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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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On December 11, 2008, the Leader announced to readers that its office would relocate to Columbia, MD, on December 15, 2008. Trish M. Carroll, president of Patuxent Publishing and Timothy E. Ryan, president of The Baltimore Sun Media Group, which is owned by the Tribune Company and publishes the Leader, announced in a letter to readers that the Tribune Company had ―filed to restructure debt obligations under the protection of Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code‖ (―A note from the company president‖). The day before, on December 10, 2008, Melanie Dzwonchyk posted a brief article online announcing that the Leader would relocate its office to the Patuxent Publishing headquarters in Columbia (―New location, but same commitment to readers‖).

The same article appeared in the print edition the next day, on December 11, 2008 (―Leader office relocating‖).

In that article, Dzwonchyk said:

Though the mailing address and production facilities will be changing, reporters, photographers and editors will still be in the community every day, covering the kinds of news stories and neighborhood events that Leader readers and advertisers have come to expect. We know how important it is to keep a connection with the community and we pledge to continue it (―Leader office relocating‖).

During my conversations with participants, most either brought up the fact that the Leader had recently relocated or were eager to discuss it when I brought it up.

Some did not even realize that the office had relocated—and part of the reason was that the announcement came immediately ahead of the move. Even reporters

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part-time editorial assistant at the Leader, confessed that she was upset by the quick announcement.

The thing that bothered me the most, and I‘ll go out and say this, is that everything was kept so quiet and like the mayor and the other government officials didn‘t know we were going to be moving until the paper came out. […] Gwen, Dan and I were trying to talk Melanie into having a meeting with the mayor to talk about it, because we thought that he maybe would offer us a space in the city. We were hoping that something like that would happen and even an office for them to go to when they‘re in

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Mike McLaughlin, 56, Old Town resident and community columnist for the Leader, also criticized the handling of the announcement.

I wasn‘t happy with it and the way it was pulled off, you know? It wasn‘t like taking the Baltimore Colts in the middle of the night, you know, that kind of thing but I think Laurel, taking the Leader out of Main Street, it‘s

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Bob Mignon, 59, Russett resident and owner of Minuteman Press in Laurel, is one of those people. He was not shy about expressing his disappointment with not only the Leader‟s move, but also its performance.

The first few issues after that move were really weak and now it seems like it has gotten a little stronger in the last six or eight weeks, so maybe somebody is getting a message that because we are away [in Columbia]

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their case I think it might be good because they weren‘t doing anything when they were there on Main Street and maybe they‘ll do a little bit more because they think that they‘re now one step removed, but it‘s really a classic destruction of a newspaper. It‘s horrible, then they wonder why people are going other places and the reason they‘re going other places is that these people aren‘t providing the content to make themselves

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Melanie Dzwonchyk acknowledged people‘s frustration with the relocation of the Leader; some even questioned whether or not it had closed altogether. She recounted a phone call she had taken just a day before our conversation in February of 2009, when a woman from South Carolina, formerly of Laurel, called looking for someone at the Leader. When Dzwonchyk answered and asked if she could help the woman, the woman told her that the Leader had gone out of business. When Dzwonchyk told the woman she was speaking with the editor, the woman continued to insist that they had gone ―belly up,‖ or so her friends had told her. Dzwonchyk also recalled several instances when people in Laurel had approached her husband, asking him what she is up to now that there is no more Leader. She said that in reply, he said, ―She‘s working 14-hour days. I don‘t know what she‘s doing. But, putting money in the bank.‖ The perception that the Leader has gone out of business now that it has relocated to Columbia is very real, as Dzwonchyk‘s examples show. But, she said that in reality, the journalists

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Still, being located ten miles from the place you aim to cover provides challenges that even readers recognize. G. Rick Wilson, 51, Old Town resident, was also upset to learn that the Leader left town. He speculated that the move must have affected the Leader‟s ability to cover Laurel.

Geography is important. Geography is terribly important because it‘s news. So now you‘re a reporter working a story here in town, and you came in to cover [a story] and normally you would have gone back to where Red, Hot, and Blue is, right to their offices there [on Main Street] and you sit at your desk and you do whatever you‘re going to do. But now you have to drive back to Columbia. While you‘re driving back to Columbia another story comes up. How likely are you to be turning around and driving the 20 minutes back to Laurel to cover that story? It‘s got to affect it. I appreciate why they did it but it‘s got to affect it.

Fredrick Smalls, city council member, agreed that ―whether real or imagined … for a local paper not to be located locally you‘re losing something.‖ By the time journalists arrive to cover spot news, the newsworthy happening could have concluded, according to Smalls. ―I think in some cases, the reporters are relying more on when covering city council kinds of things are relying more on the video tape review than actually being there at meetings,‖ Smalls said.

And, Leader journalists Dan Schwind and Gwendolyn Glenn confirmed the challenges in our conversations. When I spoke to Schwind in mid-March

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said that he had decided he would spend Thursdays and Fridays in Laurel and Monday through Wednesday in Columbia. But, this plan could become complicated, he said, without access to the tools of his trade—a business cell phone and laptop computer. He cited the Chapter 11 filing of the Tribune Company for the lack of availability of these tools.

For right now, honestly, I spend just about every day in Columbia. You know, I come down here for interviews that I have scheduled, and usually when I‘m down here I‘ll swing by and talk to one or two other people, just to get a couple of other things knocked out of the way at the same time, but, a lot of times I just go back to Columbia because that‘s where my email is, and that‘s where my voicemail is.

