Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Diane Velasco (J-school Piece revised)

A local journalist, as enthused about the use of new technology as she was dismayed by the newsprint world, founded in Albuquerque the second nonprofit, online newspaper in the country.

“The Journal is the Jurassic Park of journalism,” said Diane Velasco, executive director of The Citizen Media Group http://www.thecitizen.info. Velasco is a five and a half year veteran and former business writer for the Albuquerque Journal.

“The choice was clear: leave or fossilize," she said. “Journalism has lost its soul.”

Velasco wanted to create a business with a social mission.

She explained that the Journal was using late 1980s computers that could do few things that current technology allows. She resigned on July 4, 2005, in a patriotic act and political gesture reminiscing on the revolutionary press of the mid 1770’s.

A native of Oak Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, she graduated from Oak Park River Forest High School, the same school Ernest Hemmingway attended. However, Velasco was not impressed with Hemmingway or his writing. She attained an associate degree in business from Morton College in Cicero, Ill.

Velasco graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1996 with a journalism degree. After interning with the Albuquerque Tribune and with KKOB’s radio news legend Frank Haley, she freelanced at the Tribune and Journal. She went to work for Publisher Mike Ryan at the Rio Rancho Observer. As managing editor, and using her business education, she turned a 3 percent loss into a 17 percent profit after only two months on the job.

She did a series of investigative reports on the Rio Rancho School District and exposed 19 fire code violations in the newly built high school, funded by Intel. She also reported that a high school teacher had raped six students and one teacher.

Velasco infuriated school officials to the point they insisted that any question she had must be forwarded in writing. Her publisher thought it was OK for school officials to make such a request.

She then became involved in a First Amendment battle with the assistance of Bob Johnson of the Federation for Open Government and Attorney Bill Dixon.

On three occasions, Ryan turned over Velasco’s interview notes to citizens and to “the fat cat millionaires, Don Chalmers and others,” Velasco said. That she said destroyed the trust that reporters have to develop with sources, especially when the issues are about the sources’ bosses.

She spent a year thinking about the Citizen Media Group and six months doing industry market research before launching The Citizen on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2006.

The Citizen Media Group is more than just an online newspaper; it is also a foundation dedicated to improving the understanding of journalism.

“My core issue is media literacy.” Velasco said, “Unfortunately, the ‘computer generation’ also suffers from media illiteracy. I used to get calls at the Journal about the ‘ad’ I wrote, or about my ‘editorial.’ People don't know the difference, and most don't know that editorials are usually written by people who are not reporters.”

Velasco admits that there are advantages to running an online journalistic venture. “Love the flexibility of being able to fix a mistake, make changes immediately.” She said, “Also love the unlimited reach – no distribution problems. Stories can be sent around the world. Mine have already been sent to Washington, D.C., Mexico City, LA, Dallas, Cuba, and who knows where else. Also love the simple, shorter writing style. It's a cross between broadcast and print style. (I still tend to write too long from print habit.)”

She also notes some disadvantages. ” It's not ‘tangible’ -- people have already asked me when I'm going to publish a print product. I say, ‘Gimme a reason.’” Velasco said, “Other disadvantage, I don't understand the ‘viral marketing’ phenomenon yet. Still learning.”

The Citizen Media Group is the second nonprofit news source, the first being the Voice of San Diego, that started in February 2005 with a half million dollar start up grant. It had an editor, an information technology specialist and four or five reporters.

Velasco’s not the only group in Albuquerque that is attempting or in the process of creating an online newspaper.

Chantal Foster, who now works for the City of Albuquerque’s finance and administrative services as an information technology specialist, started Duke City Fix, which is an online, unedited Web site. She started the site in 2005.

Alex Marentes, a retired Albuquerque police officer, who was editor of the police officers’ association’s monthly magazine, producer of the union’s weekly cable access television show for a couple of years, has designed and maintained several Web sites is setting his sight on an on-line local newspaper.

"I am putting together a community blog using different bloggers to write an on-line newspaper of a journalistic style and quality, with more serious writing; politics, current events and crime as opposed to less serious or opinionated bloggs and the ‘who cares’ kind of material” Marentes said.

“I think print newspapers are dying," said Matt Gassner, a web designer, webmaster and a self described “all around geek” "More and more people are getting information on-line. Traditional media as a whole is shifting. As an example, on Tuesday Apple announced it is selling movies online; there go the theaters.”

For all that Velasco finds wrong with newspapers, she has tightened traditional thinking about journalistic practices. Under The Citizen’s policies, “We will use confidential sources whenever necessary to bring important information to the public, and will protect our right to do so to the fullest extent of Constitutional law,” She said.

Velasco said that her publication would not quote spokesmen in lieu of elected officials and that she will tape interviews to avoid being charged with misquoting a source.

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