Students explore alternative news sources with MiddBlog

By Middlebury Campus

If Midd Kids are buzzing about something, it is probably up on MiddBlog. Or it will be in an hour or so.

According to the blog’s “About” page, “Our only hard and fast rule about submissions is that it must be relevant to the Middlebury College community.” Last week’s topics included an interview with David Sanger of the New York Times, who spoke in Mead Chapel on Wednesday; an informative yet straightforward review of the student-created show If; and an introduction to AddSeven, the latest online fad to hit the small New England college circuit.

Founder Ryan Kellett ’09.5 initially intended to use MiddBlog to keep students informed about campus events.

“The Middlebury website and even dining hall table tents were sorely lacking and often were inaccurate,” Kellett wrote in an email. “I wanted a way to highlight events around campus that students cared about.”

During his sophomore year, he approached the founders of Wesleying — a blog run by Wesleyan students — for guidance.

“And they gave me good advice: “keep blogging, it will take time to build an audience,” he wrote.

As it turned out, event updates alone did not quite provide the necessary spark. In fact, Kellett traces the first buzz about MiddBlog to his post on Chief Justice John Roberts’ lecture in Mead Chapel. The post attracted online comments from President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz and Vice President for Administration Tim Spears, among others.

“It provoked some legitimate criticism and also some accolades for finally airing student views,” Kellett wrote. “The opinion I wrote was certainly not my best but it was enough to get people to start seeing the blog as a digital reflection of discussion on campus.”

The blog’s tagline reads: “alternative news and more at middlebury college.” So what is “alternative news,” exactly?

“It means types of coverage that are not part of what people already see,” said J.P. Allen ’11, one of this year’s lead editors. “We’re basically focusing on the strengths of a blog, as opposed to traditional print media, to do the things that [a blog] does best.”

One such advantage: the option to include links to other relevant pages. For instance, take the April 20 post on the SGA and Community Council elections, which includes links to the candidates’ Facebook groups and YouTube videos, where applicable.

In addition, without the restrictions imposed by word limits, bloggers are free to post longer pieces than might fit into a newspaper column. The posts are also instantaneous and give readers the options of commenting, emailing, Facebook posting, Stumbling, and Tweeting. (The blog also has its own Twitter account, @middblog.)

“Instead of being a news source where we’re just telling people about something that happened, we try to be a place for discussion as well,” said Audrey Tolbert ’13, another lead editor. She especially hopes that the blog inspires offline conversation. “It’s a way to keep talking about … this school that we go to and we care about so much.”

Kellett agreed: “I would hope the blog stays true to being the hub of conversation and is not afraid to … take the discussion offline to have the greatest impact of turning discussion into action.”

The team behind MiddBlog currently consists of 13 writers, including Allen and Tolbert. Writers frequently post ideas (along with relevant links and commentary) on the group’s private Facebook page, where others can then “call” and cover them. According to Allen, they try to produce around two posts per day, with each writer contributing about one per week. The team currently works out of the Old Stone Mill.

In addition to writing their own posts — “the biggest responsibility,” according to Tolbert — the lead editors act as facilitators, ensuring that major topics of interest on campus are covered and continually encouraging the writers’ online discussion.

“We don’t have that many meetings where we’re all together in person,” Tolbert said, “so I think that making sure we have continued contact, at least virtually, is important to maintain our sense of group and community.”

Though the process of article selection and assignment is, as Allen put it, “kind of haphazard,” it suits MiddBlog well.

“I think that since we’re so small, it works best — right now, anyways — to have people just post when they find out about something,” Tolbert said. “It keeps us moving and keeps the news flow good.”

Because the blog is not officially affiliated with the College, writers have a great deal of freedom to choose not only what to say, but how to say it.

“We can say kind of frivolous or weird things sometimes because we’re only responsible for ourselves,” Allen said. “And with the sort of freewheeling way we organize it, each writer is more individually responsible because there’s less editorial control.”

Kellett, who still contributes to the writers’ Facebook group and occasionally writes posts, is pleased with how MiddBlog has developed since its inception, citing the lasting impressions of past writers.

“Many students have left their mark on the blog,” he wrote. The “Sunday Reading” column, for example — created by Emily Gullickson ’10 and continued by Olivia Noble ’13 — alerts readers weekly to a handful of current events in an effort to draw students’ attention out of “the bubble.”

Tolbert and Allen both feel that collaborating on MiddBlog has added greatly to their Middlebury experiences.

“Before I started writing for MiddBlog, it was like looking at the community versus feeling really like a part of it,” Tolbert said. She and fellow writer Cody Gohl ’13 had collaborated on a blog titled “English Spoken Here” during their summer in Middlebury, which helped to inspire their involvement in MiddBlog. As a result, she said, “I felt like I had a bigger place here than just studying here. … [I] just [felt] like, this is my school and I can do things to change it.”

Allen, who started out with a personal goal to review every arts performance on campus, appreciates the way that MiddBlog has shaped his awareness of the world.

“Instead of just letting an event fly by me, I think for a second, ‘Is this something that would be interesting for MiddBlog?’” he said.

Tolbert, Allen and writer Casey Mahoney ’11 recently presented the blog as part of the poster session at the student symposium. Visitors to the station could see the blog, a Twitter feed featuring the hashtag #middsym, and a brief poll asking users for suggestions. They also held a raffle whose winner will be “followed around, blogged and Tweeted about for a day” by writer Mackenzie Beer ’12.

“We … served two purposes, I feel,” Tolbert said. “We were both promoting ourselves and showing people what we do, but then also trying to cover the symposium in general.”

Allen was pleasantly surprised by the feedback, particularly from parents and prospective students.

“You’re just kind of throwing things out there into the ether of the internet,” he said. “You can see how many clicks you get per day, but you don’t really know whether what you’re saying is actually meaningful to anybody or not. It was really great to hear from a couple of people that that was the case.”

In the near future, readers can expect both a redesign of the blog and new ways to get involved.

“We’re working on a more fluid way of getting both suggestions for stories and offers from people who want to write or take pictures or do web stuff,” Allen said.

For now, though, the editors encourage interested students to email [email protected] with their thoughts.

“We really want people to be more involved,” Allen said.

Though Kellett was sure to emphasize that the future of MiddBlog is now in the hands of the current team, he expressed certain hopes: that the readership (both on and off campus) continues to expand, and that “it grows into the social web.” To clarify, he wrote, “I mean that the Middlebury community is having conversations online but there are very few Middlebury entities engaging people where they are. For example, MiddBlog engages people on Twitter where Middlebury as an institution does not.

“Ultimately,” Kellet wrote, “MiddBlog is about getting people (from students to staff) to care about their own community which I would argue is a bigger problem than most people think.”