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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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Reader and Moist (2008), who studied letters to the editors (LTEs) in two alternative magazines, argued that LTEs ―reinforce and/or challenge‖ the ―collective values‖ of the magazine readers (p. 834). They concluded that letters

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position him or herself within the community. The LTEs become the ―means by which community members maintain and express their individuality within the collective‖ (p. 834). Furthermore, ―the act of writing an LTE itself elevates the writer from being merely part of an aggregate (the ‗audience‘) to being an active part of community life‖ (p. 834). In a study of NPRs ―letter to the editors‖ segment, Reader (2007) concluded that producers of the segment actively imagined a sense of community among NPR listeners when they selected or rejected the letters to be read during the program. This suggests that ―imagining community is as much a process of journalism as a product of it, a process that is largely defined by the sociology of the news profession‖ (p. 665). So, just as they strive to be fair and balanced, the imagining of community is also part of the daily routine for journalists.

According to Wahl-Jorgensen (2007), who studied the relationship of letters to the editor to democracy, letters are deserving of scholarly study because they remain one of the few places where the voices of ordinary citizens are privileged. ―Letters sections are among the few places in contemporary media that depart from the top-down liberal view of citizenship, and offer a more active role for citizens in political decision making‖ (p. 27).

While many readers continue to write letters to the editors of print publications, the Internet has opened up the ―gate‖ for citizens interested in participating directly in the press. Online, readers are not constrained by the newspapers‘ editorial gatekeepers. All readers can leave comments on articles

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deemed inappropriate), and easy blogging software allows anyone to create web pages that publish his or her views on current events. Citizens now have access to many of the same tools that journalists once controlled. The Internet has made it easy for citizens to participate in the news making process.

For example, in July of 2005, citizens blogged during the horrific London bombings in an attempt to report what was happening ―on the ground.‖ Likewise, during the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, when student Seung-Hui Cho fatally shot 32 students and professors before turning the gun on himself, students were capturing the events using the video applications on their cell phones. One student, Jamal Albarghouti, was even interviewed repeatedly on CNN throughout the day for his video and audio of gunshots heard outside one of the classroom buildings. Major news networks like CNN and MSNBC have added applications on their websites specifically for citizen journalists to submit raw footage or ―on the ground‖ reporting. ―The idea behind citizen journalism is that people without professional journalism training can use the tools of modern technology and the global distribution of the Internet to create, augment or fact-check media on their own or in collaboration with others‖ (Glaser, 2006).

Many citizen journalists are bloggers, but Bently, et al, noted an important distinction between the two. Citizen journalism sites are monitored by an editor whereas community blogs do not have gatekeepers and anyone is allowed to post (p. 242). This, however, depends on the type of websites and weblogs. For instance, many news organizations have ―community blogs‖ which solicit citizen

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Internet communication technologies (ICTs) has allowed individuals to establish their own community blogs, where their voice is dominant; they are the gatekeepers, while readers are free only to comment on the blogger‘s posts. Some authors of community blogs consider themselves an ―editor‖ or gatekeeper, deciding when certain items should or shouldn‘t be posted and when comments are inappropriate. ―The best civic bloggers tend to set a civil tone that encourages people to remain neighborly, and many discourage anonymous commenting‖ (Fanslow, 2009, p. 29). Sites like blogger.com and WordPress.com make creating a personal blog not only possible but also free. And those who do it would likely call it a ―labor of love.‖ ―Most place-based bloggers are investing countless hours (usually for free) because they love their communities and want to see them be the best place they can be‖ (p. 29). A placeblogger is ―the collective name for the citizens who generate locally driven blogs and news sites‖ (Fanslow, 2009, p. 24).

According to Rutigliano (2007), ―blogs are civic journalism on steroids‖ (p. 225).

Many community bloggers are ordinary citizens who write about and advocate for their communities in sustained, organized ways on the Internet. These blogs (the word is shorthand for

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writers, most with no formal journalism training. The best blogs evolve into online communities where dozens—sometimes hundreds—of citizens regularly comment, offer news tips, and generally gather around these

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24).

The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that 12 percent of people ―create or work on their own online journal or blog.‖ Twenty-two percent (as of December 2007) reported using the Internet to ―post a comment to an online news group, website, blog, or photo site.‖ Thirty-three percent of those surveyed reported reading blogs online, while eleven percent reported doing so daily (Smith, 2008). Yet (as of November 2008), 70 percent of people reported using the Internet to get news (Internet Activities). The question remains: as more and more people utilize the Internet to access news, will they do so to access national, regional, or local news? Will community journalism—as done by professionals and citizens—take off on the web? Could community blogging surpass or replace community newspapers as sources of hyperlocal news?





Community blogs ―intend to apply the blog software popularized by the more well-known individual bloggers to a specific geographic area and allow the residents of that area to create and maintain their own news organization‖ (Rutigliano, 2007, p. 225). Individual bloggers, however, also sometimes consider themselves to be community bloggers. G. Rick Wilson, one of the participants in this study, maintains his own personal blog called ―Laurel Connections: A small journal from a small town.‖ Wilson is the editor and gatekeeper, but the blog centers on issues important to Laurel, Maryland residents. Those residents are free to comment on Rick‘s post, but ultimately he, like a journalist, controls the content of his site.

