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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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1959. The newspaper began in Gaithersburg, Maryland at the hand of Rockville resident Earle Hightower. During their housing search, Hightower and his wife struggled to ―find a newspaper with Gaithersburg real estate listings‖ (The Gazette—A history). So, they began the four-page newspaper to fill this information gap shortly after moving to Gaithersburg. After one year, Hightower turned the paper over to business partner Nat Blum, who doubled its size and later sold it to private owner John Panagos—―a media-savvy advertising veteran of the now-defunct Washington Daily News‖—in 1966 (The Gazette—A history).

Coverage and distribution area expanded, as did local content, to reach Rockville, Potomac, Poolesville, and Damascus. In 1979, however, after many successful and profitable years, Panagos ―burned out,‖ and again the paper changed hands, this time to Davis L. Kennedy. Kennedy saw an opportunity to expand The Gazette, by creating ―distinct Gazette editions‖ for Rockville, Germantown,

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fee, distributing the newspapers free to readers, which exploded their circulation numbers from 38,000 to 200,000 and allowed for more advertising revenue, which meant thicker papers. In 1992, Kennedy sold ―an 80-percent stake‖ in the newspaper to the Washington Post Co., which bought him out completely just one year later (The Gazette—A history).

Under the Post, The Gazette continued to grow and change. Color pictures began gracing front pages of all editions as early as 1994. The company consolidated newsrooms in Gaithersburg and bought Comprint, a printing company. It launched additional editions in Wheaton, Kensington, and Takoma Park. Today, Comprint has relocated to Laurel. The Gazette continued to grow, and in 1996 stretched into Fredrick County. In 1997, the Gazette moved into Prince George‘s County, establishing even more editions of the weekly newspaper, which have more than 200,000 circulation at present (The Gazette—A history). According to its publisher, Frank Abbott, Prince George‘s county presented a unique market for community newspapers; many of its towns were not being served (Abbott, personal interview, April 29, 2009). In 1998, the Post began publishing the Laurel edition of The Gazette.

Editors and executives at The Gazette were not interested in participating in my research. An interview with its publisher, Frank Abbott, provided only a small, partial glimpse into the history and mission of the newspaper. Nor do clip files exist on the history of The Gazette at the Laurel Historical Society. As a result, many details surrounding the start of the Laurel edition and its staff are

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website. The Laurel edition does have an editor, as well as several steady reporters who cover business, education, and other community news. The paper also has a few community columnists. Abbott admitted that there is some turnover with the entry level journalists who cover the town, but the editors remain more consistent. Vanessa Harrington, the Prince George‘s County editor, has been with The Gazette since it moved into Prince George‘s County in the late 1990s (Abbott, personal interview, April 29, 2009). Unlike the Laurel Leader, The Gazette infuses county as well as local news into each of its editions. So, each week, readers who pick up the Laurel edition of The Gazette will see some Laurel stories, but will see many stories from surrounding towns as well. The Gazette, at least during the time of the fieldwork for this study, did not publish any content from Laurel community columnists, though they did consistently publish a community column from a writer from Savage, just north of Laurel.

According to Abbott, people reading any edition of The Gazette are not only interested in news local to their town; readers are also interested in what‘s going on in the towns nearby, as happenings there can impact them. Plus, it‘s a profitable business model; The Gazette can share stories, using fewer reporters and generating multiple editions.

According to its website, ―what makes The Gazette unique is that every community in the counties we cover has its own hometown newspaper with its own editor and reporters‖ (Welcome to The Gazette). According to CEO Chuck Lyons, The Gazette‘s mission is ―to provide the community with great

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there will be a need for us to exist‖ (The Gazette—A history).

Other media in Laurel Laurel does not support its own news radio or televisions stations, and most of the existing television news coverage is regional. Five participants reported listening to WTOP, Washington‘s only all-news radio station. Nine participants reported watching television news, though few specified if that news was regional or national. The Laurel Cable Network Foundation, Inc. has served Laurel with public access television for the past 22 years; residents of Laurel can access it from channel 71 on Comcast and 12 on Verizon FiOS (History of the Laurel Cable Network Foundation, Inc., 2009). Only six participants reported watching the Laurel Cable Network channel.

In addition, both the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun are considered ―local‖ papers; twenty-nine participants reported reading the Post, while 16 reported reading the Sun. In all, 16 participants reported reading both the Post and the Sun.

State of community journalism in Laurel Both the Leader and The Gazette have been operating in Laurel as competitors for more than ten years. The Leader holds the reputation of being the ―hometown‖ newspaper, as many of my participants put it. The Gazette is certainly a newcomer, but many Old Towners, like G. Rick Wilson, who grew up with the Leader, refer to it negatively as a ―Johnny come lately‖ newspaper. Both papers have audiences, though The Gazette has gained a larger audience as the

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Leader‟s transition from independent ownership to corporate ownership as the point of ―change‖ for the newspaper. Melanie Dzwonchyk, editor of the Leader, acknowledged the perception among community members that the paper has changed: ―People will say, ‗Oh, it‘s so different from the days in the 60s and 70s when Gertrude Poe was the editor.‖ I heard this perception from several of my participants. Lara, 67, a resident of South Laurel for 31 years, recalled the transformation: ―It was interesting to see the newspaper change. Gertrude was very much of a lady and the news was presented in a very lady-like fashion.‖ Mike Leszcz, 63, Old Town resident and city council member, said that the Leader, for the past twenty years, has been lacking in objectivity: ―Sometime I think in the Leader they tend to take sides. Or they take the side that‘s going to create the most commotion.‖ Regardless of where my participants fell—on the side of the Leader or The Gazette—they had strong feelings about the state of community journalism in Laurel. The remainder of this chapter explores issues of editorial content and advertising, along with one of the most pressing hot topics in Laurel that emerged during my research—the Laurel Leader‟s move from its Main Street office to a consolidated Patuxent Publishing office ten miles north in Columbia, Maryland.

