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«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»

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Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case

study of community and weekly newspapers

in Laurel, Maryland

Lindsey Lee Wotanis, Ph.D., 2011

Directed By: Dr. Linda Steiner

Professor/Director of Doctoral Studies

Philip Merrill College of Journalism

University of Maryland, College Park

This dissertation is a study of the intersection of community and community journalism in Laurel, an area with just over 100,000 residents in central Maryland.

The case study utilizes ethnographic interviews with 40 stakeholders, including journalists, advertisers, city officials and readers. Using James W. Carey‘s theory of ritual communication as its theoretical foundation, the study examines the role of Laurel‘s two weekly newspapers in creating and maintaining community in Laurel. Findings suggest that when the community newspapers failed to meet readers‘ expectations for community content, the readers‘ news reading ritual was interrupted; as a result, their sense of community weakened. Furthermore, place, sharing and relationships proved key to the formation and sustenance of community, with the weekly newspapers playing an important role in the process.

The study also found that stakeholders wanted the weeklies to maintain editorial spaces in Laurel, dedicate more resources to hiring more reporters, and be more accepting of user-generated content.




by Lindsey Lee Wotanis Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland, College Park in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy 2011

Advisory Committee:

Professor Linda Steiner, Chair/Adviser Professor Carl Sessions Stepp Professor Carol L. Rogers Professor Kalyani Chadha Professor John L. Caughey ©Copyright by Lindsey Lee Wotanis 2011 For my grandma and grandpa, Florence and Nicholas, and for my mom, Connie.



Praise the bridge that carried you over.

~George Colman, the Younger Without the help and the support of those mentioned here, I would not have been able to cross this long bridge that is the doctoral dissertation.

Pat Haag, deputy clerk to the Laurel City Council, and Monica DeLorenzo, administrative assistant to the Mayor of Laurel were helpful in scheduling interviews and directing me to ―the people to talk to.‖ Robbie Morganfield, pastor at St. Mark‘s Methodist Church and fellow doctoral student, and Woody Woodruff, copyeditor at the Laurel Leader and fellow doctoral student, were helpful in connecting me with participants. Lindsey Baker, director of the Laurel Historical Society, assisted me in combing through clip files for information on Laurel and its newspapers. Pete Pichaske, former editor of the Laurel Leader, first welcomed me into its newsroom in 2008 and paved the way for the paper‘s cooperation in this research. To all of you, I am most grateful.

My 40 participants were extremely gracious in giving of their time and local knowledge and have made a tremendous impact on this research. Without them, this dissertation would not have been possible. Thank you for welcoming me into your homes and offices, for connecting me with participants, and for sharing with me your invaluable insights.

Dr. Maurine Beasley was instrumental in the formative process of this research and provided me with many things about which to think. Thank you.

The members of my dissertation committee—Dr. John Caughey, Dr.

Kalyani Chadha, Dr. Carol L. Rogers, and Mr. Carl Sessions Stepp—were giving

–  –  –

lending an ear, troubleshooting challenges, and most of all, sharing your support.

My dissertation adviser, Dr. Linda Steiner, deserves more thanks than any string of words can hope to signify. Her patience, kindness and wisdom combined made this daunting and overwhelming task not only bearable, but achievable. She, with her red pens (pens plural, as I am certain that she ran out of ink in several throughout this process), has made this work infinitely better.

Thank you for the countless hours you spent discussing this project, lending books, reading (and re-reading, and re-reading) drafts, answering questions, and calming nerves. I‘m pretty sure, as dissertation chairs go, you‘re the best.

And to my friends, Andrea Frantz, Merrilee Cox, and Michael Breslosky, who supported me throughout this journey. When I needed to air my frustrations or celebrate a benchmark, they were there to lend an ear and to drink some wine.

Their constant encouragement throughout this process helped me to stay the course. Thank you.

And finally, my mom, Connie Wotanis, deserves all the gratitude I have to bestow. She offered every kind of support possible throughout this journey. She painstakingly transcribed interviews. She helped me copy-edit. She cooked me dinners. But, most importantly, she listened whenever I needed her to. And then, without fail, she gave me a pep talk that gave me the motivation to continue on this journey. I would not have achieved any of my successes, this one included, without her love and support. And so, I say a great big THANKS, MOM. As far as mom‘s go, I know you‘re the best. I share this with you.

–  –  –

One wintery day in early 2008, I sat next to Melanie as she worked on the final edits of her features section before the Laurel Leader—one of Laurel, Maryland‘s two weekly newspapers—went to press. In addition to concerns about the correct spelling of Veterans Day (no apostrophe), picture selection and space adjustments, she was arguing with herself about whether or not to cut the names of some kids on a local sports team because she had more content than space. ―I cut these names last week,‖ she mumbled to herself. ―These poor kids are never going to get in the paper.‖ As I began talking with Melanie about her dilemma, the phone rang. I sat back in my chair to give her some space as she took the call. When she hung up the phone, she turned to me and said very seriously, and with a straight face, ―Late-breaking craft fair.‖ Then, she broke out in hearty laughter before proceeding to find space on her pages for the craft fair announcement.

Melanie, who was then the features editor and is now the editor-in-chief of the Laurel Leader, was struggling with the realities of journalism in ―small‖ towns.1 With only 20 or so pages per week to deliver the news, Melanie was— and remains—forced to make difficult decisions about what counts as ―news.‖ The Laurel Leader is one of two local, weekly newspapers disseminating news in Laurel. And, the challenges described above sometime grow in complexity when 1 The term small is, of course, a relative term. The city of Laurel has 19,000 residents, and when adding the residents of areas surrounding the city, also considered ―Laurel‖ by the U.S. Postal Service, the population totals a little more than 100,000. This is large by comparison to other towns, but small considering the two major cities that book end it: Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD.

