«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
More recent research from Stamm, Emig, and Hesse (1997) stemmed from the ―community integration hypothesis‖ theorized in earlier works by Robert Park and Morris Janowitz. This hypothesis stated that ―community newspapers have replaced interpersonal channels as the key mechanism by which individual behavior is integrated with the forms of collective behavior required for community‖ (p. 97). Their telephone survey of 432 respondents‘ Likert scale answers regarding three key measures—local media use (of newspapers, radio, and television), interpersonal communication, and community involvement— found, not surprisingly, that those most ―settled‖ in the community had the highest involvement. However, their results also showed that ―interpersonal communication, not local mass media, is the primary mechanism for community integration of the individual,‖ refuting their original hypothesis (pp. 101 and 105).
Earlier research by Stamm and Weis (1982) had suggested that individuals tend to read news differently depending on their stage in life. The authors concluded that ―news interests seem to change along with the person‘s changing relationship to the place where he/she lives‖ (p. 67). Not surprisingly, the settling and settled individuals (who tend to be age forty and up) are apt to read more local government and controversy news, with their interests in the local economy and crime peaking once settled. In a later study, Stamm and Guest (1991) found that newcomers to communities seek out certain information to help in their
found or acquired through newspaper reading. Stamm‘s research has indicated that newspapers‘ content tends to cater to a more settled community audience, suggesting that community journalists need to do more in the way of content that attracts as well as helps newcomers to learn about and feel comfortable within their new communities.
Rothenbuhler, Mullen, DeLaurell, and Ryu (1996) also conducted a telephone survey to better understand the relationships between communication, community attachment, and community involvement. While they found that newspapers did play a role, several other factors, including age, population density, education levels, localism of activity, and number of children in the home were also important variables affecting a person‘s attachment to and involvement in communities. These studies highlighted the many variables that come into play when trying to assess why people get involved in community affairs as well as why they read community newspapers. Clearly, newspapers are not the only variable in determining community attachment or involvement, but that does not mean they should be discounted.
Public officials While studies of individual readers are more concerned with community connection, studies of town officials and administrators tend to focus on the power dynamic that exists between them and newspaper administrators. Several studies (Olien, Donohue & Tichenor, 1984; Weaver & Elliott, 1985; Smith, 1987) examined the perceptions of local government administrations towards the
size of the newspaper or community, tensions will exist between the press and the government. The press, acting as a watchdog, works to keep government officials honest while the government officials work to promote their agenda in their own words, which are often, in their view, incorrectly interpreted by the press.
Kanervo & Kanervo (1989) concluded that government officials work toward two goals: getting information into the paper and keeping information out of the paper. They found that eighty-nine percent of mayors and city managers said they had suggested topics for newspaper coverage in the last two years, while in that same time period only thirty percent had asked their community paper not to cover certain issues. Yet it is the attitude that newspapers should stay away from certain topics and attempts to keep topics from the newspaper that make up the more ominous face of control (p. 315).
Administrators‘ relationships to community presses are often described in the context of these power dynamics and rarely focus on administrators as community members as well as people in positions of power. In most cases, they are both, but their professional roles almost always supersede their personal roles in such analyses.
Journalists Gaziano and McGrath (1987) surveyed 100 journalists to gauge their perceptions on newspaper credibility against their level of involvement in the communities on which they report. This study demonstrated the apparent level of
communities they cover. They found that while ―nearly 9 in 10 agreed that ‗it‘s important to know a lot of people in the community‘ … fewer than 3 in 10 agreed that ‗it‘s important for people who work for newspapers to be involved in community organizations‘‖ (p. 320). Another interesting finding recalled that thirty-eight percent of the journalists sampled were categorized as ―younger transients,‖ meaning they had weak to moderate ties to the community and were under the age of 35, though the authors did not ask these journalists the reasons for these weak ties, which might include being new journalists, being new to their positions or communities, or being unhappy in present or previous communities (p. 324). Overall, Gaziano and McGrath concluded that community journalists seek to keep distance between themselves and their readers in an effort to maintain a level of credibility for their newspaper (p. 325). The study also revealed that ―a significant minority of journalists work in relative isolation from news sources, readers, and supervisors‖ (p. 328). Community journalism, which Janowitz argued required human interest and historical perspective, is being done in many places by young journalists with little or no connection or intimate knowledge of the towns and communities they cover. This is an unfortunate
trend. Ziff (1986) argued:
It is the great sadness of American journalism today that however diverse their geographic background and polished their skills, so many journalists are valued because they are interchangeable; they put themselves behind the word processor in whatever city to which they are called by corporate
endangered by a system of replaceable parts ( p. 165).
