On Feb. 5, John Williams and his group of volunteers had a breakthrough.
On their niche-news Facebook page, Anne Arundel County Breaking news, a post about wanted fugitive Anthony Biddles got an unlikely “like.”
It was Biddles himself.
“I nearly died with laughter,” Williams said. “I’m pretty sure he was arrested.”
He was later arrested.
Williams has many stories from his new media adventure. In just five years, Anne Arundel County Breaking news has grown from a status update site to a mainstream information source for anyone interested in issues concerning Anne Arundel County.
The niche site isn’t alone. A dozen of them have been popping up across the state in the last five years.
As these sites grow in popularity, county police are looking at ways to work with the organizations to ensure the information being released is accurate.
The road hasn’t always been easy. Some postings have caused disagreement between the two entities.
“I admit, we are still learning ,” said Williams. “Our relationship with county police is a great one; one that continues to grow.”
Anne Arundel County Breaking News first started five years ago with updates on Myspace. After Williams and his friend Brian moved the platform for their service to Facebook, interest in the news updates exploded.
“It didn’t grow, it just snowballed,” Williams said. “I was wondering what we had gotten into.”
Within a month, the Facebook page grew to thousands of likes. Fans regulalry left comments in droves.
About seven volunteers update the page regularly, with a bulk of the information coming from police scanners.
Posts typically range on a variety of topics including traffic issues, potential stabbings and fires.
In January, the news site got into some controversy with county police when someone posted that Southern High School principal Marc Procaccini had gone missing.
For more on that story, check it out here.
The information, obtained by a police scanner said a relative not seen him in two days.
Once published, the site’s nearly 85,000 followers reacted.
Police said they were left scrambling. The school was getting flooded with calls and emails of concern.
“It happened in the middle of the night,” said Anne Arundel County Police Spokesman T.J. Smith. “The next morning we were overrun with calls of concern.”
Smith said the principal had given proper leave on a personal matter and his name did not need to be in the media, but since he was a public figure, residents grew concerned.
Williams said his organization learned a lot from the incident. He does not regret the post and said his group reported everything accurately.
“What this event did was create a dialogue between us and police,” he said. “Before that, it was occasional, now we are working together so we can grow.”
Smith said the police department welcomes niche blogs like Anne Arundel County Breaking News, especially for the reach they have.
“Sometimes they can get to people we can’t,” he said. “Their posts have helped tremendously in getting the word out.”
Smith said that everything heard on scanners is not always what it appears. About 15 percent of the 400,000 calls that come into Anne Arundel County police every year are crime related.
A majority of the things reported, he added, are usually something different than what comes through on the scanner.
“It’s like when someone thinks they hear a gunshot, but it’s actually a firecracker,” Smith said.
Chris Coyle, general manager of Baltimore County Breaking news, said when their niche site started a few years ago, they made sure to include a list of guidelines to posts.
“This includes regular check ins with police,” he said. “While we want to be informative, we don’t want to hinder a potential investigation.”
The site, which is modeled after Anne Arundel County Breaking news, will not post names in active investigations and will not release plate numbers.
Most of the volunteers include former police and firefighters. Coyle said he didn’t have a media training background.
The group recently launched Baltimore City Breaking News and is looking to expand its reach in the future.
The New news
Thom Lieb, journalism professor at Towson University, said one reason why people respond to these social media sites is because that’s where the masses are.
“If you’re checking these sites are a regular basis, it’s where you’re going to get your information,” he said. “That’s where these sites are going to be engaging.”
Lieb said more people are also using mobile devices, which allows for users to embrace more non traditional news sources.
He added that the downside to this type of reliance is that the information out there isn’t always accurate.
“We have this instinct to trust our friends and what they post,” he said. “It’s the user's responsibility to do their homework- just like editors do.”
In the future, Williams doesn’t have any big plans to change the page’s format.
With the addition of a website, the group is getting sponsorships, buying
media insurance and is looking into developing potential staff positions.
“It’s all a work in progress,” he said. “Like I said, this is something we work to make better every day.”