«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
She cited a recent Martin Luther King, Jr. event, held on a weekend. While Gwendolyn Glenn wrote a personal story about her experience with MLK day, she said none of the local reporters—from either the Leader or The Gazette— actually came to the event to cover it. Mills said that when events are held on weekends, reporters generally don‘t come out—but they should. Covering Laurel, she said, is an around the clock job, and the journalists need to be available whenever important things are happening in town. ―Like me,‖ she said, ―they made a career choice.‖42 42 Upon review of a draft, Gwendolyn Glenn responded to Mills‘ claims that the Leader doesn‘t cover many of the community events that they organize. She said, ―One reason [that we don‘t cover the events] is that we are not made aware of many of them, even though I call their offices regularly to ask what‘s going on and have asked to be kept in the loop of events, especially where the mayor‘s schedule is concerned. Unlike the new Prince George‘s County Executive, Rushern Baker, who sends out his daily itinerary, the mayor does not, even though we‘ve made this request over the years I‘ve been here. Often we are not informed of speeches he‘s making, testimony he‘s
Friends of the Laurel Library, said that she has a difficult time getting reporters from the Leader to write stories about her events. The Gazette, she said, is much more likely to contact her. Anne, who works in one of the Laurel city government offices, said that she‘s no longer sure who is covering what‘s happening in her office because Melanie Dzwonchyk, who is now the editor, used to be the journalist who contacted her regarding various happenings before shifting, attrition, and the move took place. But, the issue of journalists as insiders or outsiders has long been an issue for community journalists and was addressed most notably by scholars and proponents of the public journalism movement. Merritt (1997) contended that journalists should worry less about the need for separation from public life, and think more about the important connections they have to it.
Gwendolyn Glenn, who came to the Laurel Leader after working stints at NPR, CNN and the Washington Post, doesn‘t see her role as a reporter any differently now that she works for a small, community newspaper. She said that her job is ―no different from anywhere else I‘ve ever worked [at the] national level, international level; it‘s to do the story. Do an objective story, check the validity of the story. That part I think is always the same.‖ Gwendolyn, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, just north of Washington, D.C., said she doesn‘t consider herself to be part of the community in Laurel.
giving on legislation elsewhere, etc. That would be good information to have in advance so we could send a photographer, which is also another reason we sometimes are not able to cover city events—photographers are not available, especially on weekends when they are often shooting sports events.‖
I‘m known in the community. People know me, people say hi and people call me with ideas but I just feel to be part of a community you have to live there. […] I don‘t know how you can really be a part of a community if you don‘t live here. And that‘s not to say you can‘t do your job well. I don‘t think you have to live here to be a reporter.
Melanie Dzwonchyk said that being involved in various activities and organizations in Laurel—and being neighbors with some of the city council members—puts her in a somewhat difficult position as the ―friendly critic,‖ as Paul Milton described. Many of the local people I talked to referred to Melanie by her first name and knew she was the editor of the Leader. Several reported being friends with her and feeling very comfortable talking with her. But Donna Crary, 50, city council member, said that, while she feels comfortable interacting with Melanie, she finds some of the other reporters from the Leader and The Gazette to be ―somewhat detached.‖ She said: ―I think that the reporters can go to certain people all the time for comments,‖ adding that she is not one of those people. But, she said, she does pay attention to the dynamics among the other council members and who the reporters ask for comment. Her fellow council member, Jan Robison, pointed out that turnover among community reporters proves challenging for the coverage, because when new reporters come to cover the city government meetings, they are not aware of the ―dynamics‖ and ―who to go to and who will talk to you if you want.‖
details about covering the community are not only difficult to learn, but take time
and effort. He explained:
If you want to learn what‘s going on, you know, with the Laurel city council, you can‘t just go to the council meetings and the work sessions.
You‘ve kind of got to go to those, the barbecues they do and things like that or any of their events because that‘s when you get to talk to the city council members out of their element. And with schools, you can talk with teachers in the class but it‘s better to sort of, I found with this community, [to] talk to them when they‘re doing their sort of actual activities with their kids or you know, the way I really got to know how to work with [a local principal] was doing that Principal for a Day series, where you get to see exactly what they are doing all day, every day.
He said this kind of casual interaction with sources helped him to learn how to time difficult questions—who would rather answer them first and get them out of the way, and who he needed to talk with for a while before he hit them with a hard question.
Paul Milton, Executive Editor of News Operations for Patuxent Publishing, agreed that having journalists inside of the community is important for the Leader and the type of coverage they wish to provide readers. This doesn‘t mean, he said, that journalists need to live in the town on which they report, but getting involved in the community in some way is important.
that are in the community, that are experiencing the same thing as our readers and advertisers are experiencing. We figure it makes a better newspaper. We try to do that [get involved] whenever it‘s possible but it‘s not necessary. And we hope our editors are immersing themselves and our reporters are immersing themselves in the community and become part
But, he added, that being involved—or living in the community—can prove difficult because ―you have to be able to kind of, basically [have] the intestinal fortitude to criticize your community when you need.‖ While no formal policy forbids reporters from participating in the community, there are some precautions they take, like making sure editorial staff is not sitting on local board of directors, or even placing bumper stickers on their cars.
