BRATTLEBORO—Before there was Facebook, before The Commons, there was iBrattleboro, the online community-news website that went live on Feb. 20, 2003.
And, unlike most sites launched 15 years ago, ibrattleboro.com still exists and continues to draw contributors and readers. By the end of March, the site will receive a major upgrade.
“We have over 4,000 registered user accounts,” said Lise LePage, who owns and moderates iBrattleboro with her partner, Christopher Grotke.
When the couple moved to Brattleboro in 2001, “there really was no Brattleboro presence online,” Grotke said. He and LePage thought that was an error, because, as he said, “this is such a great town!"
Without a clear plan for how to get Brattleboro on the Internet, they registered the domain name ibrattleboro.com with the idea of a future site that would provide news, opinions, an events calendar, and a classifieds section.
LePage and Grotke both have web development and media experience. Together they run MuseArts, a web design and development business. LePage writes code and builds web pages, and Grotke creates graphics, databases, and animation, handles security issues, and does audio and video consulting.
“In 1969, in Baltimore, I started a weekly newspaper,” said LePage, who pointed out that she was then nine years old. Her mother recently dug up copies of her publication.
Grotke’s mother was a reporter, editor, and bureau chief in Auburn, N.Y., and Florida.
“I grew up following her. We chased ambulances with her. We’d show up to accidents before the police sometimes,” he said.
As an adult, Grotke worked in the Boston Children’s Museum’s media arts department, helping young visitors make their own media.
“That got me very committed” to local-access journalism, he said, because he saw first-hand “how much you can learn by creating your own media. You don’t know about newspapers until you’ve written an article. You don’t know about television until you’ve made your own video."
Keeping it local
Grotke and LePage met when both were working at the Computer Museum in Boston. When the museum announced in 1999 it was closing that facility and relocating it to Mountain View, Calif., the couple knew they didn’t want to move out west, so they started MuseArts and a few years later, moved to Brattleboro.
As MuseArts, they were already building websites for other people and organizations when they moved to Brattleboro, LePage said. “We wanted to also do projects for ourselves. iBrattleboro was one of them,” said Grotke.
LePage and Grotke pointed to 2003 as an important year for the creation of iBrattleboro.
“It was an oppressive time. Under [George W.] Bush, the FCC allowed the consolidation of media,” said Grotke.
“There were peace rallies around the world, responding to the build-up to the Iraq war,” LePage noted.
They both thought townspeople “needed a local place ... to talk about local, regional, and national news. It’s like now — people are exceedingly discontented,” said LePage.
“People here are so smart,” said Grotke. “You’d walk down the street and overhear people having conversations about politics, activism, food, families,” and more. “We needed a safety valve, especially if the Reformer is the only news outlet and it’s bought by a giant [company],” Grotke said.
In the midst of all of this, “a wonderful thing happened,” LePage said. “We discovered software [that allowed us] to put together a site in a week with photos and a calendar,” and other features, she added.
“We were one of the first hyper-local journalism sites in the country,” noted LePage.
The first story on iBrattleboro, posted at 5:21 p.m. on February 20, 2003, was a haiku written by Grotke:
Snow outside the door
Higher than the side porch roof
Dig out or let melt?
Since then, “we’ve had thousands of stories, events, and comments,” LePage said.
“I love community media,” said Grotke, who pointed out the current wealth of accessible options for local people. “We have BCTV, we used to have Radio Free Brattleboro, now WVEW, and iBrattleboro, where anyone can write a story,” he said, “and you can be free from corporate media."
“It’s so fabulous to have these things. Not every place has them,” he said. “And now that The Commons is in the mix, we have more media coverage of [municipal] meetings than they do in big cities,” Grotke said.
When asked for some learning experiences from the past 15 years, Grotke said, “we made a few quick changes right away, such as, no anonymous users or commenters.” But, LePage added, iBrattleboro allows pseudonyms. Many times, they don’t even know a user’s real name, but when they do, she and Grotke have always protected users’ anonymity.
Grotke said the biggest lesson he has learned since launching iBrattleboro is, “this experiment worked. People did gravitate to the site, it did grow into a local institution, it does get used in ways we envisioned and ways we didn’t expect."
“It’s easy to say all this now, but 15 years ago we honestly had nothing more than an idea and a desire to fill what we saw was a hole in the media landscape. We saw that individuals in the community were experts in a wide range of subjects and felt that if everyone shared what they knew, we’d all be better off,” said Grotke.
Grotke said it’s been interesting watching Facebook’s development.
“People are getting sick of it, and it’s interesting watching a major corporation track people, spy on them, get all this money, and now they’re dealing with issues we did, such as what’s allowed and not,” he said.
“Things we could have told them, ’This’ll be an issue,’” LePage added.
One aspect of iBrattleboro that Grotke and LePage are particularly proud of is the diversity of opinions on the site.
“A thing I think that’s so important is, while it’s nice to keep your social circle with people with your opinions, if you’re making good decisions in a democracy, you need to hear different opinions,” said LePage.
“Through the years, iBrattleboro has had at least a few conservative, right-wing, Republican writers,” LePage said. “I don’t believe it represents rural life if it only has one view. We don’t want this to be a liberal or progressive site.”
Regarding including a variety of political views, Grotke said, “we know we’re doing something right when people yell at us."
LePage and Grotke have given iBrattleboro a complete overhaul before. “The last one was in 2009 or so, when the software reached the end of its life,” LePage said.
In the next few weeks, “we’re rolling out a brand-new website,” she said. “It’ll be mobile-friendly, and will include the same things people like, only better,” she added. New features include groups, optional social interaction, improved calendars, and “gorgeous photos,” said LePage.
What it won’t include is a paywall.
“Oh my God, are you kidding?” LePage said, in response to that suggestion. “The site has never been about money,” said Grotke. “it’s about people, neighbors, and Brattleboro.”