Thursday, June 26, 2008

Key to community Journalism is Personal Approach

One of my favorite movies, Frank Capra’s holiday classic "It’s a Wonderful Life” also happens to teach a good lesson about community journalism.

George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is confronting Mr. Potter, the cynical businessman trying to dismantle the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan Association, which helps working-class families buy homes.

"Do you know how long it takes a working man to save five thousand dollars?" Bailey asks Potter. "Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about. They do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community."

George Bailey isn’t a newsman, but there’s a message in his words for journalists who will spend their time covering a community by telling the stories of real people.

Community journalism is sometimes viewed as the minor leagues of the profession. Working at a small daily or weekly, aspiring journalists are often told, must be endured to achieve greater things.

Like George Bailey, journalists dream of leaving the small town. They long for the prosperous metro daily where every day is filled with glamorous story assignments and articles read by countless thousands.

This summer I’ve been teaching a class on community journalism and I asked my students to leaf through some community newspapers (including The Monitor (Republic, Mo., The Chronicle (Crane, Mo.) The Commonwealth (Ash Grove, Mo.) and The Community Free Press (Springfield, Mo.) and describe the values that seem to matter to these publications.

Here’s what they found:

- Personality. The best community newspapers reflect the places and people they serve. Can you pick up that paper get a sense of place? If so, the journalists have done their job.

- Heartfelt and invested. Small weekly newspapers sometimes earn a reputation for editorials that shape the future of the community the serve and that is only possible when editorials are heartfelt and the editors (and owners) are invested in the community.

- See your neighbors. Sports pages feature high school athletes, and news pages are dominated with stories about the regular people celebrating everyday life. A few area newspapers still have community correspondents also that write about their neighbors.

- Comforting. No matter what else happens in the world, it’s reassuring to know that you can open the local community newspaper and see the school lunch menu and find out when the next volunteer firefighters pancake breakfast is going to be held.

- Feisty and independent. "The truth is there are three or four very fine papers in any state, usually family-owned with guts and determination," writes Ray Laakaniemi, author of "The Weekly Writer's Handbook" and associate professor emeritus from Bowling Green State University. "Some are innovative, some are stubborn and ride the heck out of the local government, and some turn a corner when they are sold to a chain."

- Voices for the voiceless. More than 250 ethnic newspapers in New York City are helping new immigrants find a place to voice their opinions and learn about the issues that affect their communities. At the same time, community journalism in rural areas can also help voices be heard.

- Accountability. Community journalists aren’t afraid to take on the big issues, but they do it knowing that they will have to stand behind the words they write for years to come. "It’s the kind of journalism practiced by newspapers where the readers can walk right into the newsroom and tell an editor what’s on their minds," writes Jock Lauterer in his book "Community Journalism, the Personal Approach."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Students Chime in on Community Journalism

I'm teaching a journalism survey class for high school students in the summer Upward Bound program at Missouri State University. Our class is going to focus on basic news writing, the basic elements of what makes something news, media ethics and community journalism.

Fifteen minutes before the end of our first class, I asked the students to write an essay answer responding to this question: "What Does Community Journalism Mean to You?"

Here are portions of some of the better responses.

"Community journalism is when journalists who live in the community also write about what goes on in that community. These journalists would be better at writing about the community because they live in the community. They know what goes on and what is happening in their community so they are better able to write about it. They also know how the community is effected making what they write more understandable and agreeable. To me, community journalism would also mean that I would know that this person/journalist is more in the know than someone who is from a media outlet from outside the area so it means I would also trust their reporting more." -- Darla Vance

"Community journalism is when the community is involved in what local journalists are doing. It means the journalist is getting involved in what is happening around them. It means the citizens are talking about what is going on and trying to change things, or trying to fix the problems in the community. Community journalism means helping each other when people need help. Making us be better people and a better community. That is what community journalism does, it shows the problem in the community and then tries hard to get the problem fixed. We as a community can do that, we just need people to tell us what is going on or where the needs are in the community and help us find ways to fix it." -- Jessica Light

"Community journalism is a way of writing about local news and issues that grabs a person's attention. When you are writing in a local newspaper most readers are interested in what is happening right in the local community. This type of local reporting also helps to put local issues in perspective." -- Patty Ruedlinger

"From the perspective of an amateur journalist, community journalism is simply reporting on the community. It may involve using local opinions or local writers or even citizen journalists." -- Brooke Iler

"Community journalism refers to the covering of stories and events that happen in the immediate community of people." -- Sam Cunningham

You can learn more about how I would define community journalism by reading the publication I have online entitled, "What is Community Journalism." It can be found at

Friday, June 13, 2008

Blog Comments on Newspaper Site Should be Signed, Just like Letters to the Editor

Letters to the editor are the most read, discussed and cussed portions of the newspaper. The same can now be said for comments posted to newspaper stories or blogs online.

Offering an editorial forum (printed page or online window) is one way a newspaper helps to preserve the inalienable right of people in a free society to discuss, question and challenge actions and utterances of our government and of our public institutions.

Journalists uphold the right to speak unpopular opinions and the privilege to either agree or disagree with the majority.

One way that can be done is through the publication of letters to the editor or the publishing of comments to stories or blogs online. Both are printed in order to allow readers an opportunity to express views differing from those of the newspaper or ones expressed by individuals in published articles or other letters.

There are, however, two types of letters or online comments that are damaging to a newspaper's reputation as well as the public trust in what they publish: letters with libelous material and anonymous letters (or posts).

Not running libelous letters is a policy universally agreed to by newspapers. The same policy should be applied to blog and story comments even though the courts have not yet ruled on this issue.

Research shows that running an anonymous letter to the editor is an easy way to get you or the newspaper sued because they are more likely to be filled with misinformation or libel. Because an anonymous letter (or online blog entry or story comment) cannot be identified with a person or group, it has limited value.

As a communication professional focused on helping restore the public trust in the news media, my recommendation is that anonymous letters to the editor should go straight to the shredder. Anonymous comments or blogs to stories or columns on a newspaper's website should not be allowed either for many of the same reasons that a newspaper would not publish unsigned letters to the editor.

If a citizen has something truthful and valid to say, they should write a letter (or comment) without trying to harm others and let the readers evaluate what they have to say in the light of who they are.

Often times, the names of the writer reveal other motives behind a letter. For example, a chairman of one county political party lashes out against the fundraising practices of another.

As a former weekly newspaper editor, I had a saying about letters to the editor -- “A person of integrity does not have to hide when they speak, or write.”

So here is the bottom line: in order to maintain the public trust in what is printed (on paper or online), a newspaper's policy should be to pitch anonymous letters to the editor (and not allow anonymous online posts).

If it's worth saying or putting in writing, it's worth signing. Otherwise, it's worth nothing.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Yes, Community Bloggers Could Save Local Papers

Local bloggers are similar to community correspondents. You know, the correspondents that used to write about who visited who during the week and how Aunt Bea's knee was feeling. During the 1990s, when paper prices increased, many community newspapers ditched those community correspondents.

Turns out, that was probably a mistake.

And now community newspapers are saying they can't keep up with local bloggers and online content that are stealing away readers.

I've been saying and writing for over four years about the disappearance of community correspondents from weekly newspapers (read column here). Bloggers have taken the place of elderly community correspondents and it seems to me that a strategic partnership between weekly newspapers and bloggers in their community could be good for business while also reaching new readers and opening up some column inches in the local newspaper.

Perhaps the best of those blog enteries could be printed in the newspaper on the opinion page.

What do you think?