«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
Challenges facing Laurel Laurel is not unique in the sense that it faces challenges much like any other American city or town. Residents and elected officials of the city struggle to find ways to respect and restore its historical aspects while carrying it forward in a way that keeps it alive and flourishing. Participants often had conflicting ideas about progress and development in Laurel, suggesting that finding a balance between the way it used to be and the way it could be will require much discussion and, likely, compromise. Examples of these tensions were provided by my participants in their discussions of the lack of upscale restaurants and shopping districts, as well as in discussions of new housing and apartment developments, like Konterra. Growth—especially in the next ten years as BRAC brings more and more military families into Laurel—poses significant challenges as well as opportunities.
residents desire better dining, shopping and recreation in Laurel, and because Main Street provides a wonderful foundation for such possibilities. And, such spaces would create more opportunities for residents of Laurel to interact with one another in ways that could promote sharing and relationships, grounded in place—the conditions which are necessary for community. Furthermore, the fact that Laurel does have a longer—and some might argue richer—history than most of the neighboring towns or municipalities presents an ideal condition for a strong sense of community among residents (Selznick, 1992; Fowler, 1995).
Issues of identity in Laurel also manifest themselves in instances of crime and low graduation rates. Geographical divisions and boundaries only intensify the residents‘ desire to maintain a distinguishing image or characteristic, whether it is based on the quality of schools, amenities, representation, or history. And identity is an important part of community life for residents (Hummon, 1990).
They want to be proud to tell someone that they live in Laurel, because often, ―questions about where one lives become queries about who one is‖ (Hummon, 1990, xiv). Debating which part of Laurel has a superior identity creates divisions rather than connections among those who share a Laurel zip code.
But, perhaps the most significant challenge facing Laurel is its diversity, and especially its growing population of Hispanics, many of whom are also illegal immigrants, according to Pastor Mir. Though they are visible to those living in Laurel, the Hispanics are largely invisible, in that they are not accounted for in the census, and they are not readily brought into the fold of the community life in
well as the homeless are in need of community support, in many instances for basic needs—like shelter, employment and health care—to be met. Yet each population seems to be viewed and treated differently because of preconceived notions and prejudices.
In order to rise and meet these challenges as a community, the people of Laurel need to communicate with one another; they must share an open and honest dialogue and a willingness to work together. The next chapter deals with one very important community communication tool—the weekly newspapers.
Community journalism has a long history in Laurel, Maryland. And, presently, the two-newspaper town still looks to its papers to get Laurel news— something difficult to find through other media. This chapter explores the history of newspapering in Laurel, provides a view of contemporary community journalism there, and highlights the benefits and challenges of covering this place where more than 100,000 diverse people live and work.
History of newspapering in Laurel Laurel has a long history of newspapering. Table 8 lists all Laurel newspapers documented by Maryland State Archive‘s Newspaper Collection.
Other newspapers said to have existed, but not listed in the State Archive, include The Laurel Beacon (established 1858), the Laurel Herald (est. 1882), the Laurel Enterprise, the Laurel Review (est. 1885), and The Laurel Journal (no date available) (Poe, 1970; Dickerson, 1987). Also in operation today is The Gazette—Laurel Edition (one of the papers under examination for this study) as well as the West County Gazette, which is published by an Annapolis-based company, the Capital-Gazette, and covers news happening in Maryland City and Russet—considered to be parts of Laurel as designated by zip code.
The Laurel Leader The Free Quill (est. 1884) was the predecessor of the Leader (1897), The News Leader (1946), and finally the Laurel Leader (1980).35 In 1897, twenty-six year old lawyer James P. Curley and F.C. Dezendorf purchased the Free Quill plant and changed the paper‘s name to The Leader (Winchester & Webb, 1905, p.
137; Murchison, 1997). Curley became the paper‘s first editor. A prominent politician in Laurel, Curley used the Leader first and foremost to serve his Republican interests (Dickerson, 1987). He was elected to the House of 35 The Laurel Museum did not have files or information on the Free Quill. There is no formal record of how long most of these newspapers survived, hence the lack of end dates provided.
in 1928. According to Dickerson, ―No one, in those days, seemed to think there was anything odd about a serving politician also acting as the editor of the supposedly ‗objective‘ city newspaper‖ (1987). This conflation of journalism and politics was not unusual in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to Elliot King (2005), a journalism historian, while newspapers of this era were beginning to embrace values like truthfulness and accuracy—known to be some of the values commonly associated with objectivity—they were still closely tied to politics. Just as important as objectivity was the idea ―that the press had the duty to be politically active, to lead popular opinion, to originate causes and to achieve political ends‖ (p. 117).
Curley ran the paper for forty-two years before handing it over to G.
Bowie McCeney, a prominent local lawyer who acquired it from Curley as payment of a mortgage debt (Murchison, 1997). After scraping by as editor for six months, he hired twenty-four year old Gertrude Poe, a lawyer fresh out of law school, to take the editorship in 1939 (Murchison, 1997). Poe returned to McCeney‘s office—where she had worked previously as a legal secretary—upon graduation and expected to be offered a partnership in the firm. Instead, she was surprised with an opportunity to run the newspaper. With absolutely no newspaper experience, Poe was, at first, ‗very indignant‖ at the offer (Poe, personal interview, November 30, 2007). Poe ―never dreamed of being editor of a newspaper,‖ but ―did dream of practicing law‖ (Poe, personal interview, November 30, 2007). Perhaps because she respected McCeney, she took the
her). A one-woman show for nearly the first ten years, Poe was responsible for all aspects of publishing the newspaper, from writing and editing content, to layout and design, as well as selling the advertising to keep it afloat. She scrapped the canned copy that had previously filled the pages and traded it for original, local news (Murchison, 1997). WWII educated her on the importance of
a community newspaper:
It was the War itself that made me realize how important the community newspaper was because it was the main connection between local men in the service and their hometown and they would write to me and I would respond in a special columns that I had established for them from their letters and you know they communicated and it was a very personal—the paper itself became a very personal instrument to both the service men and to the town of Laurel and so, you know, I just I grew with the newspaper (Poe, personal interview, November 30, 2007).
