercial enterprise later on.

Falcione takes several local ads and dreams of expanding. He already shares some ads with HollistonNetNews.com, a similar site in a neighboring town, but he hopes HopNews could serve as a template for more local news sites.

''I'd like to have some further associations and have other people use this model and be associated with it in a larger way in the surrounding towns," he said. ''I'm riding this wave and don't know how to get off -- not that I want to."

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or by e-mail at lkocian@globe.com

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