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How I learned to stop worrying and love citizen journalism: A farewell to Managing Editor Holly Bechiri

The departure of Holly Bechiri from The Rapidian doesn't alter my loyalties in the slightest. She has helped me understand what an incredible tool citizen journalism is, and how powerful each of our voices can be, when projected the right way.
Maddie Steele and Ani Bechiri play together on the Blue Bridge- substitute for their mothers, who prefer to be behind the scenes

Maddie Steele and Ani Bechiri play together on the Blue Bridge- substitute for their mothers, who prefer to be behind the scenes /Holly Bechiri

I first met Holly Bechiri, who departs from The Rapidian today, when she asked to hold a “Story Fort” at a downtown space managed by my at-the-time employer. I didn’t know much about The Rapidian then, or citizen journalism, for that matter. But I’m both a writer and a marketer, so when I heard the words “Story Fort” I told her to make her crew at home, then headed down to the space to see what they were up to. I was hooked on sight.

It took about five minutes for Bechiri and I discover we were fast friends. We shared the same values, and were living parallel lives: breadwinning, professionally creative mamas with multicultural families and bleeding hearts. Our toddlers loved each other. 

But my love for Holly Bechiri isn’t what sold me on citizen journalism, nor the importance of The Rapidian’s work. 

It was the work itself, and the mission, that hooked me. Hard. 

The Rapidian is a journalistic platform for anyone, from any niche or position on the socioeconomic spectrum, to participate in civil discourse about local issues. 

Just think about that for a second, and contrast it against our current media landscape. Traditional (i.e. formerly print) publications are grasping for advertisers to stay afloat. Online publications are motivated by readership volume and little else. TV networks are tied up in monopolies of great political influence. While the invisible hand may have helped media companies find a profit in shifting markets, I think it's fair to say the industry has lost its focus on journalistic excellence.

Meanwhile, personal perspective abounds online in blogs and comment threads. While there’s value in these voices, they’re dissonant and chaotic on their own. Separate, they lack authority.

Citizen journals create a democratic dialogue in which everyone can participate - within the bounds of journalistic integrity. When united by journalistic standards, disparate voices are given both credibility and exposure.

At The Rapidian, journalistic integrity is part of the culture, and I believe that’s largely due to Bechiri’s influence over the past five years. Having watched her, as a friend, wrestle with the difficult and nuanced topics that have crossed her Editor’s desk and set aside her own personal feelings and motivations for the sake of standards time after time, I’ve gained enormous respect for The Rapidian’s authority as a media source. It’s a standard she's not only applied to herself, but to every reporter, specialist and editor who's worked with her.

I would hold The Rapidian’s journalistic standards up against those of any other media publication in town. Or national publication, for that matter.

The credibility of those standards, and the diversity of The Rapidian’s voices, have made a significant impact in Grand Rapids over the last five years.

In 2011, Mayor Heartwell used The Rapidian as a platform to counter Newsweek’s dubbing Grand Rapids a “dying city” (at Bechiri's request). Is it a coincidence that Grand Rapids has been racking up media Top 10 lists for positive attributes ever since? I doubt it.

In 2012, “America’s most influential farmer” Joel Salatin agreed to be interviewed for The Rapidian in a conversation about urban food. Salatin returned in 2014 as a citizen journalist to join in Grand Rapids’ “chicken fight,” which concluded in the legalization of raising chickens in urban Grand Rapids - a win Grand Rapidian farmers had worked for decades to achieve.

Under Bechiri’s leadership, The Rapidian championed LGBT rights before the Supreme Court struck down DOMA in 2013, with Holland native Ellie Gramer’s story of hometown discrimination. The same year, DGRI CEO Kris Larson brought public transparency and engagement to The Rapidian with in-depth articles about city building and placemaking. Heartwell, Larson and many others have engaged in real-time dialogue through The Rapidian and GRTV’s live streamed “City Connection”.

From important local legislative battles to local elections and civil unrest, The Rapidian has been in the thick of Grand Rapids’ most important topics. Marijuana legalization, police use of semi-automatic rifles, AirBNB ordinances - you name it, The Rapidian has covered it -and it’s covered it topics from the perspectives of local stakeholders. 

The Rapidian has even engaged our youth in journalism and local issues as Cub Reporters, demonstrating that you’re never too young to be informed, and to have a voice. From fifth graders to public policy attorneys to up-and-coming on the ground citizen reporters, The Rapidian has engaged voices across our social, racial and economic spectrum.

Unable to resist the temptation to tell a good story, I’ve added my own voice to The Rapidian on topics like urban groceries, sexism and patriotism. Being a citizen reporter has made me a better writer, but it’s also changed the way I see my community. It’s made me put skin in the game, and it forces me to view our city’s growth through the eyes of others.

I’ll admit my enthusiasm for citizen journalism has been fanned by Bechiri’s intoxicating passion for the work, for the excellence, for the equality of the dialogue. And for my love for her as a person.

But her departure from The Rapidian doesn’t alter my loyalties in the slightest. She’s helped me understand what an incredible tool citizen journalism is, and how powerful small voices can be, when projected the right way.

I’ll still write for The Rapidian. I’ll still give it my support. I’ll continue to rely on it for news that’s important to my local community, and to encourage others to add their voices. Because it’s important work.

A friend of a friend on Facebook recently asked, in a political discussion, if I believed there was still such a thing as “freedom of the press.” It took me several seconds to understand the question, because I’d never considered “the press” to be one static entity.

Media encompasses platforms ranging from CSNBC to The Rapidian to personal blogs like If the River Swells. You can put bounds on some of these, but considering the sheer volume of channels, the sharing of information is an inevitable tide.

I do think the friend's question is an interesting, and arguably important, question to consider. How “free” is the landscape of modern journalism? What biases to different channels face, and why? Which channels have the most interest in good journalism?

I would posit that the “freedom” of these sources depends on their source of revenue, as does the motivation behind their material.

My answer, in short, is that there is, and always will be, freedom of the press as long as we have platforms for democratic, civil discourse. Platforms where topics aren’t highlighted or buried based on their clickthrough potential, or their political undertone, but on their newsworthiness. Where the news is about real people, from real people.

After all, if you want something done right…

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