July 8, 2011

There’s a pothole on Charles Street alongside Boston Common. A truck is parked illegally not far from Harvard Square. People are throwing garbage onto the sidewalk near Fenway Park.

I learned about these problems and transgressions from the website of New England’s largest newspaper, the Boston Globe. Alongside its coverage of world and regional news, Boston.com also offers a place for readers to vent about the kinds of things that metropolitan newspaper editors might once have derided as trivialities.

Through an interface developed by a New Haven, Connecticut company called SeeClickFix, users can click on a map, report issues in their neighborhoods, and comment on reports made by others.

In a typical month, SeeClickFix logs more than 20 reports from Bostonians about public works issues (“Entering East Boston sign hanging outside the Ted Williams tunnel has been hanging upside down for at least 2 months”), ill-mannered drivers (“must stop the double parking in front of PS deli.”), and inconsiderate neighbors (“People are allowing their dogs to use Trafton Park as their toilets.”).

“It’s a different interesting way to present information about potholes and graffiti and those types of things,” said Boston.com Director of Product Development Jim Bodor. “It’s a type of thing that traditional journalism might not address, but it gives readers a place to go and talk about these things.”

Since its start three years ago, SeeClickFix has accumulated dozens of media clients. It powers a Washington Post Web feature called “The Daily Gripe” and is featured on such websites as the Dallas Morning News, San Francisco Chronicle, and WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Users also can access it directly at seeclickfix.com and through a mobile app.)

Last month it partnered with its first university — Southern Connecticut State — and earlier this year it raised $1.5 million in funding, Sarah Kessler at Mashable reports.

In January, the company raised a $1.5 million Series A round of funding led by Bryce Roberts at O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures to pursue those goals.

Encouraging civic engagement

It’s not hard to understand why SeeClickFix holds allure for media organizations. With its emphasis on user comments and neighborhood issues, it personifies some of the trendiest digital media buzzwords.  It’s “interactive,” “hyperlocal,” and incorporates many qualities of “crowdsourcing” and “citizen journalism.” The SeeClickFix website says the service helps create “a world where every citizen feels empowered and part of their neighborhood.”

“It’s nice to know to know you live in a neighborhood where people really care about it,” SeeClickFix CEO Ben Berkowitz said in a phone interview. He noted that about half the problems reported to SeeClickFix get repaired, in part because officials in many cities monitor the site.

In addition to its partnerships with news organizations, the company also has business arrangements with about 40 municipalities, which allow residents to use SeeClickFix to file official complaints with government agencies.

“Every time an issue is closed, the feedback loop is magnified by the amount of people who see it.” Berkowitz said. “As opposed to one person having a little more faith in their community and their government, you have thousands of people.

Executives with several news organizations said they were attracted to SeeClickFix’s community-building potential.

“This is part of an overall engagement play for us,” said Jon Cooper, the Vice President for content at Journal Register Company, a media chain that’s partnered with SeeClickFix in cities such as Trenton, New Jersey and Loraine, Ohio.

An invitation to “report a problem” appears alongside local news stories on Journal Register websites, and the company’s reporters occasionally spin out news stories from SeeClickFix reports.

“I consider it a tool that serves journalism,” Cooper said.

“A sop to the hyperlocal trend”

Indeed, reports about civic scourges like potholes have long been a staple for journalists, even before technology made it possible to digitally track each pavement crack. As early as 1907, the Baltimore Sun bemoaned that the Washington Pike “is full of little potholes that make progress a continual bounce.” In 1958, a Chicago Tribune printed a photo exposé of “deplorable” conditions on local roads.

Berkowitz and many of his company’s clients view SeeClickFix as a natural outgrowth of the media’s watchdog role.

“Journalism starts from the grassroots up,” said editor Paul Bass at the New Haven Independent, a non-profit news website that features a SeeClickFix widget above the fold on almost every page. “It starts with the pothole. It starts with the zoning board.”

Bass — whose office is a couple blocks from SeeClickFix’s headquarters — was one of the first people in the news business to embrace the service, adding it to the Independent’s website shortly after SeeClickFix launched in 2008. Two years later, the New Haven Register — the daily print newspaper in SeeClickFix’s hometown — also began featuring it as part of the Journal Register partnership.

But another journalist in SeeClickFix’s hometown is less enthusiastic. Managing Editor John Stoehr at the New Haven Advocate — the city’s alternative weekly — dismisses the service as “a sop to the hyperlocal trend,” about which he’s expressed skepticism in the past.

“It’s not news,” Stoehr said of SeeClickFix. “News is about things that matter.”

Stoehr warns that media organizations which embrace hyperlocalism and user-generated content risk “blurring the line between news and a service.”

“The more they do that, the less reason you’re going to have to pay actual people to produce news,” he said. “Why do that when you can just embed a code on your website?”

Still, despite his reservations about whether SeeClickFix belongs on news websites, Stohr admitted he’s used the service himself as a New Haven citizen, reporting such things as broken street lights in his neighborhood.

The user-generated complaint forum raises a different concern for University of Georgia telecommunications professor David Hazinski, who has written about the trend toward more user-generated content on news sites. “The big deal is labeling it — being absolutely crystal clear that this has not been vetted and an editor hasn’t looked at it. This is just an avenue for people to exchange information.”

Both supporters and skeptics of SeeClickFix confirm its ability to attract traffic — not only from people interested in civic engagement, but also from those who want to blow off steam or just read their neighbors’ gripes. (Berkowtiz said only a small percentage of people who visit SeeClickFix post complaints of their own.)

“Our readers gobble it up,” said Bass of the New Haven Independent. “We have a community that just loves the stuff.”

Correction: Jon Cooper’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.

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