Andrew Conte: More voices being heard in journalism's 'walled garden'
John Chamberlin had been laid off from his job as a marketing vice president at a mid-sized company, he had few social media skills and, worst of all, he found himself stuck in traffic behind a bus that refused to let other drivers pass.
In that moment when he wanted to yell at the bus driver, Chamberlin realized Pittsburghers need a place to vent and to share everything they love about the city. He created YaJagoff!, a Pittsburgh-themed blog that evolved to include a podcast, too.
“I figured, ‘You better roll up your sleeves and learn this stuff, bucco, if you want to be relevant,' ” Chamberlin told me recently.
Last week, Chamberlin and his co-host, Rachael Rennebeck, found themselves at the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania's annual Golden Quill awards dinner. Six years after it launched, YaJagoff! emerged as a finalist against more traditional competition from public radio stations WESA and WYEP.
“This helped us to go, ‘Wow, we can hang,' in a realm that used to be a certain way and now it's not,” Rennebeck said. “It proves that there are various means for pushing stories out there.”
The fact that YaJagoff! (which Chamberlin insists is not a swear word) got invited to the party means something more for the Pittsburgh region, too.
Many new, smaller media startups are taking root alongside the traditional, established outlets by focusing on narrow geographic areas and niche topics. Together, all of these organizations comprise a “comparatively vibrant media ecosystem,” according to a recent report by Media Impact Funders, supported by The Heinz Endowments and Hillman Family Foundations. The Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University plans to work with Media Impact Funders and the foundations over the next year to support the growth of this ecosystem with brainstorming sessions, programming and micro-grants.
Many of the new groups already are producing strong, competitive content.
Two relative newcomers — The Incline, an online news outlet that started in September 2016, and PublicSource, a nonprofit news outlet that formed in 2011 — each had five finalists at the Press Club awards.
Journalism used to exist almost as a “walled garden” that didn't welcome different voices or perspectives, said Kim Lyons, another podcaster whose show was named as a finalist for the first time. She co-hosts The Broadcast Podcast about women and their stories with Natalie Bencivenga.
“The more voices in the conversation, the better,” Lyons told me. “I don't think we should be turning anyone away.”
The finalists also included people whose voices have not always been heard before. Look Who's Here!, a podcast by Unabridged Press, features Mark Steidl, who has cerebral palsy and communicates via a DynaVox machine, and Erin Gannon, who has Down syndrome.
“I'm very excited because I'm really happy that I did it,” Gannon told me. “I want to get people with special needs involved, to learn to do what I'm doing now and just to be ourselves.”
No doubt, the internet has disrupted traditional media in painful ways, but the technology also has created unimaginable opportunities for people to create their own content and share it like never before.
Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, serves on the boards of the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania and PublicSource.