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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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I think sports is one of those areas where you can sort of, you don‘t ignore the negative, but at the same time you can accentuate the positive. […] I think it‘s only natural to focus on the winning teams or a player who is good. I mean, you‘re probably not going to want to have people read about a team that is 0 and 20. I mean, would you have to report their record at some point? Sure, to be fair, but I mean if we have limited space, we‘re going to probably be reporting more positive than negative when it comes

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Executive Editor of Patuxent Publishing, Paul Milton, said that Patuxent‘s mission is to produce newspapers people need to live in their communities.

The vision for the company is to be that friendly critic, the advocate for certain things in the community. We used to call it the indispensable alternative. [That] was the buzz phrase around here for the longest time, and what we mean by that is that we want to be something a good citizen in the community can‘t live without. If you want to know what‘s going on in Laurel, you know, you read our newspaper.

As ―friendly‖ as the newspapers may claim to be, as Milton said, one of their primary roles remains that of the ―critic.‖ Often times, when negative news is reported, it is often viewed as inaccurate by sources and community members

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become historical records for towns like Laurel. Theresa, 59, pointed out that early editions of the Leader, which focused on mainly positive news, were likely leaving out important, though perhaps negative, stories that may have impacted the town. Those stories are now lost. So, comprehensive, accurate coverage is crucial in community journalism. The next section deals with the perceptions of accuracy in reporting held by Laurel city government officials and Laurel journalists, alike.

Accuracy in reporting The Gazette seemed to fare better on accuracy than did the Leader, according to the members of Laurel city government. According to Fredrick Smalls, city council member, there have been fewer issues with The Gazette when it comes to getting the story ―right.‖ All of the members of Laurel city government reported being misquoted at one point or another by members of the local press. Jan Robison said she‘s usually anxious to pick up the newspapers, especially if she thinks they may have quoted her. ―I‘m always anxious to see what I said,‖ she said with a laugh. ―Sometimes, it‘s not even recognizable.‖ Kristie Mills, 60, called the coverage ―sporadic in terms of content and accuracy.‖ She went on to say that, ―sometimes, you‘re not sure they [reporters] were at the same meeting you were at.‖ Gwendolyn Glenn, reporter for the Leader, recounted an instance when she broke a story about a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) for the Laurel Mall

–  –  –

public knowledge.

[The mayor] was upset that we broke that story because residents were upset because they didn‘t even know that they were going to ask for the tax break. […] So, then he wrote a long letter to the editor and we printed it. But to me, it‘s not personal. It‘s just professional.

Donna Crary, 50, city council member, agreed that her relationship with the local press is professional, but she said that members of city council should feel comfortable interacting with the press and vice versa.

I try to treat the journalists as people. I think that is very important. I think in a small town, you need to be able to discuss things with them. […] I think it‘s enjoyable and there should be a level of relaxation, and I think that you should be able to have a conversation with them and say, ‗You know, so and so, print the pertinent part.‘ Gwendolyn Glenn touched on this issue, citing times when she has written stories that upset members of the city government, who then became less accessible to her. While the mayor is sometimes difficult in this regard, she said she finds city council and the rest of the city‘s department heads to be very accessible, even in the face of coverage with which they may disagree or be upset about.

Mike Leszcz, councilperson at large, however, mentioned times when he‘s been so upset by a story that he has refused to talk to journalists. When he feels they‘ve taken sides or presented a biased or skewed view of a situation or meeting, he has been curt with reporters.

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newspaper reporter—and if you ask them—I‘m pretty forthcoming. Ask me a question and I‘ll give you the answer. I‘ll give you my reason why.

But there have been times, when I felt that they weren‘t doing the right thing for the council, the mayor, the administration, and for the citizens of Laurel. […] So, there have been times when I have not spoken to the

–  –  –

He will always say ―yes‖ or ―no‖ because he said he feels by not talking to the press, he would be ―abusing the public‖ who wants to know how their councilperson feels on a particular issue.

In order to communicate more directly his thoughts, feelings and agendas to the citizens of Laurel, the mayor writes a blog called Laurel Straight Up. City council members have started an online newsletter. Fredrick Smalls said that they decided to start the newsletter when they heard reaction from citizens claiming they were uninformed about candidates for Laurel government positions.





We‘ve realized that there is a need for us to communicate and this is not an effort to get votes the next time we run for election, but it‘s an effort to honestly get information out. … It‘s strictly focused on what‘s happening in the city and the activities of the council. This is a direct response to the comments/criticism that we actually got after our last election when people said, ‗We didn‘t know who the candidates were. We didn‘t know who was running. We didn‘t know when the election was, where.‖ … So

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with our community as possible.

Melanie Dzwonchyk, editor of the Leader, described the blog and newsletter as efforts at positive PR.

I think that often the city thinks that they should have more control over what is reported about their city, because they are very much into image control, which rightly they should be. Who else should care more about the image of the city? Whereas, we may not agree with that, and we think our citizens need to know the good, the bad and the ugly. If you were to compare the newsletter that maybe the mayor would put out, of course he‘s going to champion all the positives and we do, too.

She continued, saying again that the role of the Leader is to report the news fairly and accurately.

