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."


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