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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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How, then, can newspapers, a mass medium, which serve a large and seemingly disparate group of people, be called community newspapers? This study grapples with this question. While this study will primarily focus on the two weekly newspapers—print media—it will also take into account other forms of media that might be used to create or sustain community in Laurel, such as the online versions of both weeklies and local blogs.

This moment in time is also particularly rich and fraught given the current state of the newspaper industry. Newspapers across the country are facing serious challenges—financial and otherwise. While the hard times seemed to be hurting only large papers while small papers flourished, many weeklies are no longer immune to the worries. As this study began, the Laurel Leader was forced to relocate its office to Columbia, Maryland—more than 10 miles north of Laurel—

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across the country, who are faced with an economic recession. Economists have predicted that the downturn will be deep and prolonged, going on longer than in 1981-1982, the longest recession in recent history (Irwin, 2008). The country was also involved in two wars—one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan—and threats to national security remain high. The coverage of the 2008 election—after which we inaugurated the first African-American, Barack Obama, to the office of President of the United States—was rife with issues race, gender, and class. At such a distinctive and challenging moment in history, the need for good journalism—journalism that not only acts as the fourth estate, but also as a concerned and involved participant in civic and community life—is great.

The main goal of this research, then, is to better understand one town and the news media it uses to stay connected, recognizing that the cultural norms and political atmosphere may affect people‘s expectations of both news media and communities. This research proceeds from the foundation of James W. Carey‘s (1989) theory of communication as ritual, which states that communication is a process through which people share, create, modify and transform culture (p.43) Typically thought of as a means of moving bits of information across space, the transmission model of communication conceives of it as a mechanism for sending and receiving information. The transmission model puts a premium on sending greater amounts of information more quickly and more efficiently across greater space. Carey‘s ritual view of communication suggests that communication—both interpersonal and mediated—is not simply a means to transmit information, but

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43).

In a ritual definition, communication is linked to terms such as ‗sharing,‘ ‗participation,‘ ‗association,‘ ‗fellowship,‘ and ‗the possession of a common faith.‘ This definition exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the term ‗commonness,‘ ‗communion,‘ ‗community,‘ and ‗communication.‘ A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of

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When applied to community journalism, Carey‘s theory suggests that news as a form of communication, and news reading as done by members of a town, can potentially draw people together by shared knowledge and culture.

Carey‘s theory is discussed in Chapter 2 and elsewhere in this dissertation.

Additionally, because Laurel is located between two major metropolitan cities, each with its own elite daily newspaper, the local news media takes on added significance. In his dissertation on electronic community media, Howley (1997) pointed out that ―no doubt a response to the increasing encroachment of global forces upon the local community, communities make use of information and communication technologies in an effort to (re)articulate local identity, culture, concerns, objectives, and experience.‖ Although Howley defines community media as media produced by citizens rather than professional journalists, his point is applicable here. Understanding the ways towns—or

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special when compared to others around them is important. Media serve to establish—or rather reinforce—boundaries; the town newspaper reports on happenings within a geographically bounded space, clearly separate from other towns surrounding it. The question still remains, however, if a town is always a community.

Significance of the study This study is significant for a variety of reasons. This project contributes to scholarly knowledge of weekly journalism—which, at present, is minimal at best. Weekly newspapers far outnumber daily metro papers. As of February, 2009, Editor & Publisher reported there were 6,055 community newspapers and only 1,408 daily papers circulating in the United States (Maddux, 2009). And, despite the fact that there are thousands more weekly newspapers and likely tens of thousands of newspaper journalists working in small markets, weekly newspapers often goes unstudied. Journalism scholarship does not accurately reflect the popularity and practice of weekly journalism.

This research also makes a contribution to community studies. Much of contemporary community studies are focusing on virtual communities. While these studies are important—in both community studies and journalism studies— we cannot abandon the physical communities, which, traditionally, are what newspapers serve often first and foremost and where people continue to reside, whether or not they have a sense of rootedness there. Furthermore, studies which examine the intersection of physical communities and online communities are

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media, such as online newspapers and blogs, to interact with communities.

This study also makes a contribution to local knowledge in Laurel. It serves as a prescription for change for newspapers in towns such as Laurel. The comments from Laurel constituents about their perceptions of the weekly papers provide new ideas for better reaching and serving the people of Laurel and other suburban towns across the country competing with major metropolitan cities for an identity of their own. They also reveal existing beliefs about civic participation in Laurel, providing an understanding of the ways news, conceptions of community, and civic participation are linked. As mentioned in the previous section, this research is also a piece of history for Laurel at a distinctive moment in time for not only Laurel, but the country, as well.

Because this study employed ethnographic methods, it also makes a contribution to methodologies of journalism studies. Popular in the 70s and 80s, ethnographic study of news media and newspapers has waned. This study could prove a revival of the method for understanding the culture of communities and local news media. Denzin (1997) advocated what he called a ―local, participatory, civic, journalistic ethnography‖ which raises consciousness, helps maintain ―the public‘s awareness of its own voice,‖ and ―promotes a form of textuality that turns citizens into readers and readers into persons who take dramatic action in the world‖ (p. 282). At a time when the realities of newspapering mean more space devoted to advertising and a shrinking news hole, as well as a plethora of new media technologies competing for consumers‘

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as to the power or their voices and may impact the ways in which they hear the voices of their fellow citizens.