During election times, I will go out and survey the parking lot and make sure nobody has any bumper stickers on their cars that say, ‗vote for this person, vote for that person.‘ We do have policies to that extent and we also—this is a Tribune policy—we discourage people from contributing politically to any campaigns, because their name could show up at a finance campaign list and we don‘t want our reporters showing their
Though he knows that on election day, journalists will go into a booth and cast their vote in the same manner as all other citizens, they should refrain from
he said. He added:
Editors or reporters who are in a community and their kids have to go a local school and that local school gets more attention than another one, you have to be careful. So you just have to have your antenna up to make sure that you‘re not doing it but keep the balance and I think, I‘d say 98% of the time we do and when we‘re called on it then I think it‘s always unconscious and we rectify.
Frank Abbott, publisher of The Gazette, also said that The Gazette does not have a policy regarding a journalist residing in the community on which he or she reports, but added that none of the Laurel Gazette reporters—at the time of this research—lived in Laurel. But, he said that living outside of the community is usually better ―because you know they are more neutral not living there.‖ But, Pastor Segundo Mir compared being a journalist who is an ―outsider‖ to being a Catholic priest—a strange comparison, I thought, until he elaborated.
How could a Catholic priest counsel couples on marriage if they, themselves, have not experienced and lived it, he asked. Journalists, like priests he argued, need to be a part of the community in which they work in order to be able to help the people they serve. He saw it as a journalist‘s responsibility to help and serve the public much in the same way that he is expected to help and serve the parishioners of his churches.
However, a lack of investment in the community on which one reports could also lead to another challenge—high turnover among journalists. When I
term, he said that he was unsure for a number of reasons.
I do like this place, I do. I like the job. I like working with Melanie … Woody (copy editor) … Pat … Dave. I like the people I work with in the community. That said, I‘m getting married and $26,000 is not a hell of a lot of money. I hate to always harp on that [but], when you‘ve got $17,000 in student debt and you‘re paying off a car loan and right now you‘re only doing okay cause you‘re living at home with your parents and you‘re getting ready to move in with your fiancée, soon to be wife, into an apartment, it‘s tough. So, I‘d be lying if I said I wasn‘t obviously open to considering any other opportunity that came along.
Schwind, who began working at the Leader after he graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 2005, told me that he‘d only recently gotten a 2% pay raise.
It‘s kind of frustrating cause I feel like I‘m good at what I do, you know?
I like to think I am. So, I‘ve got relationships with a lot of the principals and a lot of the people in here that some guy fresh out of college isn‘t going to have and that came from me earning it for three and a half years, but I would think that would be almost worth more to the company to keep that for a little extra money rather than see me go off and then them scooping up some young fresh face for $22,000. 43 43 Schwind left the Leader and took a job as a social media coordinator with General Dynamics Information Technology in November of 2009.
isn‘t much room to move up in the ranks at the Leader. Both Paul Milton, of the Leader, and Frank Abbott, of The Gazette, acknowledged that there is usually turnover among the entry-level journalists. Milton estimated that Patuxent experiences 10 percent turnover in the course of one year, while Abbott said he was unable to estimate the turnover because of the state of the slowed economy.
Milton acknowledged the inherent tension that exists regarding turn-over of journalists at a community newspaper. So, although the assumption is that a constant churn among journalists is a problem, because it means people have little
connection to or knowledge of the community, Milton saw another side:
We might even say we wish we had more turnover in some cases because you won‘t always get fresh blood and get new ideas and things like that, but we tend to hire what we think are pretty good people and we would like to keep them around. It‘s too short, memory of a community is really
Milton even recalled an experience he had with a new reporter just a few days
before our interview. He recounted the story to me:
We have a new reporter in the Arbutus paper and he came to me the other day and he said, ‗I just don‘t know anybody,‘ and I was able to, even though it‘s been 20 years since I‘ve been there, able to kind of rattle off, ‗well, call this person, call that person, and that person‘ and his boss, who‘s been there 20 years said, ‗call this person and that person.‘ And in a matter of a five minute conversation we gave him 15 names of people who
But, as Schwind pointed out, knowing their names and knowing them are two completely different things. Getting to know the people of a community takes time. Perhaps that‘s why the community columnists, who live in Laurel and write bi-weekly columns for the local newspapers, are well-suited to report on the happenings within their parts of town.
Neighborhood columnists, citizen journalists As Dan Schwind said earlier, the neighborhood columnists are well-suited to report all of the positive news happening around Laurel. And, for the most part, that‘s what they do. The Laurel Leader has six ―neighborhood columnists,‖ which represent Old Town, North Laurel, South Laurel, West Laurel, Maryland City, and Russett.44 The Gazette has only one columnist, who writes about Savage, a town north of Laurel. I spoke with two of the Leader‟s columnists— West Laurel columnist Christine Folks, 52, and Old Town columnist, Mike McLaughlin, 56. Both have lived in Laurel for more than thirty years and considered themselves to be active within the community. But, Folks said that she doesn‘t consider herself to be a journalist, because she doesn‘t have a journalism degree. She‘s simply a columnist. As mentioned earlier, both columnists agree that the content of their weekly columns is not hard-hitting news, but in many cases it is researched and verified. McLaughlin said that his 44 Not all areas of Laurel are represented by neighborhood columnists. There is no columnist representing The Grove, the historically black neighborhood in Laurel.
neighbors.‖ To do this, McLaughlin not only writes about his neighbors, but also photographs them, or captures them on video. On several occasions, McLaughlin‘s videos were embedded in the online version of his column.45 Both columnists described the majority of their content as people news.