Though he said the company has offered to pay him for use of his personal cell phone minutes, he prefers not to give his personal phone number out to sources.

In offering to reimburse him, he said the company is ―missing the point‖—that the journalists do not wish to use their personal phones for business purposes. ―As much as I love the people of Laurel, I don‘t want to give my cell phone out to everyone,‖ he said.

Gwendolyn cited a time when she missed a deadline because a report from the Economic Development office had been released and it could not be emailed to her. Because she was in Columbia and on a deadline, she was unable to get the report in time; the story was published that week on the web and not in print until

–  –  –

potential news by not being in town five days a week.

I think we miss things that we would see a lot just in walking around, [like] most of the crime things, accidents. Because sometimes I‘ve been down there and have run into, 198 is blocked, there‘s a major accident and I‗ll call back up and Dan has to leave from [Columbia] and go all the way down there whereas before if I was just driving around in my working and then I would call Dan he could be on the scene in five minutes because

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She also said that since the move, the journalists have been allowed more flexibility about working from Laurel or from the Columbia office. Some days, she said, she spends all of her time in Laurel. But, without office space, it is difficult to do her job. She frequently uses the Laurel Library to write and email stories back to the newsroom, but this is not always the most efficient solution, especially in the evening, when the library fills with teens who occupy all of the available computers. She recalled a recent instance when she had to call Melanie, her editor, because she had to wait twenty minutes to gain access to a computer at the library. While she waited, she hand drafted the story and then typed and sent it once she gained access.41 41 Upon review of a draft, Gwendolyn Glenn noted that since the move to Columbia, the Tribune Company has provided Leader reporters with the much needed resources to work in the field.

―Tribune has given us laptops, video cameras, air cards and business cell phones so we can work in Laurel more or at home. I rarely come into the Columbia office these days, although I have a work station there. This way, we have a greater presence in the city and I‘ve been able to be on the scene of breaking news stories and am able to observe changes in the city, such as a new restaurant opening, a business opening or closing, construction work, road closures that help commuters, etc.‖

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his job—the education beat in Laurel.

It‘s a lot harder to cover them when you can‘t just go to the school.

Dwayne Jones is a great principal, and part of the reason he is a great principal is because he doesn‘t tie himself to his phone. He‘s constantly running around the school, putting out fires left and right. As a result, he can‘t be sitting at his desk. Well, when I was at Main Street, it was four miles between the office and the school, so if I needed to talk to him, I just hopped in my car and drove over real quick and I was done. Now, it‘s a twenty miles a ride, so that‘s not something I can just hop in the car

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For David Driver, 47, part-time sports reporter for the Leader, the move hasn‘t really affected his work, as he covers pre-scheduled sporting events most frequently. But for full-time reporters Schwind and Glenn, the move to Columbia meant more than just a change in location. With all Patuxent Publishing papers working under one roof, the company has begun pooling reporters, and asking them to cover stories for several different Patuxent papers. Schwind, who said at first he enjoyed the hustle and bustle of a bigger newsroom, quickly realized the challenges.

It‘s kind of cool, because, like, wow, this is a newsroom, wow. But at the same time, this person is talking about Westminster, and I don‘t know what the hell they‘re talking about, and you know, I‘m trying to deal with Laurel. But, the other thing is that since we‘re all pooled, they‘re trying to

–  –  –

some Howard County stories, which I don‘t necessarily mind; I just feel bad because I don‘t know squat about Howard County outside of North Laurel. And, Gwendolyn, I know she‘s been working on some economic stories of Howard County. So, that‘s also obviously pulled me away from

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Pat Farmer, 65, part-time editorial assistant and South Laurel resident, agreed that the move has made her job a bit harder, but not necessarily because of the removed location. She said that as a result of the move, they are also pooling editorial assistants, and she‘s no longer part of editorial meetings she once was when the Leader maintained its own office in Laurel. ―I think it could be detrimental to the paper, because, you know, I have this investment in the community, an investment in the paper,‖ she said. Farmer lives in Laurel, as does editor Dzwonchyk, and community columnists Christine Folks and Mike McLaughlin. As residents, they have a different relationship with Laurel and the Leader than do Schwind, Driver, and Glenn, who do not live—and never have lived—in Laurel. The next section deals with issues of insider/outsider status and its effect on the coverage of Laurel.

Journalists as insiders or outsiders Since moving to Columbia, some participants now consider Leader journalists as ―outsiders,‖ even though some of them actually live in Laurel. But, even before the move, several participants said they perceived many of the Leader‟s journalists to be somewhat ―detached‖ from Laurel. Bob Mignon, 59,

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since it switched from independent to corporate ownership.

After Mrs. Poe sold [the Leader] to Patuxent Publishing, [it] really seems to have become less of a community newspaper and more of, everything is dollars and cents, I guess. And these things have to pay for themselves, but I expect certain content about the community in my newspaper and the Laurel Leader simply doesn‘t care that much about community content.

They don‘t send reporters, they don‘t report on many of the activities that take place in the Laurel community. The Gazette does more than the

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Kristie Mills, 60, Laurel city administrator, agreed that the journalists from both papers are somewhat removed from the day-to-day activities of Laurel.

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