Definition of terms Because this research will conclude with a definition of community as my participants understand it, I hesitate to explicate my own personal definition at the outset. Rather, I wish to offer ethnographically derived definitions based on my participants comments. My participants had a difficult time defining community, as shown in Chapter 5, which explores my participants‘ understandings of community in Laurel. And, perhaps not surprisingly, current scholarly definitions, further explored in Chapter 2‘s review of literature on community, are unsatisfying and in many instances, not useful for analyzing communities.

Even more complicating is the fact that, in reference to journalism, the terms weekly and community are often used interchangeably. Weekly journalism is often called community or small-town journalism—newspapers with circulations fewer than 50,000; radio stations with short reach; television news stations in small markets—but it also comprises small niche media outlets that target specific groups of people with particular identities and interests. Most importantly, weekly/community journalism most often focuses on local news.

According to the National Newspaper Association, ―the distinguishing characteristic of a community newspaper is its commitment to serving the information needs of a particular community,‖ and ―despite the emergence of new information technologies such as the Internet, community newspapers continue to

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informed, educated and entertained by a community newspaper every week‖ (About Community Newspapers). To define a newspaper serving a geographically bounded location as a community newspaper is to suggest that the town is, in fact, a community. This assumption, however, is risky. This study aims to better understand whether or not Laurel is a town, a community, or simultaneously both.

A definition of media is a bit easier to tie down. Media is, of course, plural for medium—a channel through which messages travel. Media include, but are not limited to, things like the newspaper, television, radio, cell phone, and computer, to name a few. While my main interest with this research is weekly newspapers and the role they play for the people they serve, I was also interested to learn from my participants what other forms of media they use to learn and communicate about Laurel. While many kinds of messages can be communicated via media, this study is concerned with what might be considered news messages—messages pertinent to a large group, or mass, rather than only a select few individuals.

Design of the study Chapter 4 outlines the methodology of this project. The study examines the relationship between Laurel, Maryland and its newspapers. The goal of this research is to define community from the perspectives of Laurel‘s citizens and stakeholders as well as to understand the role media—specifically the two competing weekly newspapers—plays in creating or sustaining community in the

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the newspaper industry is facing great challenges, especially financial ones. This case study focused on Laurel, Maryland, a town of 19,000 residents located midway between Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Ethnographic interviewing and focus groups reveal the perspectives and perceptions of the citizens and stakeholders in Laurel, Maryland regarding the town (as a community or not) and its newspapers.

Role of the researcher A desire to adhere to feminist ethics requires that I ―locate myself‖ in this project. Letherby (2003) opens her book on feminist research by acknowledging the importance of locating oneself in the research project.

In producing feminist work it is important that we recognize the importance of our ‗intellectual biography‘ by providing ‗accountable knowledge‘ in which the reader has access to details of contextually located reasoning process which gives rise to the ‗findings‘, the ‗outcomes.‘ […] Our personal biographies are also relevant to the research that we do in terms of choice of topic and method, relationship with respondents and analysis and presentation of the ‗findings‘, and this needs

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I come to this study influenced by an upbringing in two small towns— Greentown, Pennsylvania, located in the scenic Pocono Mountains near Lake Wallenpaupack, and Dickson City, Pennsylvania, located just outside of Scranton.

I also spent four years at a small, community-minded liberal arts university—

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colleagues at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, which is located just nine miles from the nation‘s capital, were interested in researching national and elite media, I‘ve always been most interested in small town, local news. Growing up, I watched my maternal grandmother‘s daily news ritual—reading the local morning and afternoon papers from cover to cover. At home, the local news station played continuously—at 5 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 10 p.m., and 11 p.m.—on our television screen; there wasn‘t much new news from program to program, yet my mother watched as if it was something she was supposed to do.

I never really noticed this influence until I was an undeclared sophomore at Wilkes University unsure of what direction my life would take. After taking a news writing course, I began writing for the weekly campus newspaper, The Beacon. Writing about the happenings on campus made me feel more connected to my university. I felt, suddenly, like an insider. I majored in communication studies and was an editor at that paper for two years. And during those two years, I learned about the successes and struggles of my school, my fellow students and my professors. I cared about the university—the community. I suddenly felt an ongoing urge to know—not just about what was happening on my campus, but also in my hometown and in the world, as well. And that‘s what newspapers can do for people and places. Keep them in the know and connected to those around them—at least I felt that way as a writer. I never really knew how others readers felt. This case study of Laurel gave me a first real glimpse into the thoughts of readers and community members.

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Carnegie Mellon University, where I would study rhetoric. But more importantly, perhaps, I felt homesick. To cure my sickness, I listened to my hometown radio station live on the Internet. Hearing familiar voices talk of traffic accidents on the highway I used to travel, or of news from surrounding towns, was comforting.



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