«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
The present research examines community journalism in an attempt to better define community in the context of a town, using its citizens and stakeholders, as well as its newspapers, as the analytical lenses. It also attempts to better understand the present and future role of weekly local newspapering, especially at a time when the newspaper industry—weeklies included—is facing great challenges, especially financial ones. This case study focuses on Laurel, Maryland, an area with more than 100,000 residents located midway between Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
A case study approach was chosen because it is an approach capable of examining simple or complex phenomenon, with units of analysis varying from single individuals to large corporations and businesses; it entails using a variety of lines of action in its datagathering segments, and can meaningfully make use of and contribute to the application of theory (Berg, 2007, p. 283).
So-called ―community case studies,‖ specifically, allow investigators to select their focus either broadly or narrowly, the latter being the case here. ―Community case studies may specifically focus on some particular aspect of the community or even some phenomenon that occurs within that community‖ (p. 297).
Laurel, Maryland was chosen as a case study for this research for a number of reasons. I moved to Laurel from Adelphi, Maryland after my first year of study at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland;
I was unhappy with the housing options immediately surrounding the campus and
prior to my second year of study, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment on Main Street in Laurel. Laurel looked and felt a lot more like ―home,‖ which for me was Dickson City, a small town just outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Scranton and its surrounding areas are similarly populated when compared to Laurel. Laurel‘s Main Street, the Patuxent river walk park, the single-family homes and the nearby shopping options were somewhat removed from the three and four lane ―highways‖ and abundant apartment complexes that surrounded me in Adelphi.
To help me learn about the town, I began reading the Laurel Leader, which was tossed outside my door each Thursday.6 I later learned that one of my colleagues at the Merrill College worked part-time as a copy editor at the Leader.
About that same time, I was looking for a place to conduct an ethnographic research project for an American Studies class in which I was enrolled. With a few phone calls from my friend to the paper‘s editor, I was soon inside the Leader‟s newsroom observing and talking with the editors and reporters. The project was successful and served to pique my interest in learning more about this paper and its competitor, The Gazette, not only from inside the newsroom, but from inside the community. What did others in Laurel think about their newspapers? At a time when the newspaper industry is in flux, if not jeopardy, how were these two community newspapers faring in their market? A case study, using ethnographic interviewing, seemed like the approach that would yield a comprehensive look at the state of community journalism in Laurel, a suburban 6 The Gazette, the rival weekly paper, was not delivered to my apartment, although it is delivered free elsewhere in Laurel.
days and have been on the decline for more than a century. The Newspaper Preservation Act, authorized by Congress in 1970, allowed newspapers to work together via Joint Operating Agreements (JOAs)—a business structure that allows two newspapers to share costs of business, advertising and circulation expenses.
At the time of the act, many big city major dailies entered into such agreements.
At the highest point, 28 JOAs existed. In 2009, only nine remained (Milstead & Smith, 2009). In Laurel, no such JOA exists. The Leader and The Gazette are owned and operated by two different newspaper companies—the Tribune Co. and the Washington Post Co., respectively. Data on the number of competing weeklies nationwide was unavailable.
To achieve a wide-ranging, detailed examination of Laurel, which spans a relatively large area and has more than 100,000 residents, several constituent groups were chosen as points of focus (Berg, 2007, pp. 298-299). Ethnographic interviewing with journalists, city officials, and local business owners, along with focus groups and interviews with residents help to reveal the perspectives and perceptions of the citizens and stakeholders in Laurel, Maryland regarding the community and its newspapers.
I began this research with the following 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
Do the local news media—mainly referring to the two dominant weekly newspapers—play a role in creating and/or sustaining community in Laurel? Which media, including which other local news media, try to or
How (if at all) do the various groups of people in Laurel make use of media to participate in community/civic life?
Rationale for qualitative methods Choosing a methodological approach is largely dependent upon two things: research objectives and world view. I chose qualitative methods because I agree with those who argue that complete objectivity in research is never possible, that the social world is messy and cannot be ―controlled,‖ and that researchers are active participants in the creation of the reality they set out to study. This theoretical and methodological position is known as interpretive or constructionist. Scholars in this camp are more concerned about ―how people made sense of their social worlds‖ than about cause and effect relationships (Deacon, et al., 1999, p. 6).
When researchers first began exploring the social realm, they needed to work hard to establish their credibility in the scholarly community; at first, adopting the methodological and theoretical positions of the hard sciences— known as positivism and later postpositivism—was the only way to do so. This
controlled, quantitative experiments. But many scholars quickly realized that facts do not merely exist, waiting to be discovered by an objective researcher.
Qualitative methods help researchers to understand the complex relationships of social worlds. Community and news media are both complex concepts, as I showed in chapters two and three. Neither has a cut and dry definition, especially in today‘s technological world. Using qualitative methods allowed for the participants to speak in their own voices and for an understanding that multiple interpretations of these concepts were expected and welcomed. This research ―focus[ed] on the social practices and the meanings of people in a specific … cultural context‖ (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002, p. 122). Below is a brief discussion of the strengths of ethnographic interviewing and how employing this method enhanced my understanding of the relationship between weekly newspapers and communities. Also in this chapter, a review of foundational newsroom ethnographies and the lessons learned about the method follow. Participant recruitment and selection is discussed, as is my approach to interviews with participants. Institutional Review Board permissions as well as ethical considerations are also discussed. The chapter concludes with an explanation of how data in this study was analyzed.
