Just a few years ago, Chattanooga City Council meetings were sparsely attended affairs with local newspaper reporters regularly in the gallery, while website reporters and television news crews made appearances during the biggest events.
But now with smartphones, wireless Internet and the ability to connect almost instantly with anyone anywhere, the citizen reporter has emerged as a contributor to government and political happenings.
Every week at City Council meetings, a group of these reporters monitors the proceedings and posts to Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs. They take pictures and video on camera phones, then post them to the Internet.
As a result, public officials in Chattanooga are under more immediate scrutiny.
Chris Brooks, an organizer for the advocacy group Chattanooga Organized for Action who regularly Tweets at council meetings, said he and others are making Chattanooga "more democratic."
Yet others say the atmosphere is becoming more toxic with citizen reporters voicing opinions and operating with a specific -- rather than unbiased -- point of view and without the ethical guidelines associated with traditional journalism.
Chattanooga Organized for Action, for example, has been part of the effort to recall Mayor Ron Littlefield; Brooks and fellow group member and blogger Joda Thongnopnua acknowledge that they editorialize and look at their writing more as a way to evoke opinions.
Littlefield has seen his share of criticism on the Internet. Years ago, a Twitter feed called "Fake Ron Littlefield" popped up that posted one-line, off-the-wall Tweets. Some posts contain one-liners such as "Drafting a resolution that would add 'and Rock Star Planner' to the title of Mayor, at least while I'm in office" and "Not here to break Ron/But just to shake Ron/My name is Fake Ron/ I got my game on ... yeah."
A website about Littlefield also cropped up -- "Worst Mayor Ever." The site was critical of the mayor, blasting him for perceived corruption on a land deal to acquire the old Farmer's Market on 11th Street, not debating former mayoral candidate Rob Healy and just about every move the mayor made.
Littlefield, though, said he takes everything in stride.
Social media postings are akin to looking at the headlines of supermarket tabloids. They're tantalizing, but often not the most accurate information, Littlefield said.
"Those who are against almost anything can connect," he said. "They create a club, and that's new."
What's playing out here is a phenomenon that has been seen for several years at the national level, where a number of online media outlets and bloggers specializing in political and government coverage have proliferated. Sites such as politico.com, tpm.com or Talking Points Memo and blog medialite.com have even achieved a level of legitimacy that today finds some of them in the White House briefing room and on the presidential campaign trail.
Alex Fitzpatrick, a reporter for New York City-based Mashable.com, which covers news stories related to social media, said bloggers and citizen reporters sometimes are able to dig up information even before traditional news media, which, in turn sometimes supplement the reporting and run with it later. Citizen reporters bring another perspective that traditional media sometimes misses, he said.
On the other hand, these groups can band together and create a dialogue in an echo chamber in which they and other interested parties are the only ones who exchange information, he said.
"If you interact with people who are ideologically similar to you, then all you will see is information ideologically similar to you," Fitzpatrick said.
About 10 years ago, the first online journalists appeared at City Council meetings, writing for Chattanoogan.com.
The first pioneers of social media in the local area were bloggers Joe Lance and David Morton. Lance, who writes a blog called Tennessee Ticket, showed up at council meetings in 2008. Shortly after, Morton, who helped start the blog Chattarati.com, began writing about meetings.
While voicing opinions, Lance and Morton acknowledged they still try to take a neutral stance akin to traditional media. They attended meetings as citizens wanting to learn more about government and spread that same excitement to others.
"I never went in it with 'I have this set of values and this is what I believe,'" Morton said.
The two bloggers, he said, weren't reinventing the wheel. They were taking what other people were doing in other cities across the United States and running with it.
Things have changed drastically since, Lance said.
"It has definitely taken a more partisan stance," he said. "It's focused on particular issues. It's a different scene now than when it was some reporters and bloggers."
Now Chattanooga Organized for Action members come to council meetings and Tweet or post to Facebook. Brooks leads the way, but many times Thongnopnua also Tweets from his personal account and writes about council activities on his blog, The Establivist.
Stacy Richardson, with the Ochs Center of Metropolitan Studies, also Tweets while at council meetings. She said her Tweets stay more neutral about happenings at the council.
"This is one potential way to get involved," she said.
Brooks looks back historically for comparisons to his role within the media world. In the past, information was disseminated through dozens of newsletters or newspapers within a town. Now, there are fewer media outlets in many cities, he said, but people still crave information.
"It's a need for documenting information as it's happening," he said.
Thongnopnua said he and Brooks can bring analysis to political discussions.
"We're challenging the institutions, which have traditionally been unchallenged," he said.
Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd said she has seen the increase of those Tweeting and blogging within the council chambers. She said she does not personally have a Facebook or Twitter account and reads nothing on social media.
She said she does have reservations with the newer generation at council meetings who poke their cameras in the air and record. She has interaction with traditional media outlets, she said, but none with the bloggers and citizen journalists.
"You don't know the intent and how it will be represented," she said. "It gives you some concern."
But for the new social media, making those who are comfortable become uncomfortable is part of the goal. They say it doesn't matter who is in office. What they care about is that their issues are addressed.
"It doesn't matter to me who's elected," Thongnopnua said. "The problems are still out there."
Cliff has worked for the Times Free Press for five years and covers Chattanooga city government. He previously covered Rhea County, as well as transportation and growth and development in Southeast Tennessee. A native of Maryville, Tenn., Cliff graduated in 2003 from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis on journalism. Before coming to Chattanooga, he was a crime reporter with Hernando Today, a supplement of The Tampa (Fla.) ...