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Izzy Lyman had only seen State Senator Howard Walker once before, when she snapped a picture of him with another lawmaker and an Eagle Scout. It would end up in the local paper. “He struck me as just kind of serious,” she remembers, “not real chatty.”
This time, however, things were different. Izzy, a local political junkie, had just arrived late to a Republican women’s luncheon in Petoskey, Michigan. Senator Walker had already started fielding questions, so she pulled out her camera and started filming just as Brian Sommerfield, a local talk radio host, voiced his disappointment in Walker for his vote to expand Medicaid coverage to nearly half a million Michiganders.
“This so goes against the base and the people that you stand for,” Sommerfield was saying, “to have every single Democrat and to pick up a few weak Republicans to get this through, we feel totally violated.”
Walker’s response stunned the room: “Screw you, as far as weak Republicans, dude.”
The audience gasped. “What?”
“I said screw you, as far as calling me a weak Republican.”
“I am,” Sommerfield responded coolly.
“The heck with you. I stood by my campaign commitment.”
Izzy had the entire exchange on video. She quickly uploaded it to YouTube and posted it on Watchdog Wire Michigan the following day. It would be picked up by a number of statewide outlets like the Detroit News and even find its way to national recognition when the Huffington Post ran it with a direct link back to Watchdog Wire. America was outraged, but back in Michigan the media echo chamber rang hollow as establishment types took to the editorial pages defending Walker. Even Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville voiced his support.
“It exposed what a lot of us already think about the media and the ruling class,” Izzy says. The video served as a wake up call for principled citizens who felt betrayed after working and voting for candidates like Walker only to be thrown under the bus later. It showed citizens that not all politicians keep their word.
In other words, for a citizen watchdog like Izzy: mission accomplished.
Mother, Writer, Advocate
Born to Costa Rican immigrants in New York City and raised in Miami, Isabel “Izzy” Lyman traces her instinct for citizen journalism back to Amherst, Massachusetts. Life in a liberal college town, where people were very contentious and opinionated, forced her to sharpen her own personal philosophy. So she started writing for a local paper as an opinion columnist and joined a citizen taxpayers group.
As a homeschool mom, she also noticed that the practice of teaching children at home received little attention in the national media. Few people were writing about it at the time, so she obtained a masters degree in social science and then completed a doctorate degree with the thesis: “Print media bias in homeschooling.”
National outlets, most notably National Review and the Wall Street Journal, picked up her work. As she raised her children and moved multiple times around the country (part of the homeschool curriculum, she says, half-joking), she would go on to be a columnist for two more small dailies in Montana and Oklahoma, write for think thanks like the Heartland Institute and CATO, work as a copy editor and book reviewer for The Oklahoman, and publish her own book on homeschooling.
Most recently, that long resume includes serving as editor of Watchdog Wire Michigan since last June.
Engaging the culture
Izzy has the education and experience to weigh in on national issues like education reform or immigration policy, but she finds herself equally focused on exploring new ways to make news interesting and relevant to the average American.
“This isn’t some academic, ivory tower exercise for me,” she says. “I really want to know what other people in my community are interested in and how they’re spending their time… How come people aren’t that interested in government and current events and how their legislators are voting or not voting?”
Izzy’s inquiry strikes a chord with many, especially the team here at Watchdog Wire, whose mission is to help citizens make a local impact in their communities through investigative journalism.
“A lot of people would rather watch the NFL game or play angry birds or go catch the latest superhero movie,” Izzy says. Those things clearly matter to people. So in order to be heard, as a journalist it helps to first enter the world of your audience before speaking into it. Rather than sounding like some “uber-political junkie” all the time, she says, “I want to have connections with somebody enough so I know a little bit about their world and what’s important to them.”
Finding the Formula
Izzy’s advice for aspiring citizen journalists is to simply start writing something. You have to do it over and over and over again, she says, and with practice will come comfort and confidence. Stylistically, she advises, “I would definitely tell people not to write long, wordy things.” Instead, keep your story short and accurate, and aim for “snappy, animated copy… You want to grab people’s attention.” But above anything else, just get it out there.
For those looking to find new stories to write about, there’s no formula. As the Michigan editor, Izzy makes a point to stay abreast of community news and keeps up with the local paper. She reads Michigan Report – the state’s version of the Drudge Report – and spends a lot of time poking around local news sites to learn what local legislative issues are hot.
She also places great value on “old-fashioned” face-to-face interaction. Local events like city council meetings, community gatherings, and town halls with congressmen are out there, Izzy says, “in the flow of life, so to speak.” Get in the flow.
Therein lies the challenge of the citizen journalist – the “information minutemen,” as Izzy likes to call them. “Like the minutemen of old, they were called upon to act rapidly. And I think that’s part of the beauty of citizen journalism,” she says. “You can act very quickly in putting your information out there or countering attacks or bias. We have all the tools available to us.”
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