Community journalism requires an intimacy with the place and the people of the community; being a native or an ‗old timer‘ is a positive quality rather than one that needs to be guarded against. Community journalism needs to replace the culture of replace-ability with a culture of investing in good journalists who will remain in their towns long-term, develop intimate knowledge and report fairly and with context.
Whether this level of intimacy exists more at independent weeklies or chain-owned weeklies, or whether it is related to the demise of journalism, or of community, is unknown. More research is needed to investigate how the levels of intimacy—among many other factors—differ at independently-owned versus chain weeklies. Out-dated statistics show that more and more weeklies are bought up by chains (Garaneau, 1996). If this trend has continued—and in all likelihood, it has in the past ten years—teasing out the complexities of its implications is needed. Noam (2009) showed that pressures against localism—in almost every industry—have ―transformed industries into large national units‖ (p.
12). And, while he argued that everyone, including himself, loved localism, it is not without its significant challenges.
To many people, the ideal is a system of public-spirited, small, locally based media. It is an appealing vision. The closest examples in the private sector are family-owned small-town newspapers that sometimes operate with a certain ‗noblesse oblige,‘ forgoing some profit for
system, one must also recognize its problems. Economically, it is based on the extraction of monopoly profits from local advertisers. Anybody who has placed a classified ad in a local newspaper can attest to that power. Politically, it provides major influence to the proprietors and their heirs; even when such power is used sparingly, its existence is clear to any survival-minded official (p. 12).
Certainly, many factors determine people‘s uses and perceptions of community news, as well as the various things that determine their connection to a particular community, whether they are readers, journalists, or government officials. Still, the role of community press should not be discounted and is worthy of continued study, especially in the face of the current economic climate when many believe newspapers are on the verge of extinction.
Contemporary research—Different takes on community journalism Contemporary theorists of community journalism, such as Howley, Altschull and Hindman upend the previously held notions of community journalism. Specifically, they argue that community journalism should allow more direct participation from those in the community. They are more concerned with direct participation in the news process than with the content of community news. This concern with direct participation is linked to a concern for restoring a more participatory and deliberative democracy to our communities. Altschull (1997) argued that community journalism draws ―in the citizen at every step of the news process, from defining the news to determining the news sources to even
not community members, themselves) should allow readers to define news. This also means allowing all community members ―equal access to the community‘s resources and skills they need‖ in order to define and/or report community news (p. 152). This is key. Nord (2001) reminded us from history that ―in any society those who hold the power and authority always seek to control communication‖ (p. 3). If community journalism is to enable citizens to participate in the governing of their own lives, then those citizens need open access to the dominant communication systems that function in their communities.
Hindman (1998) echoed this sentiment. In her ethnographic study of an inner-city Minneapolis neighborhood newspaper, The Alley, she argued that ―community media … can play a vital role in creating and maintaining strong democracy‖ (p. 30). She observed that, at present, local communities have given away their autonomy by allowing professional reporters to define news, to govern how and from whom it is gathered, and to present it in certain, prescribed ways. […] Only when local communities take back the ability to communicate among themselves will they begin to take back real democracy (p. 30).
Community journalists, in this respect, need not be professional, but rather people who are invested in the community (even if they are not actual members of that community) (p. 34). They need not shy away from conflict, but rather embrace it so as to learn more about themselves. She concluded that, for readers and producers of The Alley, community ―does not mean a blending or creation of
sharing a bond created in this particular place and by this particular newspaper‖ (p. 38). They find commonality in their location, their interest in the community and the desire for democratic participation, and their communication through The Alley helps to create a sense of community among a diverse group of neighbors.
This conclusion stands in stark contrast to Janowitz‘s findings, which touted common values and morals as one of the most important foundations for the community press. Rather, Hindman argued that people can hold different values but still come together and achieve a sense of fellowship where they live when good community journalism is practiced. This is a much more realistic outlook for today‘s communities and community presses. If we are to accept that the majority of community journalism is done covering physical communities with moderate to large populations—large enough that it is impossible to know everyone in town—then accepting a certain level of diversity will allow for better community coverage and integration than ignoring such differences.
The most significant leap in attempting to critically evaluate and theorize community media comes from Howley‘s (2005) four case studies of community media.4 Like Altschull and Hindman, Howley describes community media as participatory, but more specifically, as ―alternative‖ media in that it seeks to resist or counterbalance the ―hegemony of dominant media institutions and practices‖ 4 I use the word media here rather than journalism because that is the term Howley uses. Here, it is appropriate when he talks about community radio, which offers entertainment programming rather than journalistic programming. But, the operating challenges he describes are applicable to entertainment media as well as journalism operations. Likewise, many of the features and foundations of community media, its reason for existence in the first place, are synonymous with community journalism.