The right of citizens to video-record police officers has become a contentious issue in the ongoing violence in Ferguson, Missouri — and a vital way of holding the authorities to account. This explainer from the Washington Post is just one of numerous articles on the subject published in recent days.

In 2010 and ’11, video-recording the police became a major controversy in New Haven, Connecticut. In his book The Wired City, WGBH News contributor and “Beat the Press” panelist Dan Kennedy describes how coverage of that story led to an investigation and reform.

Paul Bass walked into his office at La Voz on the afternoon of Thursday, March 3, 2011, called up the New Haven Register’s website on his iMac, and, after a few moments of reading, matter-of-factly announced: “We got fucked.” Bass is the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, an online-only nonprofit news site that he founded in 2005. He and his staff of three full-time reporters work out of a tiny spare room at La Voz Hispana de Connecticut, a little more than a block from the New Haven Green.

The reason for Bass’s displeasure was an article the Register had posted about the findings of an internal investigation at the police department. (The Register’s initial online report is no longer available; here is the updated article.) The probe focused on officers who, during a raid at a downtown nightclub the previous fall, had illegally ordered partygoers to put away their cellphones so they couldn’t video-record actions by the police. There were a number of Yale students at the party, and five of them were arrested; the raid made national headlines. It was a story the New Haven Independent had begun covering in October 2010, following this report in the Yale Daily News. For months, the Independent posted numerous follow-ups about that and a similar incident in which police had confiscated an iPhone from a man who had recorded them making a sidewalk arrest. They erased the video and charged him with interfering with police. Now, with the denouement at hand, the Independent had been beaten by its larger competitor.

Thomas MacMillan, a staff reporter for the Independent, returned to the office, and Bass explained to him what had happened. “I was on the phone to Adam Joseph all morning. You’d think he could have told me,” said MacMillan, referring to the spokesman for Mayor John DeStefano. “I know,” Bass replied. “That’s why I’m pissed.” (Bass later realized that Joseph had sent him the press release at the same time the Register got it, but that no one at the Independent had been online to receive it.)

Bass and MacMillan made a quick recovery. They learned there was actually a second report, on the sidewalk incident, something the Register did not mention in its initial online article. That gave the Independent an angle of its own. A few minutes before 4 p.m., MacMillan and I drove to police headquarters, where police chief Frank Limon served up some mea culpas, taking “full responsibility” while making sure to point out that the real culprit in both cases was an assistant chief who had since retired. By late afternoon, the Independent had uploaded two stories (here and here), several photos, and two videos, one an oft-posted clip by a partygoer that was also used by the Register. (I should disclose that I was drafted into proofreading duty.) The next day Bass ran an account of a police training session on how officers should respond to video-recording by members of the public. Bass and I had attended that session, which was held just before Adam Joseph’s press release went out and all hell broke loose. The training had come about because of the controversy stirred up by the Independent’s reporting.

Anyone who has ever worked for a small news organization — especially in the shadow of a large daily newspaper — knows how difficult and frustrating it can be to break a story only to have few people take notice. Even before he learned that the Register had beaten the Independent on the internal investigator’s report, Bass was expressing his frustration regarding the Register’s failure to cover the controversy over citizens who were harassed, or worse, for video-recording police officers. According to a search of the Register’s archives in NewsBank, a commercial database, and on the open Internet via Google, the Register never mentioned Luis Luna, the man arrested in the sidewalk incident, until the internal-affairs reports came out on March 3. The Register also stopped covering the fallout from the nightclub incident within several weeks of its occurrence. The Independent, meanwhile, gave heavy coverage to both incidents, paying special attention to the retirement of the assistant chief mentioned by Limon, Ariel Melendez, who left the department while under investigation, taking with him a $124,000-a-year annual pension.

But if few city residents beyond the Independent’s regular readership knew about the video-recording controversy before March 3, Bass’s work nevertheless resonated and reached a larger constituency. Both Mayor DeStefano and Chief Limon took notice, and made it clear that officers were not to interfere with citizens who were video-recording them so long as they weren’t preventing them from doing their jobs. In the Connecticut state legislature, Martin Looney, a Democrat from New Haven and the Senate majority leader, introduced a bill making it easier for citizens to bring civil suits against police officers for interfering with their right to video-record. (The bill did not pass.) The Independent’s coverage also helped spark the internal investigation and led to a new policy issued by Limon, as well as to the training session for officers at the city’s police academy. To the extent that the Independent has succeeded at influencing city events, it may be a matter of who its readers are rather than how many. That may sound elitist, but not everyone can be a government official or has the interest in being a community leader. Nor is everyone an involved citizen.

“Virtually all the right people are reading it,” said Michael Morand, an associate vice president at Yale and, among other things, a former New Haven alderman. (To be fair, I should note that I used the phrase “right people” first. He winced, calling the term “loaded.”) Morand characterized Independent readers as “active voters, elected and appointed officials, opinion makers, civic activists as measured by people who are on boards, leaders of block watches and other neighborhood organizations. In the grassroots and grasstops circles I travel in, everybody knows it, most people read it regularly, and/or if there’s an item of importance or usefulness to them, somebody else has shared it with them.”

Influence cannot be measured. It can be difficult even to define. But it would appear that the Independent had succeeded in becoming an influential part of the New Haven media and political environment by reaching a small but diverse audience of active, civically engaged residents and by focusing relentlessly on local issues and the city’s neighborhoods. Though it may not have attained as much overall influence as the Register, it was taken seriously by the “right people,” and was therefore taken seriously by the city’s top elected official as well.

As was evident from the Independent’s coverage of police and video-recording, at times the news site can drive the agenda, leading to an official response, new policies, and legislation. Through that and other stories, the Independent has shown that it can act as a force for civic improvement — a vital function of journalism — despite its relatively small audience in comparison to those of the Register, television, and public radio.

Excerpted from The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013). Copyright © 2013 by Dan Kennedy.