In 1946, The Leader merged with the Beltsville Banner, the Bowie Register, the College Park News, and the Laurel Advertiser to become The News Leader. Poe continued to produce the paper on her own until 1980. Poe‘s News Leader of the mid to late 1940s was drastically different from today‘s Laurel Leader. Filled with ―people news,‖ readers could often find photographs of returning soldiers, wedding announcements, and Poe‘s personal column all on the front page of the eight-page broadsheet. Poe was a self-described conservative, and her newspaper reflected those beliefs. She became known around Laurel as
longevity led to those designations, but also the fact that ―she loved and championed her community‖ (Murchison, 1997). Poe believed that news media, generally speaking, focused too much on bad news. ―There are so many good people. That exposure in the paper means so much to them and their stories can inspire others,‖ said Poe (Murchison, 1997).
Poe, who had become third owner of The News Leader after McCeney‘s death in 1978, retired in 1980. In 1980, after 41 years at the helm of the newspaper, Poe sold it to Patuxent Publishing Company, which was owned at the time by Whitney Communications Co. in New York. Patuxent was owned by publisher (and lawyer by training, in keeping with the newspaper‘s ostensible tradition) S. Zeke Orlinsky. Joe Murchison took over as editor. The paper‘s name was changed to the Laurel Leader. In 1993, Orlinsky announced significant changes to the Leader, including a transition from broadsheet to tabloid style, and from subscription distribution to free distribution. With this switch to free distribution, he argued, the Leader would reach the entire Laurel community, ―enabling us to serve that community better and giving Laurel‘s people and institutions their first chance to communicate with all their neighbors on a weekly basis‖ (Olrinsky, 1993). Orlinsky said that the changes would ―make the Leader a better paper‖ and help to ―make Laurel a stronger community‖ (Orlinsky, 1993). After more than a century of service, ―your newspaper has never been more dedicated or more prepared to play a valuable role in community life,‖ Orlinsky claimed.
which was owned by the Times Mirror Company. S. Zeke Orlinsky, then president of Patuxent Publishing Co., said he was optimistic about the change in ownership, saying, ―I‘m confident that we will continue to operate autonomously and to speak out independently‖ (Orlinsky, n.d.). Murchison acknowledged that newspapers ―have to change to stay healthy‖ (Murchison, n.d.). He noted the various changes the Leader experienced throughout its 100 years, concluding ―I‘m not promising a golden age [as when Poe was editor]. I‘m just expecting the Leader to continue as a solid and vital institution in this community‖ (Murchison, n.d.). In 2000, both companies merged with the Tribune Company, whose most notable paper is the Chicago Tribune.
Founded in 1847, the now-troubled Tribune Company has a long history in newspapering, radio and television. Like the rest of the newspaper industry, the Tribune is facing serious financial difficulty. Since its conversion to a private company upon purchase by real estate mogul Sam Zell in late 2007, the Tribune Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection just one year later (Gomstyn, 2008). The trickle-down effect of these financial woes is immediately noticeable for anyone following the Laurel Leader with consistency. In just the last year (2009), the tabloid‘s size shrank by one inch. While it regularly furnished 36-48 pages each week in 2008, in 2009, it averaged 24 pages. The news hole and the staff—through attrition—have shrunk as well. The Laurel Leader appears, to many participants, to be struggling.
had four editors since it was taken over by Patuxent Publishing in 1980: Karen Yengich, Joe Murchison, Pete Pichaske, and Melanie Dzwonchyk (the editor at the time of this research). Yengich began as a reporter working under Poe at the News Leader. On her first day, she covered one of the most infamous Laurel news stories—the shooting of 1972 presidential candidate George Wallace at the Laurel Shopping Center.36 When Poe retired and the News Leader changed hands, Yengich was named editor, and held the post for ten years before leaving to take another editor position within Patuxent Publishing, with the Owings Mills Times (Murchison, 1997). Joe Murchison was then named editor, after serving as a reporter at the Leader since 1985, and remained at the helm until 2007, when Pete Pichaske, who had also been working at the Leader—first as a reporter and then as assistant editor—took over. Less than two years later, he moved on to edit two other publications under the Patuxent Publishing umbrella—the Howard County Times and Columbia Flyer.
In late 2008, Melanie Dzwonchyk, 53, a long-time resident of Laurel who began her tenure with the Leader as the Old Town neighborhood columnist, stepped into the editor role. Dzwonchyk has served in many capacities at the Leader, including editorial assistant, and features editor. With no formal journalism training but an early career in publishing, Dzwonchyk brings to the paper nearly 30 years of life experience as a resident of Laurel. Today, in 2010, 36 One of the bullets lodged in Wallace's spinal column, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Three others were wounded in the shooting and also survived.
assistant, one part-time and two full-time reporters.
The newspaper has seen significant change—in organization, look, content and size. Unlike the days when Poe ran all aspects of the newspaper—from ad sales, story writing, and design—today‘s Leader staff is more specialized. Editors edit. Reporters write. Patuxent photographers take pictures. Patuxent designers lay out the pages. Patuxent ad reps sell ads. Everyone sticks to his or her duty, without much overlap.
The Gazette—Laurel Edition The Gazette is a newcomer to Laurel, but has operated in Maryland since