Happy Anniversary, Northfield.org

Northfield.org 1996

Editor's Note: In January, Northfield Citizens Online, and Northfield.org, will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of its conception. Stay turned for more details about our anniversary party. Meanwhile, Northfield.org student journalist Marika Christofides uncovers the story of Northfield.org's origins.

Northfield is a citizen journalist’s paradise. With the Northfield Patch, Northfield News, Locally Grown, and of course Northfield.org, there are a million different ways to alert people to events, discuss relevant issues, or share pictures of gorgeous Fall leaves. With Northfield.org’s 10-year anniversary approaching in December, I decided to talk to the man with the plan that started it all: Griff Wigley. From its roots in an UTNE reader salon in 1991 to the fine blog aggregate and community news bulletin you see before you, this is the history of Northfield.org.

Northfield.org’s origins start with the Salon movement. It was the 1990s, the Internet was still in its fledgling stages (pre-public internet, pre-worldwide web), and Griff was out of a job. “There was a magazine based in the twin cities called Utne Reader,” he explains, “and I approached the editor Eric Utne saying, ‘you should put up an online service to allow your readers to interact with one another.’

Griff was lucky, and Utne took on his proposal, expanding on it in a cover story entitled “Salons: How to Revive the Endangered Art of Conversation and Start a Revolution in Your Living Room.” The issue also featured a coupon allowing readers to sign up for a service that would connect them with other readers either online or face-to-face. “I got about 50 people who signed up for the online salon, and we got about 8,050 people who signed up for the face-to-face,” Griff remembers.

A group of Northfielders hatched the idea for Northfield Citizens Online at one of these Salons in 1991. “We met at people’s houses once a month,” explains Griff. “In December there was one at my house where we said, “the internet is coming. How do we harness it for the public good?” One thing led to another, and the group had soon obtained a server from a company called “Cray, the Supercomputing Company.” All they needed was a computer (which they got from a bank in town), a phone line, and a modem – and they were ready to set up shop at Blue Monday’s. The original network was what was called a “Bulletin Board System” (BBS), which meant that anyone could access it over a phone line using a modem on a home computer. This BBS, which Griff describes as a “funny little online network with 2 or 3 phone lines hooked up to it,” was dubbed Northfield Citizens Online. People used the BBS to post news and discuss issues relevant to the Northfield Community.

Three years later in 1995, the World Wide Web had come into being and the Utne Reader put Griff in charge of their website. “We used some message board software to create what we called the UTNE web café,” he says. “I said to our little Northfield team, why don’t we put up a website instead of this clunky platform?” The Northfield Citizens Online web café launched that same year. Hosting fees at the time were expensive - $25-$50 a month. NCO tried to foster online community by helping local non-profits create their own websites, until prices came down due to the law of supply and demand, and organizations were able to take the task on themselves.

At this point discussion was an integral part of the project. “We had something called ‘Community issue forums,’” remembers Griff, “and we would meet here once every quarter with the editor of the Northfield News, the City Administrator, the current president of the League of Women Voters, and the current director of KYMN radio and we would brainstorm – ‘what are the hot topics in Northfield this month?”

The group of community media leaders would come up with a list of three topics, which each of them would publicize via their own channel: “The newspaper would do 2 or 3 articles, the radio would do a show on it, the League of Women Voters would do a face to face forum, and we at Northfield.org would do an online forum,” says Griff. Forums included topics like “Middle School Reuse,” (Nov 01) “Growing a Healthy Economy in a Livable Community,” (Feb 98) and “Talk to your Teen about Sex” (Oct 99). The forums stopped when Northfield News and KYMN were both bought out by corporations.

It was around this time that the great domain name switcheroo of 2000 (my term) occurred. “Our domain name was NCO.northfield.mn.us for the first five or six years and we weren’t really paying attention to the domain name phenomenon,” remembers Griff. “And suddenly the Northfield News registered the domain name “northfield.org.” It was an unspoken rule of the internet that “.org” domain names were reserved for non-profits. “One of our board-members said, “hey, Northfieldnews.com is available. Let’s register for that.”” The newspaper wasn’t putting Northfield.org to active use, so they traded happily.

Proper domain name secured, Northfield.org made the jump to a blogging platform called “movable type” in 2003. Free blogging platforms weren’t readily available to people at the time, and hosting the platform on the Northfield.org server allowed Northfield.org to offer blogs to both citizens and community leaders free of charge. During the 2004 election season NCO asked people running for the city council and the school-board if they wanted blogs, and got a substantial number of takers. At the same time Griff helped these new bloggers by teaching “Blogging 101” classes.

“So that was kind of the start of what we called our civic blogosphere project,” says Griff. “Handing out blogs or trying to create a community rather than trying to have everybody post from one blog. One of the things we did as the community blog in town was to keep track of them all.” The civic blogosphere project sought to create an active network of local citizen, local leader, and local organization bloggers who would engage in conversational journalism, strengthening the fabric of Northfield’s civic community

In 2006, Northfield-based Carlson Capital Management gave $7,500 to Northfield Citizens Online to do more, do better, and get bigger (you can see Griff's post on it here). The company’s founding principal Greg Carlson  said that he believed that “the next phase of this organization will have a profound impact on the area.”  Carlson Capital was particularly impressed with Griff, who had run out of terms as a board member and expressed interest in becoming a part-time executive director. The board at the time said no, offering him a part-time editor position reporting to a sub-committee of the board instead. It was this refusal that initiated Griff's decision to leave Northfield.org. 

“My blogging – the main blog at Northfield.org – was often opinionated,” he explains. “Or I wanted to take it in that direction. The comments on the blog posts were opinionated. There were some people on the board who were fearful about that – whether we should push that into the other blogs in town and play it safe.”

“My track record prior to then was me doing 90% of the blogging and I think the board was worried that ‘if we hire Griff Wigley as executive director Northfield.org will be a Griff Wiggley blog and not a Northfield.org blog.’ It was a legitimate criticism, but one that I had said I wanted to change,” he adds.

Griff split completely from Northfield.org in the Fall of 2004 when the website’s tech-person objected to embedding Griff’s radio show “Locally Grown” – which he hosted along with Northfield.org co-founder Tracy Davis and Northfield Downtown Development Corporation’s Ross Currier – as an audio player in Northfield.org blog posts. Locally grown became a separate blog, and the heated discussion moved along with Griff.

Griff is happy with the way things have turned out. “I have a lot more freedom,” he says. “Locally Grown is just our sandbox. Ross and Tracy in the last year have stopped blogging so now it really is a Griff Wigley sandbox. “

Today Northfield.org holds a distinct place among Northfield’s News sources - delivering news that you care about, with a personal touch. The website that started out in a Northfield living room continues to connect neighbors in an immediate way, even in the depersonalized age of the internet. And Northfield.org adds to a new tradition of citizen journalism that makes Northfield the most well connected, enthusiastically involved, and talkative community in Rice County.

(Fun fact: Thanks to the wayback machine, you can see what Northfield.org looked like in 1996, 1998, and 2004)