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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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Content in The Gazette The Gazette looks like this: now a broadsheet, the weekly features two sections, one that houses local and regional news and editorials, the other typically either a guide to arts and entertainment or a local sports section.39 Page one of the front section, which makes clear that it is the ―Laurel‖ edition directly under The Gazette masthead, usually features a large color photograph and three to four news stories. Most weeks, at least two of those stories are local to Laurel;

the others are often news from Prince George‘s County or one of the towns surrounding Laurel, like Savage.

Inside the paper, regular features of the front section include a community calendar, which lists upcoming events and ―best bets.‖ Page three features the ―community notebook,‖ which is written consistently by staff writer Timmy Gelles. Here, news briefs include mentions of honor rolls and dean‘s lists, award winners, students of the month, local contests and high achievers. These are usually specific to Laurel, though some County mentions do sneak in. Pages four and five follow with more ―Community News,‖ though here articles are longer and again, are a mix of both Laurel and surrounding towns‘ news. Also included here are the Laurel and County police blotter and, sporadically, a column from a 39 The order of these parts, however, varies from week to week. For instance, one week, local news and A&E news may appear in the front section, while sports and regional news appear in the second; another week, local and regional news may appear in section one, sports and A&E in section two.

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to the editor.

The remaining sections of the paper, in any given week, may include ―Regional News,‖ ―Arts and Entertainment,‖ ―Business Watch,‖ ―Home,‖ ―Community Spirit,‖ ―What‘s Up‖ (which includes club activities and volunteer opportunities) ―Dining,‖ ―Movies,‖ and ―Sports‖ (though it should be noted that a section might encompass only one page). In all cases, a majority of these stories are regionally focused. The youth sports tend to be more locally focused, and every now and again, one of the stories in these back sections will have a Laurel focus; usually, though, they are about surrounding communities in Prince George‘s County, such as Bowie, Beltsville, and Savage, or take a broader county angle. The paper is rounded out by several pages of classified ads, which are regional as well.

Desired local content—or lack thereof While nearly all of the journalists, editors and newspaper executives I spoke with agreed that they do not see themselves in competition with one another, readers clearly thought otherwise, as most talked about one newspaper in comparison with the other. Council members Mike Leszcz and Fredrick Smalls, said they read The Gazette for the news content. Ellen, 80, and Olivia, 84, both lifelong residents of Laurel, said that as of late, they find more news content in The Gazette rather than in the Leader, though they read both cover to cover each week. Doing so, they said, gives them the most accurate picture of what‘s 40 One of the most regular columns is from Savage, which is a town north of Laurel.

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is often corrected by another in the other paper.

Ellen and Olivia find the obituaries in both newspapers among the most important local content. Several other participants, including council member Jan Robison, 59, Main Street Pharmacy owner Joan Kim, 39, and Toucan Taco owner Ginger Reeves, 46, agreed. Both Joan Kim and Ginger Reeves cited using the obituaries to learn when regular customers passed away so that they could send flowers and condolences to the families. Lara, 67, reported collecting the unread newspapers lying around town so that she could clip out obituaries or stories and send them to friends.

Other participants found the crime logs useful. Brian, 21, a Laurel police

officer, uses the crime log to help him with his job:

I‘m going to see where a lot of crimes are happening so when I‘m on the street and if it‘s a slow night or something or a slow day I can kind of hang out in that area and try to do some proactive policing.

But, in all, most of my participants complained about the lack of content in the Leader. In fact, participants seemed most anxious to talk about the Leader rather than The Gazette. Many expressed their disappointment in the current state of the paper. When I asked Jan Robison, city council member and Old Town resident, how long the Leader stays around her house after it arrives on Thursday morning, she told me that it‘s usually into the recycle bin by Friday. She said, in a whisper, as if she didn‘t want others to hear, ―It doesn‘t take a whole lot to read it.‖ Laurel Leader community columnist Christine Folks referred to it as being ―scrawny.‖

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when Francis P. Curley was editor. ―I don‘t know how he paid for it, but you know, it was just massive … We‘ll never get back to that,‖ he said. Clearly an advocate of the Leader, he did say that, given their resources, the Leader is doing

a great job, but they simply don‘t have enough resources:

We don‘t get enough stories in a given edition of the paper. There‘s just not enough there. […] They‘ve only got a couple reporters and one editor.





They‘re down to one editor with the latest changes and it‘s amazing that

–  –  –

Rick is referring to the downsizing of the staff as a result of attrition, as mentioned earlier. Husband and wife Nate and Anne, 64 and 62 respectively, also acknowledged reader‘s affection for—and also disappointment with—the Leader.

Anne: A lot of people tend to look for the Leader before they look for The Gazette because the Leader‟s been around for much longer, and I‘m hearing comments from people in my office, you know, they just think it‘s terrible, you know, the Leader, which is sad.

Nate: A sad joke … masquerading as a newspaper.

Nate—who is somewhat of a local history buff—brought many old copies of the Leader to our interview. He leafed through them as we talked, and concluded that one of the biggest things missing from the Leader and The Gazette is the human interest stories. Fredrick Smalls, city council member, agreed.

There are a number of what I would consider sometimes human interest stories, they just get ten lines of print in the local paper where some stories

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they‘re the stories that will cause people to stop and read.

Jan Robison, 59, city council member, described wanting more ―hometown news,‖ which she described as ―things going on with the kids and the schools‖ and the sports teams.

