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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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Folks said that being a columnist has brought her a sense of ―celebrity‖

around Laurel. She explained:

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celebrity thing for me. It‘s like my claim to fame because […] I‘ve had a lot of people [at] different places saying, ‗Oh, you‘re the [Leader columnist].‘ I have had that but people just kind of know who I am or somebody else says who I am and believe me I‘m not trying to exaggerate this, I‘m just saying it‘s kind of silly.

As a result of her work with the newspaper, Folks was awarded a West Laurel Civic Association award a few years ago. She said it was very ―sweet‖ to be recognized for her efforts in bringing some community news to the people of West Laurel. Both columnists reported enjoying writing the column, for which they are paid only about $45.

Throughout the course of my fieldwork, I kept hearing about a community columnist named Elizabeth Leight, who covered Laurel for the West County 45 Unfortunately, when the Leader moved to Columbia, its online archive did make the move along with it. Upon review of a draft, Mike McLaughlin talked about this fact. He said, ―To me, that is one of the most devastating aspects of the move [to Columbia]. They have essentially erased the Leader‟s—along with some of Laurel‘s—modern (online) history. There were many times when I searched the Leader issues that were available online as I was writing a column.

Melanie still can‘t say when or if they will ever be available again. That‘s a damn shame.‖

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Communications, Inc. on Thursdays and distributed free to residents in Odenton, Gambrills, Maryland City, Russett, Seven Oaks, Piney Orchard, and Four Seasons.46 Because Maryland City and Russett are technically part of Laurel (Ann Arundel County), the newspaper sends Leight, who lives in Russett, to cover Laurel community news for the paper. I decided that, even though my research focused on the two newspapers that covered Laurel more exclusively, I should talk with her because she seemed pretty well-known around town.47 Leight, 54, is a lawyer by day, but very much sees reporting for the West County Gazette as not only a job, but a passion and a ―labor of love.‖ ―I‘m active and I‘ve made it my job to become involved in community,‖ she said. She is paid about $85 per column.

Leight said that when important events are happening in Laurel that she wants to cover, she takes personal leave from her job as a lawyer to be able to do so. Not only does she cover events that she said most Laurel reporters are not covering, she delivers the newspaper around town and saves extra copies—in the trunk of her car—for people whom she has written about, so that they might be able to clip the story for their refrigerators or scrap books. She had a stack of old West County Gazette‟s for me when we met at a local restaurant to talk.

46 Upon review of a draft of the dissertation, Leight informed me that the West County Gazette was merged with the Crofton Crier and renamed the Crofton-West County Gazette. She added, ―The important thing is that we are still publishing—every week, photos and all!‖ 47 Upon review of a draft, Mike McLaughlin, former neighborhood columnist for the Leader, said of Leight that he ―had never heard her name mentioned, never met her, and never [saw] her at any events,‖ though he acknowledged that he wouldn‘t know her to see her even if she had been at an event. He added that this was ―either a statement of [his] disconnect of further evidence of the distinct communities of Laurel.‖

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photographs them. She sent me a flyer shortly after our interview, which announced an upcoming event at the Russett Library that was going to feature ten years‘ worth of Leight‘s photographs and memorabilia collected during her time with the West County Gazette. For Leight, and the Leader columnists, community reporting is all about celebrating the accomplishments of the people— for Leight, especially the young people—in Laurel.

She recalled one particular instance that confirmed for her that the work she was doing—and the sacrifices she was making on behalf of the newspaper and community—was all worth it. Every year, Russett participates in National Night Out, and a few years ago, Leight decided to head down the streets to do some reporting on the events in the community.

I started walking to the neighborhood and as I was walking, I had my camera around my neck and some little kids were going, ‗The newspaper lady is here,‘ and I thought, that‘s cute. I don‘t have a name; they don‘t care what [my name is], the newspaper lady is here. Their picture might get taken, and I think that‘s the perspective that I always keep in my mind.

Yeah, it‘s their 15 minutes if they get in the paper and that‘s what keeps me going. I‘m no charity, I get paid. But I like the fact that they are

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‗You know, the kids never used to read the newspaper. Now they tell me they read the story, this story or that story in your newspaper because they wanted to find out if their picture was in it.‘ So that‘s great.

Melissa, 25, who is involved with the Laurel Historical Society, said that she sees Leight covering more of the Society‘s events than the Leader and The Gazette combined.48 The community reporter from [the West County Gazette], Elizabeth Leight, knows everyone. She is so involved. She does wonderful things but she reports on all of our kids events, more than the Leader and more than The Gazette. She comes to every kids event, takes pictures and they‘re usually on the cover of the West County Gazette. And even when it‘s not us, she still drops off the West County Gazette […] I think she does a better community reporting of Laurel than the Leader and the regular

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Bob Mignon, owner of Minuteman Press, who is also a neighbor of Leight and who urged me to talk with her, agreed that the Leader and The Gazette are not doing enough to cover the community. ―If you‘re going to be successful, then you have to send people out in this community and cover the events that are out there,‖ he said. As a business owner, Mignon has a stake in the success of the 48 Upon review of a draft of this dissertation, Melanie Dzwonchyk commented that Leight‘s coverage of Laurel is somewhat less than objective. She said, ―You should know that Leight is an active member of the Laurel Historical Society and her volunteer role is to send out PR from the Laurel Museum. My observation is that Leight writes about those organizations or events she is attending as a participant. When she sends out PR or photos, her son or Leight herself is nearly always included in the news."

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section deals with advertising.

