Struggling Citmedia Site? Try the Guilty Parent Model!

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In a fascinating chat with Bill Densmore, director of both the Media Giraffe Project and the New England News Forum a while back he said something that has stuck with me. He said he thinks small-community media organizations trying to survive as all- or mostly volunteer endeavors need to learn how to “become the PTO.” That is, they need to form organizations to which just enough people feel compelled to contribute their time and energy and moderate dues to keep them going and that are able to survive constant attrition (as kids graduate, parents leave, but they are always replaced). I thought this sounded really nice, local journalism as your civic duty for a finite period of time. It also appealed to my personal feeling that the energy of kids is being markedly under-used in this field (to wit, my friend’s daughter’s middle school in a wealthy suburb has computers everywhere and a very extensive website which displays not a single pixel that looks like it was created by — or even for — an 11-year old person).

But as I am not a parent and my own parents were not what you’d call “joiners” (that’s a compliment, Ma) I have zero direct experience of PTOs. And besides, didn’t it used to be called the P T A, not O? I thought I’d be better find out before casually writing one or the other, people can be touchy about names.

As it turns out, very touchy. “All parent groups are not the same,” says the PTA, which was founded in 1897 as the National Congress of Mothers . “The PTA is a not-for-profit organization and the nation’s original and premier parent involvement group in schools. PTA has more than 23,000 local units and nearly 6 million members.” Impressive. Until I learn this: “More than 75 percent of parent groups are independent PTOs that have no affiliation with the National PTA.” That’s from the site of an organization (well, actually, a company) called PTO Today, which in case you were wondering has (in its own words) “quickly established itself at the center of the school parent group world (PTOs/PTAs) as both a valuable resource and a trusted voice to the entire parent group market.” In their helpful article PTO vs. PTA What’s the Difference? they note that “…there is a subtle but undeniable implication in PTA circles that those independent groups that aren’t part of the PTA are in some way choosing to abandon the cause of children.” Nasty.

All this, of course, is fascinating but probably besides the point. Or not. Perhaps some volunteer local news websites would like the local chapter-state chapter-national organization hierarchy of the PTA and others would like to be independent but able to access lots of technical and moral support from the well-meaning folks at ptotoday.com. If people can’t agree on how to run a bake sale, how will people agree on something as touchy as what kind of news is important? Still, I think there’s something to this, I’m just not quite sure what it is.

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