–  –  –

that is wrapped up within that single word. The word community tends to connote warm and fuzzy feelings of belonging and sharing—two things generally regarded as positive—so such a marketing strategy works to create local identity where readers feel a part of something distinctive and special. Many small weeklies describe themselves as community newspapers, and the weeklies in Laurel are no exception. But, is Laurel a community and, if so, what role do the two local newspapers in Laurel play in its creation and/or maintenance?

This dissertation explores the relationship between community and news media, looking closely at the weekly newspaper and seeking understanding of the concepts of community and local news media as constructed by the people of Laurel. A number of earlier studies have examined the relationship between communities and news media (Park, 1922; Janowitz, 1952; Stamm, 1985;

Rotherbuhler, Mullen, DeLaurell, & Ryu, 1996; Stamm, Emig & Hesse, 1997).

These studies have interrogated the role that news media plays in connecting people to a place or to a group of people. Despite their focus on the connection between media and communities, none of these studies questioned the premise of the existence of a community in the first place; they all took for granted that the community under study existed—and was perceived to exist by their participants.

This study does not take that premise for granted; I wanted to learn from the people of Laurel whether they perceive it to be a community and what they take to be the importance of local news media. This dissertation questions perceptions of community from the perspective of a variety of people associated with Laurel,

–  –  –

but rather seeks to understand the meanings of the concepts from the perspectives of the participants of this research.

Focus of the study This dissertation is a case study of a Washington D.C. and Baltimore suburb—Laurel, Maryland. I called Laurel home for two years, while I pursued my doctoral studies at the University of Maryland‘s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Early coursework projects piqued my interest in the long history of newspapering in Laurel, which will be discussed later in Chapter 3. Laurel has two competing weekly newspapers—the Laurel Leader and The Gazette. This study examines perceptions of community and news media from the perspectives of several constituents in Laurel, including journalists, public officials, advertisers and business owners, as well as readers and non-readers of the newspapers.

I am guided by some of the following preliminary research questions:

 Do the stakeholders in Laurel perceive it to be a community?

 Do those connected to Laurel have a sense of community in Laurel or in other groups and/or Laurel-based organizations they may be a part of? Is that sense of community guided by local news media, personal interactions, a combination of both acting together, or by something(s)

–  –  –

 Do the local news media—mainly referring to the two dominant weekly newspapers—play a role in creating and/or sustaining community in

–  –  –

 How (if at all) do the various groups of people in Laurel make use of media to participate in community/civic life?

Laurel, Maryland is an appropriate location to study the intersection of community and news media for a variety of reasons. Laurel is distinctive in that it is a suburb of two major metropolitan areas—Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Here, the elite media (The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, respectively) are, in a sense, also local media. On any given morning, either of these newspapers can be found on doorsteps in Laurel. But, neither of these newspapers regularly covers with any depth or detail the news of the suburbs surrounding the cities they serve. Laurel news often only can be found in the weekly newspapers; Laurel does not support its own news radio or televisions stations, and most of the existing television news coverage is regional. The Laurel Cable Network Foundation, Inc. has served Laurel with public access television for the past 22 years; residents of Laurel can access it from channel 71 on Comcast and 12 on Verizon Fios (History of the Laurel Cable Network Foundation, 2009). For these reasons, the weekly newspapers play a vital role in informing residents about happenings in their town. But do these ―community‖ weeklies actually help to make Laurel a community? This research aims to answer this question.

–  –  –

The purpose of this study is to better understand the role of news media in creating and sustaining community defined geographically, in terms of physical locations—in this case, Laurel, Maryland. Communities and media have been explored extensively, both separately and in combination. Early communities studies examined physical communities—towns and villages. The studies soon progressed, as did the connotations of the term, to include groups of people, coworkers and professionals, teammates, religious groups and even racial and ethnic groups. Most recently and as a result of technological advances, virtual communities—groups of people who interact via an electronic medium, such as a chat room or virtual world like Second Life, have become the norm. Hardly any current literature examines physical communities against their new, modern-day counterpart—virtual communities. But, all people live, first and foremost, in the physical world, and as such, scholars cannot abandon studies of physical communities. Now, more than ever, understanding physical communities is of utmost importance, given the many ways technologies have influenced the ways in which people not only interact with physical spaces, but also with each other in those physical spaces.

Another purpose of this study is to wrestle with the inherent contradictions of the idiom community newspaper. Newspapers (after books) are considered one of the first mass mediums. In 1887, German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies made a distinction between community and society. His concepts of Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society) made clear that people‘s

–  –  –

Society is marked by individualism, where people‘s loyalties are, by and large, to their own self-interest. People in society are loyal to one another only so long as it benefits their own personal interests and that loyalty is often ―superficial‖ (Bell, Newby, & Elias, 1974, p. 8). By contrast, community symbolizes ―unity of being,‖ where people live together as a family or in kinship, understanding the necessity of working together to achieve common goals (p. 8). Poplin (1972) argued, likewise, that the opposite of the ―moral community‖ was ―mass society.‖ In mass society, members experience alienation, moral fragmentation, disengagement, and segmentation; by contrast, members of a moral community have a sense of identification, moral unity, involvement, and wholeness (p. 6).

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