An opinionated quintet of bloggers held forth for nearly two hours Wednesday during a Rutgers-Camden panel discussion marked by strong opinions and a refreshingly civil tone -- if I do say so myself.
Stephen Danley, an assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers (read his Local Knowledge blog here); Vida Neil, longtime city resident and grassroots activist (link to her Facebook page here); Jay Lassiter, LGBT activist and progressive Democratic consultant (Twitter: @jay_lass); Matt Rooney, attorney and conservative Republican blogger (SaveJersey.com); and the Inquirer's South Jersey columnist were invited by the Leadership Institute of Rutgers-Camden to share the dais.
And if our (arguably improbable) collegiality spawned a consensus, it was that no special training is required for local citiizen journalists, and that more voices -- on social media and elsewhere online -- can enhance a community's civic and political capital.
We also agreed that this is especially true in a place like Camden, where much traditional media attention has historically focused on power-brokers, purported experts and criminals, and not on the ordinary people who call the city home.
"I started out blogging because of things I was seeing around the city...I watched the city start going downhill," said Neil., a lifelong resident and mother of four. She went on to describe one of her signature videos ( Danley showcased it on his blog in September) in which she confronted administrators about the disparities between a charter school and a traditional public school housed in the same Camden building.
"You guys can blog, but you aren't residents," Neil said to her fellow panelists. "I'm blogging from the perspective of the people who all this stuff is happening to.
"I've always been an outspoken person," she added. "I've never been afraid to say anything. I'll say things that people won't say. I don;t care about the consequences."
Danley, who lives in Camden, said he became a blogger after hearing other city residents who had plenty to express but few prospects for mainstream media exposure of their perspectives. "Maybe at Rutgers we can have a place for those local voices," he said. "I'm looking at some of the real giants in the Camden activist community, right here, right now [in this room]. Let's highlight that and connect that to other communities."
Rooney said his blog originated while he was at Rutgers Law School in the city, where he was often the sole conservative voice in a sea of liberalism. He cited Chris Christie's political rise also was a factor in the growth of Save Jersey, which has become a force to be reckoned with statewide.
Regarding pulbic education in Camden, Rooney largely agreed with Neil, who earlier in the session was critical of his remarks about the $25,000 per pupil expenditure in the city. "I'm not saying there aren't special challenges here," Rooney, whose family has roots in the city, said, "But [the issue] is not just money."
And responding to Danley, who questioned a Save Jersey illustration of a toilet on a post about a proposed $50 milllion upgrade of Camden High, Rooney acknowledged that some readers (me among them) were angry.
"But quite frankly," he said, "the reason why I continue to write is...for those few people who want to have a constructive dialogue."
Lassiter made a similar point.
"The good thing about [social] media is that it's created a dialogue where a monologue used to exist," said the pioneering blogger, whose work appears on the Politicker NJ and Blue Jersey websites. Lassiter added that bloggers such Neil and Rooney are successful because they "do it with an energy and a zeal and a certain lack of a filter that sets them apart from [olther] media platforms."
I'll say; no one can accuse Neil and Rooney of lacking passion. Neither do Lassiter, Danley, and I.
So kudos to Rutgers graduate student Brian K. Everett, (he blogs at NJPovertyReality.com ) for organizing this timely event, and to veteran print journalist Jill Capuzzo, a member of the English department faculty at Rutgers-Camden, for a deft turn as the moderator.