Monday, September 25, 2006

Community Building Through Community Journalism

When you find a newspaper that concentrates on local coverage, has a tone that is positive and supportive, and also strives to find solutions to community issues, you have found a newspaper that practices community journalism.

Community journalism is the belief that newspapers have an obligation that goes beyond just telling the news or unloading lots of facts. Journalism can help empower a community or it can help disable it. In the small towns and cities of America, the local newspaper is one of the links that connects people to each other. It is one of the ways the community is maintained. It is part of the local discussion on issues that concern a community.

In a large city, the newspaper can only represent so many views at one time. Certain special projects or a diverse letters to the editor section can bring more voices into a paper, but the audience is still measured in the hundreds of thousands. True community journalism has been defined as the style of intensely local-first coverage provided by “small” newspapers.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors draws the line between large and small newspapers at the 50,000 circulation mark. That means there are about 1,533 "small" daily newspapers and 7,437 small weeklies in America. Southwest Missouri is dominated by small community newspapers, which throw their news and editorial weight behind providing local coverage. The finest community newspapers know they are key stakeholders in the forces that help build and grow their communities.

Accessibility is one of the most critical factors in determining whether a newspaper is practicing community journalism How physically accessible is the newsroom to its readers? Is there a security system in place to keep the public out? Are reporters protected and detached from and out of touch with readers? How easy or difficult is it for the public to get in touch with editors, reporters and photographers by phone? Are newsrooms ivory towers?

Often a community newspaper must rely on its own limited resources. A publisher at a larger newspaper has the resources of a large corporation behind him. If he faces unexpected disaster, those resources are at his disposal, at least to some extent. If some of his staff gets sick, there are people who can fill in. It may be hard, and require long hours, but the personnel is available. At many community papers, if the editor gets sick, there's no one to fill his shoes.

In the small communities I know, the publisher, editor and reporters are recognized on the street and members of the community can take them to task, or praise them, about something in the paper. The people at the newspaper belong to the same local organizations and churches as the rest of the community, their kids attend the community's schools and play softball in the community leagues. For the most part, the people at the newspaper fall into the same economic bracket as most of the community members. There is an accessibility and interactive quality that is lacking at larger papers.

Community journalism is a way of doing business, of reporting and of interacting with the citizens. Providing the news and information that helps hold a community together doesn't preclude telling the hard stories or voicing unpopular opinions.

Community journalism isn't synonymous with mediocrity. Community journalism means having newspapers concentrate on being a fair-minded participant in public life, with journalists as citizens, instead of reporters being detached. It means the local newspaper does more than describing what is going wrong; it imagines what "going right" would be like and how the proper community connections can be made. It also means the local newspaper goes beyond seeing people as merely consumers or readers to seeing them as actors in arriving at democratic solutions to public problems.

It's time that journalism educators and the newspaper industry recognized the significance of community journalism and encouraged continuing excellence.


Blogger Retiredreporter said...

The one thing that has had the single largest negative impact on community journalism is the "profit margin" required of corporate owners. When is there ever enough profit? News holes are shrinking and newspapers continue to pay low wages and require long hours. The end result is we get young reporters who don't last ... and as a result, this idea of community journalism is quickly disappearing.

5:27 PM, September 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doing a good job with community journalism does increase profits. Unfortunately, too many owners and publishers come up on the advertising side and actually think people buy a newspaper to read ads. They don't ... the ads are secondary. If we could get owners and publishers to understand that community journalism sells papers and increases ad revenue then maybe we would see a renewed interest in community journalism.

9:48 PM, September 30, 2006  
Blogger derVeg said...

Even at a "small" paper, "Letters to the editor" can't all be published, and for those that ARE published, responses can't be published until the next issue (if there's room). The Letters page is a forum dominated by or restricted to those in the community who (a) feel they can write clearly enough and (b) are willing to sign their names to their opinions in public. Writing a letter to a small weekly is like getting on stage and singing with the whole town listening in. Community papers that have an online presence should invest the resources and have the courage to solicit reader comments on their web sites, anonymously if desired. Several newspapers in Oregon have done this, and the benefits to the paper as well as to readers are enormous. An excellent example is

7:38 PM, October 02, 2006  

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