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faring. However, a Zogby poll (2008) found that while 70 percent of Americans think journalism is important to the quality of life in their communities, two thirds are dissatisfied with the quality of journalism in their communities. The same survey found that ―very few Americans (1 percent) consider blogs their most trusted source of news, or their primary source of news (1 percent).‖ Community blogs are still in relative infancy; their future is difficult to predict and success will likely be the result of a number of factors, including cultural, economic and technological shifts in the practice of community newspapering. According to Fanslow, Community blogs are having a sizable impact on traditional journalism.

Many serve a watchdog function, just as investigative reporters from the ‗legacy‘ media used to do (and sometimes still do, newsroom budgets and corporate ties permitting). Paraphrasing A. J. Liebling, New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass wrote, ‗Power of the press now belongs not

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modem.‘ Some civic minded bloggers take a critical tone with local government; others are less combative. But no matter what the prevailing tone, these blogs give readers a rich sense of place (2009, p. 24).

Like Park‘s immigrant press and Janowitz‘s view of the community press in Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s, the modern day community press—which now includes professionals involved in newspapering and online news gathering as well as ordinary citizens producing community blogs—creates a sense of place

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community journalism also helps to create, sustain, and maintain our communities. The newspapers and blogs become a ―third space,‖ a term coined by Ray Oldenberg, who defined it as ―a setting beyond home and work (the ‗first‘ and ‗second‘ places respectively) in which people relax in good company and do so on a regular basis (2001, p. 2). Third spaces have the potential to fulfill the requirements for Habermas‘ public sphere in that when people occupy these spaces to interact with one another, they have the potential to engage in dialogue that may develop into what Habermas called ―rational-critical debate‖ (1991, p.

164).

Of course, several of Habermas‘ requirements must first be met—namely that in order for rational-critical debate to take place, the members within the public sphere must be of a certain level of education; they must be literate and versed in literary and political writings. Habermas argued that though the mass press—which really became popular in the nineteenth century with the advent of the penny press—expanded the public sphere, it eventually weakened it ―by eliminating political news and political editorials‖ (p. 169). These papers, he argued, made the sphere a ―culture consuming public‖ rather than a rational, critical public. Furthermore, mass media allowed the public to read news in private rather than public spaces, which ―deprived it of the opportunity to say something and to disagree‖ (p. 171). While much of this is true, new communication technologies allow the reading public to engage in rationalcritical debate with one another via the Internet and blogging.

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of a public sphere engaging in rational-critical debate, a newspaper reading public is better than a non-newspaper reading public. Oldenberg‘s use of the term ―third space‖ refers to an actual physical place where people can associate and gather— places like coffee shops, bowling alleys and barbershops. But, it can and should also be applied to non-physical gathering places, like newspapers and community blogs. People can—intellectually—gather via newspapers and blogs to engage in community dialogue. Posting comments after reading a news article or blog or writing a LTE allow readers to engage in conversation with one another—albeit not always in real time. Especially for place communities, newspapers and blogs can help to facilitate relationships and sharing, providing a sense of community (Kaye, 2007, p. 130).

But, ―blog content generally reflects the biases of the blogger, who tends to take one side of an issue, furthering a sense of belonging to a group of likeminded individuals‖ (Kaye, 2007, p. 130, citing Levy 2002, Seipp, 2002, and Rosenberg, 2002). Especially for those dissatisfied with the traditional news media in their communities, blogs serve as a way for them to come together to ―grind the axe‖ so to speak. This axe grinding is called ―fisking‖ and has become a motivation for using blogs in the first place. Fisking, according to the Urban Dictionary, ―is derived from articles written by Robert Fisk that were easily refuted, and refers to a point-by-point debunking of lies and/or idiocies‖ (Fisking). The term is often used within the blogosphere. ―By its nature, fisking requires another medium whose content can be challenged and errors exposed‖

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themselves may contain content that can be challenged. Fisking could be considered at odds with dialogue. But, blogs create a platform for people to engage in debate without the constraints of space or gatekeepers. Picking apart arguments can be the beginning of critical dialogue. Community blogs serve as a way to bring people together, into the public sphere, engaging in open (potentially rational and critical) dialogue in the Habermasian sense as a way to better their communities. Newspapers can learn from community blogs, which seem to be gaining in popularity.

Discussing Habermas‘ public sphere in relationship to blogs, Barlow (2008) pointed out that what blogs have managed to do, in some respects, is re-establish the public sphere much in the way that the coffeehouses, salons, broadsheets, and pamphlets (and more) first established it three hundred years ago. As its critics emphasize, beyond technological manifestations, it could be argued that there is little in the blogosphere that is really new. Blogs may carry debate (debate that may have been stifled, but debate in the public sphere nonetheless) to a new venue, but there is nothing revolutionary in what the blogs are doing. (emphasis in original, p. 5).

And, though blogs allow for more instant participation, only those who can afford access may participate. While blogs do have democratic qualities, newspapers—especially free weeklies—are still far more accessible to Americans than Internet blogs. Community newspapers can revitalize their content by taking

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discussion on such blogs are conversations that may have been stifled, the newspapers can bring them to the attention of the (likely much larger) community audience.

Community journalists need to re-evaluate their content, their audience, and the kinds of conversations they are fostering. If they truly care for the communities on which they report—and want to see public life go well in those communities—they need to find ways to revive the public debate and become a regular ―third space‖ where people go to perform the ritual of communication (Carey, 1989), helping them not only to feel a part of their community, but to help maintain it.

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