I think in the eyes of the city government they have felt that the paper probably hasn‘t supported them, but the paper does not exist to be their mouthpiece or to be their friend. That‘s not what we do. Contrary to popular beliefs, we do not accept bribes, we do not sit down and decide based on our personal desires or prejudices what we‘re going to do. I know people will attribute that to all media. And that very much is not the case at all. I have to tell people point blank, this is not the case. We run

–  –  –

And, though the Mayor may not like the coverage, he said that he understands the newspapers role and that journalists have a job to do. ―No politician is going to

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job to do and I may not like it sometimes, but I understand.‖ Indeed, many of my other participants agreed the checks and balances, or watchdog role, of the two local newspapers is important. Theresa, 60, Old Town

resident, pointed out just how important the watchdog role of the newspaper is:

When the newspapers disappear in the community, there‘s nobody holding your elected officials accountable. There‘s no one to look at the development … nobody looking at those developers and saying, ‗Is there a financial tie between so and so and so and so?‘ […] You can have Sunshine Laws from here to next year, but as a citizen, I don‘t have the time to do the work of a reporter; I have another job. And, I worry that the whole issue of accountability is going to disappear and the blogosphere is

–  –  –

But, community newspapers do more than watch over city government—or, at least they should, according to participants. Chapter 7 has more on the blogosphere.

Content falling short, audiences ignored Several of my participants suggested that the newspapers are not living up to their potential. For some, the content is lacking in a big way. According to Julie, 22, college student and resident of Old Town Laurel, she finds little in the newspapers that is relevant or interesting. She told me that she tends to look at the front page story of the paper and then ―make[s] fun of it.‖ When I asked her

why she makes fun of it, she explained:

–  –  –

being covered. It‘s just frustrating. So there‘s developments … Laurel is a growing city and a lot of that, I think, is happening without really a close

–  –  –

Brian, 21, agreed with Julie and she continued, ―It doesn‘t seem like they try to make the connection for you across departments and things like that … There‘s not a whole lot of follow up with the story.‖ Lara, 67, resident of South Laurel, said that she has seen the quality and size of the Leader diminish, adding ―I don‘t know who‘s writing the editorials but they don‘t seem as thoughtful.‖ Nate, 64, Old Town resident, has been reading the Leader since he was a boy. He said that compared to stories written by former editor and owner Gertrude Poe, the articles today don‘t seem to have a great deal of ―substance.‖ Sam, 44, a Russett resident, said that he reads neither the Leader nor The Gazette with any consistency. ―Everything that‘s in there is not something that relates to me at all … None of the stuff that‘s in there interests me,‖ he said. Not having children or any connection to the schools, he said that for him little of the content related to local schools and sports is of interest. Julie, 22, held the perception that the Leader is geared more toward an older audience. ―It‘s written by older people; it‘s not written by young people yet.‖ She continued, ―I think it‘s great for an older audience, and it‘s kind of fuddy duddy.‖ Gina, 20, said that she‘d like to see more content geared toward younger Laurel residents, like a ―What‘s Hot‖ or a ―What‘s Happening‖ section, which highlights restaurants or

–  –  –

neither newspaper carries enough of this type of content.

For other residents of Laurel, the lack of relevant content is more significant. Pastor Segundo Mir pointed out that there is really no local print media geared toward the Hispanic, non-English reading population. He said that when he came to Laurel, back in the 1989, the only Spanish media was radio. Mir hosts his own radio show, ―Donde Viva Lamore,‖ or ―Where the love lives‖ on AM 900. But, still today, no local Laurel print media provides content for the Spanish speaking audience. ―I would like to have a Hispanic corner [in the newspapers] and every week, to write a small article,‖ he said. He even provided me with a long list of topics the articles could cover. The list is available in Appendix 9. He continued, saying that the large population of Hispanics do not read the newspaper, many because they cannot read English.

Most of the people take the Laurel Leader and The Gazette and go to the trash. They‘ll never read it. Some people have time, most of the people, my Hispanic people are working too hard. Many of them don‘t read English, so what they do with it? …When they come home they are very tired. They prefer to sit down and watch the movie, watch the news, and they [television news] don‘t talk about Laurel. They are talking about everywhere. I know what is going on everywhere but in Laurel sometimes.

He said that the newspapers need to do better and they should ―write in the language of the people, in a language they can understand‖ because they are

–  –  –

of thousand of people who live in the area.‖ Melanie Dzwonchyk, editor of the Leader, said that reaching all potential audiences is something that is always on her mind.

I‘ll be standing in line at the grocery store and I‘ll think, wow, we spend so much time researching news, this issue or a particular news items, I felt like it was so important that people know, but I wonder if they would just rather know what churches are having the bizarre this weekend or why they are knocking down part of the school or what is that new construction going on. You can‘t, you can‘t bring everything to everybody.

Gwendolyn Glenn agreed that you cannot reach every person in the audience.

She cited the public journalism movement, where newspapers more actively work with the community to bring them the news they desire. She said she never ―jumped on that bandwagon‖ because she ―didn‘t think that … coverage should

be led by what people [want].‖ She continued:

You‘re not going to reach everybody, and number two, some groups are going to feel left out and you may miss stories because people don‘t want to hear about that. Just because people don‘t want to hear about that doesn‘t mean it‘s not news.

Many of my participants, however, were vocal about the state of the Leader, especially since it packed up and moved its office ten miles north to Columbia.

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