Anne, 62, suggested that the Leader is more likely to report negative news than positive, human interest news.

They‘re not getting as much attention basically, the human interest stories.

I mean, things happen in the community instead of [reporting that] on the front page they might dwell on something negative and you have to look really hard to see if they wrote anything about maybe a community event that happened. [Community events are] a good thing and they should‘ve had pictures or at least more coverage on it.

My participants, then, expressed a tension regarding the role of the community newspaper—as a supporter of the local community or as a reporter of the news.

The next section explores these tensions.

Community paper as PR tool or newspaper?

As expected, my participants had differing views on the role of the community newspaper when it came to supporting and reporting—especially the local politicians and journalists. The majority of local Laurel city politicians I spoke with seemed to agree that local papers should promote the good happening in the community, though at present, they said the negative news outweighs the

–  –  –

readers expect positive news.

It [the Leader] started out as a small town newspaper and thus you would like to read stories that are talking about some of the positive things, for example, [that] are going on in Laurel High School, not the story that the principal reported that 50% of the students are failing. That‘s fair reporting. I‘m not saying that that shouldn‘t [be reported], but to balance that … talk about some of those kids that are doing extraordinary things in

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Smalls acknowledged that this type of reporting may not sell the papers, but those positive stories are the kind people like to read. Jan Robison agreed, but went further to suggest that Leader reporters seek out negative news to put into that paper.

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just very good friends, but I think they look for bad and promote [it]. It‘s better since Melanie‘s been [editor]. […] Nothing against Joe [former

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Jan‘s reference to The Post had a negative connotation here, suggesting that big city daily newspapers tend to report more negative than positive news. Craig Moe, mayor of Laurel, said that much good is happening in the community— good that is the result of the work of Laurel city government—doesn‘t make it into the newspaper.

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is what sells. And, I think we do a lot of good things here and I don‘t think they put in it. … When I was growing up… I remember getting a trophy and the Laurel Leader and others would come and take their picture … They don‘t do that, you don‘t see that, or a check passing, as they called it […] They don‘t do that. It‘s all changed.

When I asked Mayor Moe why he thought that this kind of news was diminishing in the local papers, he cited money and the bottom line as the reason such news was cut from the paper.

But journalists at the Leader maintained that their mission is twofold.

Melanie Dzwonchyk explained.

The Leader is known to champion and promote the good, the accomplishments, the good things that are happening in our community, which are many, and to also analyze and present the more conflicting things that are happening to help people better understand some of those conflicts— because you can‘t hope to solve the conflicts and make them go away or whatever without really defining them—and to present both

–  –  –

Dzwonchyk continued, saying that the biggest part of her staff‘s job is to hold up a mirror to the community and reflect what is happening from week to week. But, she realized that often times, people want to look away from that mirror when they see bad things reflected.

–  –  –

don‘t like what they see and say, ‗Oh, bad hair day. I‘m just not going to look in the mirror and I‘m not going to worry about it.‘ Or people will read something and they will focus on … the negative aspect of an issue.

[…] It‘s perception. It‘s terrible, that perception and I understand it very clearly. That is human nature. And does that worry me? No. It really doesn‘t because I know, I mean, if we went inch for inch, I know we have more positive news than negative news. That‘s not our mission to dig up

–  –  –

Dan Schwind, 26, reporter for the Leader, agreed that community papers should contain positive news, but sometimes, the good isn‘t as newsworthy as the bad.

He explained:

Sometimes good news is soft news, you know? It‘s features and there‘s nothing wrong with those, but that‘s not always a lead story. I mean, if a school is having a science fair or a carnival, that‘s fun and that‘s cool, but if there is a shooting in that same week, what do you think people need to know more about, that there‘s a shooting in their neighborhood or that there was a carnival? So, I feel like our obligation is to, regardless of what people necessarily want we‘re supposed to provide what the big story is.

Schwind recalled a time when a resident lashed out at him while he was working to cover a murder investigation in Laurel.

I went down to talk to some folks in the neighborhood around where the body was discovered and one of the guys was absolutely disgusted with

–  –  –

afraid.‘ You know, ‗you come down here to cover this and the city sends like 20 police officers and that just scares the crap out of people and all that does is continue that cycle of fear.‘ And, ‗why don‘t you talk about the positive news? That‘s why this town gets a bad reputation.‘ Well, I don‘t know if it has that reputation, quite frankly. That was obviously frustrating. A murder in any town is news.

Schwind went on to say that the best place to report good news is in the neighborhood columns, which are written by people like Mike McLaughlin and Christine Folks, who are living in Laurel. And, both of these columnists acknowledged that the content within their columns is less than hard-hitting news.

McLaughlin referred to the content of his column as ―fluff.‖ Folks said that the majority of her content is good news about people, because ―people care about people.‖ They want to see something that they recognize. They don‘t care if it‘s just a bunch of dates and times. Those things are important too, but they also like to see their children‘s names, so and so became a grandparent, and I don‘t put a lot of that in there, but it does get sprinkled in there. I like it to be homegrown. And friends used to tease me; they used to call it my gossip column. There‘s absolutely no gossip in there, not even an ounce of gossip, but they used to tease because it was homegrown.

David Driver, sports reporter for the Leader, also acknowledged that readers want positive news, but he was a bit more direct about his perception of

–  –  –

news, whether it‘s good or bad,‖ he said. Having been a community journalist in Laurel for nearly fifteen years, Driver has learned ways to skirt around the negative news.



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