During the first decade of the 21st century, the increasing influence of the internet forever changed the way media outlets operate, both in the United States and around the world. Once upon a time, if you wanted to know what was going on in your city or town you would pick up a copy of your local newspaper or tune in to the evening news or local talk radio station. These days, community news outlets and local voices are often drowned out by online media giants with colossal budgets and, oftentimes, particular agendas.
But while the internet undoubtedly had an adverse effect on some aspects of local communications, it also ushered in new types of media that have changed the way people get their hometown news, offer up opinions on local topics, and participate in civic discourse.
“History as it Happens: Citizen Bloggers in Lowell, Mass.,” edited by Richard P. Howe Jr. and Paul Marion, documents a selection of the writing and images published on the RichardHowe.com blog from 2007 to 2017. The blog, which Howe calls “a case study in hyperlocal reporting,” has featured the writing of several Lowell residents, covering a wide variety of topics, ranging from planning meetings of the Hamilton Canal Innovation District to famous city natives, such as Ed McMahon. Essays, poems, photography, reports on city home sales and stories about notable Lowell High School alumni are among the other blog posts.
In the book’s introduction, Howe details how he began blogging during the hotly contested 2007 special congressional election after U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan resigned his seat to become chancellor of UMass Lowell. Soon, Howe recruited friends Tony Accardi and Marie Sweeney, both former English teachers, to help him. Marion and several others were eventually added to the roster of blog contributors.
As you read through the book’s selected blog posts, which are arranged in the order they were originally published, you get a real sense of the ways that RichardHowe.com has helped shape the way Lowell’s citizens view, digest and participate in the city’s politics, history, art and culture — something that would not have been possible in the days when local media consisted mainly of community newspapers.
In the book’s foreword, Marion compares the blog’s varied authors to choral singers. He writes, “The words, ideas, and concerns that constitute this distinguished collection of posts for the RichardHowe.com blog make a democratic music.”
And so, once again, it would seem that Lowell’s tradition of innovation serves as a model for other communities, as it did during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and during its urban renaissance late in the 20th. The “citizen journalism” documented in Howe and Marion’s book has for the past 10 years served as an important outlet for community news stories, history, art and culture not picked up by the mainstream local media, providing Lowell’s individual citizens with a sense of their own power to shift and shape the city’s “history as it happens.”
A minor flaw in the book’s presentation is the omission of an index. As I was reading, I found myself wanting to look up blog posts about certain topics or posts written by particular authors, which isn’t possible.
Richard Howe’s blog embodies the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press in its purest form, an essential component of a healthy democracy. With luck, “History as it Happens” will help scatter the seeds of citizen-powered journalism far and wide.
History as it Happens:
Citizen Bloggers in Lowell, Mass.
Edited by Richard P. Howe Jr. and Paul Marion