Ethnographic interviewing Caughey (2006) defines ethnography as ―a cultural description, or a cultural portrait, based on interviews and participant observation‖ where ―the subject portrayed is typically a group, a community, a scene, an institution, or
collection and analysis, along with the relationships between the participants and the researcher, stand in contrast to those in the positivistic paradigms.
―Ethnography has represented a shift from empirical practices of data collection, pushing scholars to introduce nonobjective strategies … and a greater level of self-reflexivity among researchers‖ (LaPastina, 2005, p. 139). The method derives both from anthropology, where ethnography was ―developed to holistically study isolated societies‖ (Bird, 2005, p. 302), and from sociology, specifically the Chicago School, where the intention of urban scholars was to gain an understanding of everyday life (Deegan, 2007, p. 11). However, according to Bird (2005), a ―central and unifying‖ principle of all ethnographic work is ―a commitment to cultural interpretation‖ (p. 302).
Ethnography is most commonly understood as a combination of two qualitative methods: participant observation and interviewing (Caughey, 1982, p.
222). This case study relied on ethnographic interviewing to uncover the perspectives and perceptions of Laurel citizens and stakeholders regarding weekly news and community life in Laurel. Some observation was also utilized, as I often interviewed participants on their own ―turf‖; I attended several community events, which were accessible to me in part because I lived in Laurel. However, such observation was secondary to the interviewing. Life history techniques, a subset of ethnographic methods that focus on individual experiences rather than group experiences, were also useful here. Because of the time in the field and the often personal relationships developed between researchers and participants,
research, or even simply talking with participants outside of their natural surroundings (Smith, 2007, p. 229). ―In particular, fieldworkers using ethnographic approaches convey vivid, dynamic and processual portrayals of lived experience‖ (Smith, 2007, p. 229). Heyl (2007) considered interviews ethnographic when researchers have established respectful, on-going relationships with their interviewees, including enough rapport for there to be a genuine exchange of views and enough time and openness in the interviews for the interviewees to explore purposefully with the researcher the meanings they place on events in their worlds (p. 369).
Researchers often interview their participants several times, formally or informally, individually or in a group. Interviews may be structured (a set of predetermined questions asked to each participant); semi-structured (a general outline of questions to be asked exists, but allows for tangents and spontaneous questions and conversations), or unstructured (objectives may exist, but are reached through free-flowing, unprompted questions and/or conversations).
Interviews in this research were semi-structured; while a list of questions was planned for each participant, spontaneous questions and conversations were the norm throughout the interviewing process.
Ethnographic interviews may be conducted in the field, on the participant‘s ―turf‖ (at their home or workplace) or in a neutral location (like a coffee shop). Presumably, working in a participant‘s natural setting will likely
rather than a strict interviewing style. Throughout the course of this research, I tried to interview participants on their ―turf‖—in their homes or offices— whenever possible. When that wasn‘t possible, neutral locations in Laurel—like coffee shops, churches, and diners—were chosen.
Heyl (2007) highlighted Kvale‘s two common ways of approaching ethnographic interviewing, determined by the ―vocabulary of methods‖ the researcher brings from his or her discipline (p. 371). The first conceives of the researcher as a ―miner‖ who ―goes to the vicinity of the ‗buried treasure‘ of new information in the specific social world, seeks out good sources … and carefully gathers up the data—facts waiting to be culled out and discovered by the interviewer‘s efforts‖ (p. 370). The ―traveler‖ metaphor, on the other hand, ―sees the interviewer as on a journey from which he or she will return with stories to tell, having engaged in conversations with those encountered along the way‖ (p.
371). The ―miner‖ metaphor seems to suit researchers with a positivistic point of view, where the traveler metaphor stems from a more interpretive perspective.
The problem, though, with both of these approaches to interviewing is that they place all of the power in the hands of the researcher rather than sharing it with the interviewees. Finding facts or returning with stories implies that the researcher is solely responsible for the collection of the facts or the creation (in textual form) of the stories.
Feminist researchers, however, see ethnographic interviewing differently.
They view ethnographic interviewing more as a conversation where there is ―co
as much a part of the stories obtained as are the interviewees who tell them because the ―researcher and the interviewee are active creators in all phases of the interview process‖ (p. 373). In addition, a conversational style of interviewing can help to put participants at ease and help them to understand that the project will allow both the participants and the researcher to learn from one another.
Ethnographic interviews should attempt to achieve a level of intimacy between the interviewer and the interviewee, where the participants feel comfortable not only to share stories with the interviewer, but also their concerns about the project, knowing that their perspectives will be heard and respected. Feminist researchers do not take for granted the effect their presence and participation has not only on the outcomes of ethnographic projects but also on the lives of their participants; so, putting participants at ease during interviews and assuring them that you will do all you can to represent them accurately, protect them, and continue to involve them in all phases of the project is very important. I took a feminist approach to this research and went into the field with an understanding of the significance of my presence and how my participation might affect the outcomes.