Content important measure of “community” in community papers My participants had a lot to say about what they like and don‘t like about what they see in their two local papers. And, Paul Milton, 49, Executive Editor of

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that people don‘t like.

There is a certain affection that people have for their community papers; in fact, I‘m willing to bet that. … If we do something wrong, someone will call me up to yell at me, but they‘ll scold me like I‘m their child, and they‘ll do that because … like you would say to your child, ‗I expected more out or you.‘ And it‘s because they feel ownership in the papers that we have and they don‘t believe that it‘s owned by anybody. They believe

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Depending on their point of view—local or regional—participants had varying tastes when it came to preferring one paper over the other, though 36 of my participants reported reading both publications either in print or online.37 Often, one of the first distinctions they made during our conversations was that the Leader was the ―hometown‖ paper, focusing only on Laurel news, while The Gazette was a ―county‖ paper, and had only a few pages of news focused specifically on Laurel, while the rest of the paper focused on Prince George‘s County news. According to Frank Abbott, publisher of The Gazette, reporting only Laurel news was never part of the strategy when they began their venture in Laurel. He also called The Gazette a ―county‖ paper.

We never considered [cutting the regional news] and upping [the Laurel news]. That was the Laurel Leader‟s business decision, but we, I don‘t 37 One participant, Elizabeth Leight, community columnist for the West County Gazette and Russett resident, reported reading neither the Leader nor The Gazette. The three remaining participants did not complete the pre-interview questionnaire. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of my participants reported reading both newspapers on a weekly basis.

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people that care about that in Laurel, or what goes on in Bowie. […] That‘s part of our structured newspapers. We apply that in all the county

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Even Laurel Leader community columnist Mike McLaughlin acknowledged that for reporting county news, The Gazette does a better job. And, such reporting is important because ―the county decisions affect us all,‖ he said. Donna Crary, 50, city council member, said that the county news The Gazette provides serves as a way to connect Laurel to surrounding areas on which it reports. Sam, 44, of Russett, agreed that more tri-county news would be relevant to residents of Laurel, as Laurel stretches across three counties.

Executive Editor for Patuxent Publishing, Paul Milton, explained that the Leader‟s mission is provide local, community news that readers can‘t get from any other source.

If we drill down to the Laurel level and probably even deeper and in the content in Laurel, we understand that people in Columbia probably don‘t care a whole lot about Laurel in the community sense or at least not to the level that we think the people of Laurel do. So you drill down to that level so that we sort of weeded out the stuff that‘s not pertinent to your day to day life and that‘s the mission of these papers, is to make sure that we can provide that level of detail that you‘re not going to get from a major metropolitan daily or that you‘re not going to get from a regional

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columnist for the Leader, confirmed Milton‘s comments when she told me that she simply doesn‘t care for a county perspective.

[The Gazette] is a bit of a thicker paper, but like I said, it‘s not all about Laurel and I don‘t care about that other stuff. I just don‘t and I don‘t think other people do either for the most part, I don‘t think, maybe there‘s a few people but most people don‘t care about it.

Other, more staunch local news junkies, like G. Rick Wilson, made no qualms about expressing their dislike for The Gazette.

We all kind of laugh at [The Gazette]. Cause it‘s really county news with three articles about the city thrown in, so people are just offended by that, you know? They would rather it be Laurel news with a little bit of county

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Others, like Pastor Segundo Mir, said he sees value in both papers, and compared reading the two to watching CNN or MSNBC. ―I think both are good resources … each one gives different emphasis on news,‖ he said. But, before taking a more in-depth look at what participants had to say about the weekly content, a look at the average make-up of the paper in 2009 is in order.

Content in the Leader Laurel residents with keen observation will have noticed that the paper is literally shrinking. During the time this study was conducted, the size of the paper on which the news is printed was reduced by one inch. The paper carried fewer and fewer stories. According to Melanie Dzwonchyk, the weekly target

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that at times, ads have comprised nearly 70% of the paper. Most weeks, there are few, if none, of the ―people news‖ staples that were once the ―top news‖ during Poe‘s tenure, like engagement, wedding and birth announcements. Obituaries, however, are published in every issue, usually taking up an entire page of the newspaper.38 The opinion page rarely has space for both an editorial and letters to the editor because of ad placements on those pages, so readers usually receive one or the other. The front page is usually graced by a large photograph with a caption that teases an inside story; the top news story and a sidebar of teaser headlines also appear on page 1. Two or three news stories are included in the paper each week. Usually, these stories focus on city government news or education, as those are the two beats the two Leader reporters cover most regularly. Often, feature stories are mixed into the bunch, showcasing the residents of Laurel who are doing things in the community or beyond. Shorter news, city, education, and business briefs are also included, ranging from two to twelve column inches, on average. A crime log, which reports crimes reported within the Greater Laurel area, is a weekly staple. Neighborhood columns, written by six paid correspondents living in the six sections of Laurel, are included each week, though not from every neighborhood; on average, two to three are published each week. These stories include the most ―people‖ news. Each paper has at least one sports story with a photograph in the center of the paper, along with local high school and pee wee sports scores. The community section of the paper includes a 38 Upon review of a draft of this work, Melanie Dzwonchyk noted that ―In 2009, death notices began being handled by the classifieds department as paid inserts and there are [now] fewer obits than when they were free.‖

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engagements and weddings when available. The rear of the paper is filled with real estate advertisements and classifieds.

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