I had a story yesterday in the International Herald Tribune and, in a slightly reduced and re-edited version, in The New York Times, discussing how a Swiss weekly magazine experimented with a blog to cover daily life in the outskirts of French cities in the aftermath of last November's riots - and how they're now planning to pass the blog "keys" to young locals. Here it is:
When riots erupted in the outskirts of many French cities last autumn, media around the world struggled to find a way to tell the story of those suburban areas, known as the banlieues.
A Swiss magazine took the opportunity to try a new approach to online journalism, in an effort to report the issue in a deeper and perhaps more helpful way.
What is emerging from the experiment is an example of how "old" media can revitalize themselves by incorporating the tools of the "new" media while serving readers in a way that the printed press simply could not have managed before.
At the height of the riots in early November, the Swiss weekly L'Hebdo decided that its initial articles had not gone far enough in helping readers understand what was happening in France. So the editors chose the town of Bondy (picture), in the suburbs of Paris, and started sending reporters there on rotations of seven to 10 days.
Working from a tiny room they called the "Bondy microbureau," which they borrowed from the local soccer club, the reporters have been doing a lot more than filing their typical weekly stories for the magazine, which is based in Lausanne and has a circulation of 44,000.
They have been posting short and long reports several times a day, as well as photographs, on what has become known as the Bondy Blog.
"While the riots in the meantime have calmed, and the television cameras have moved on, the reality of daily life in Bondy has not changed," said the magazine's editor, Alain Jeannet. And the Hebdo reporters are still there documenting it.
Blogs, the free-form online journals that have gained wide popularity, are making inroads in the newsrooms of what bloggers sometimes derisively call the mainstream media. An increasing number of editors and reporters seem to accept that adopting this form of journalism is one way they can remain relevant as the digital era pushes media - and advertising money - in new directions.
Ten Hebdo reporters have been in Bondy so far, men and women with different backgrounds, including a war reporter, a business correspondent, social-affairs writers, political columnists and a culture editor. On the blog, they have written about their daily encounters, profiled people and told stories that would find no place in the magazine.
They do not hesitate to use "I" and "me." They have taken risks - one of them was assaulted by muggers. They have interviewed unemployed youth, attended ethnic parties and visited would-be entrepreneurs. They have noted complaints against the police, described the dilapidated town, reported on a homeless mother, explained a death, decrypted local lingo, hung out with gang members and with the mayor. Some of them spent Christmas and New Year's in Bondy.
They have picked up tiny, yet revealing, bits of reality. A reporter, for example, checked the browser history on a computer in an Internet café to see what people had searched for on Google. (Ronaldo; young "beurettes" - girls of North African descent; clinics performing circumcision; software; how to meet Arab women.)
For the Hebdo reporters, the blog turned the typical work routine upside down. Normally, they would do their reporting, then write the main piece for the magazine and finally, perhaps, craft a second article or a "reporter's notebook" piece. But with the blog, said Serge Michel, the world-affairs editor who first went to Bondy to open the microbureau, "We report and immediately write and publish an initial draft, giving a first tentative shape to the narrative." When they sit down to compose that piece for the magazine, the reporters have days of this "flow writing" behind them, and the tone of the resulting articles has been noticeably sharper and more insightful.
While some of the reporters may have viewed the blog in the beginning as a nuisance, creating additional space that they had to fill, within a few weeks it became the main reason to go and spend those days in the banlieue.
"I would walk past a travel agency and just walk in and ask for the most frequent travel destinations and then blog them," said Alain Rebetez, a political commentator who spent Christmas week in Bondy. "I really don't think that this kind of detail would have made it into my notebook if I was just reporting the weekly story."
The reporters say they also found a new relationship with their readers, who can leave comments on the blog. The journalists find themselves engaged in the discussion and have used reader feedback as inspiration for more blog entries.
All of the reporters who have been to Bondy have embraced the new format. In addition to a dozen magazine articles, the journalists have written about 100,000 words on the blog so far.
While L'Hebdo is starting blogs on other subjects, there are still a few reporters in the Lausanne newsroom who have not taken their turn in Bondy yet. They will do so in the coming weeks - including Jeannet, the editor - and in March, the exercise will slowly come to an end.
But the blog experiment will return in a new form: L'Hebdo plans to announce in this week's issue that it is going to gather a group of young people from Bondy, bring them to Lausanne for journalism training and a "blog school" and then hand them the digital keys to the Bondy Blog, while continuing to support them technically and editorially.
"We came from outside, and tried to cover their reality as best as we could," Michel, the world-affairs editor, said. "We want now to help them do it by themselves, using the tools of journalism and of blogging to become actors in their own social space."
Closing the loop, the project will be financed in very "old media" way: A major French publisher will turn the Bondy Blog into a book, and the proceeds will go toward supporting blogging in the banlieue.