Advertising Especially among the business owners I interviewed, there was a lot of discussion of advertising. But, among readers, discussion of advertising was minimal. The majority of my participants said that they pay little or no attention to the advertisements in the paper—whether they are inserts, like grocery flyers, or in-text ads alongside editorial content. Mayor Craig Moe and council member Mike Leszcz said that they look at the state of local advertising as a measure of Laurel‘s success. Leszcz said that he gets a sense of how Laurel is doing economically by looking at the business, real estate, and want ads. Mayor Moe recalled a conversation he had with former Leader editor, Joe Murchison. When Murchison asked him how he knew when Laurel was doing well, he replied, ‗Laurel will be doing better when we have two local newspapers in town or more.‘ Cause, I said, that‘s a signal [that] advertising is good, business is good, all of those things. He kind of laughed because they were the

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Laurel has been a two-newspaper town for more than ten years now. And, now, the Mayor said, there are more ads than editorial content. Of Laurel city government, he said, "We get good coverage; I think it could be better. But, I think they‘re more worried sometimes about selling their space for advertising.‖ But, Dzwonchyk pointed out that the editors lack any control over the amount of advertising in the paper each week.

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of course, [that] is controlled by our corporation … There is a bit of wiggle room, but that‘s pretty much dictated on a weekly basis to all the

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She went on to explain that in the past, newspapers‘ primary goals were not revenue generation. However, today—and especially in troubled organizations like the Tribune--the expectation for profits has grown. As a result, the percentage of advertising in each newspaper has risen. At times, she said, the percentage of advertising in a given issue has risen as high as 70 percent. Frank Abbott, publisher of The Gazette, would not talk about advertising percentages, citing it as ―proprietary‖ information.

Paul Milton, Executive Editor for Patuxent Publishing, confirmed that the size of the newspaper is dictated by the amount of advertising sold on a weekly basis. While some, like Mike Leszcz, said he understands that this is how the amount of editorial content is determined from week to week, others I talked to, like Nate, had a different perception. Pointing to a page from a recent issue of the Leader, he said, ―There‘s a whole page [of ads]. That‘s an indication that they don‘t have news. They have to fill the page.‖ Nate assumed that in the absence of editorial content, the editors instead chose to fill the page with advertising. Nate, a real estate agent in Laurel, said that he advertises homes in the Leader every other week instead of every week, as he did in the past, ―because we‘re not sure anybody is reading it.‖ Nate‘s assistant, who is in charge of placing the ads, was upset, according to Nate, when the local advertising contact she dealt with in

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of its advertising was handled by the Sun—the parent company of Patuxent Publishing. Because that relationship was lost, Nate said his assistant discussed with him stopping the advertising all together. That, coupled with the fact that Nate said the Leader seems to be garnering less and less interest from people in Laurel. ―It‘s a vicious circle because the less [editorial content] you have the less interest there is, and the less people read it. [Then] people don‘t want to advertise,‖ he said.

Joan Kim, 39, West Laurel resident and owner of Main Street Pharmacy, stopped advertising her business in the Leader once it moved to Columbia. She was hesitant to talk with me about her feelings on the matter, for fear that the local newspapers might boycott her business. But, she felt strongly that the Leader made a wrong move when it moved out of town. ―I think publications have the obligation to provide for the immediate neighborhood that they provide their services to,‖ she said. She added, ―I just felt like they jumped the ship at the wrong time and angered a lot of people in the local community.‖ Kim advertised fairly regularly in both the Leader and The Gazette in the past, but has since changed her advertising strategy all together. Kim said that her pharmacy business hinges on local customers, relationships and trust. ―I really doubt that people would drive 10, 20 miles to come to get their services from me,‖ she said. That‘s why newspaper advertising—especially in the more countyfocused Gazette, wasn‘t really working for her. So, she decided to start

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back to it at the same time.

I think people are more responsive, at least I get immediate feedback when I give a couple thousand dollars to the local charity. People would come in right away and give their input, how the money was being used and how they appreciated it and they bring their customers in.

Theresa, Old Town resident who is involved with the Laurel Historical Society, agreed that Kim is getting ―fabulous word of mouth‖ by sponsoring local events, like a recent gala the Society held.

Like at the gala, which is you know, it‘s about 200 people, but it‘s 200 [of] what I would call … influencers. […] People talk about [the fact] that she did a really good thing and you should go over to her store and patronize.

How else are you going to build good business if the advertising isn‘t

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Kim agreed. She added:

I think it‘s a much wiser decision to advertise yourself but in a good way, in a way that you can benefit everyone including yourself, because you better the community that you‘re in. Most likely the community will grow and become stronger and they will in turn support their local businesses.

Kim‘s comments show just how important the local community is to the survival of her business. This is another reason why she was so upset with the Leader‟s move—and shift in advertising practices.

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have their business in Laurel have now since moved to Columbia. And if you look at the Laurel Leader now, a lot of the practices and businesses that they advertise, they chose to have in their newspaper are all Columbia based, which leads me to think that, as a Laurel business owner, you are driving people to go to Columbia to buy their shoes or get their MRI‘s and go to the doctor‘s offices. […] If you want to be a local paper, you better support the local community. You cannot just use our name and say you‘re the Laurel Leader and suck everybody out into Columbia.

Kim said that she was very happy with the Leader, until it decided to ―skip town.‖ She actually found its content and local focus superior to that of The Gazette.

Mayor Craig Moe agreed that he hasn‘t seen ―a lot of Laurel‖ in the advertisements of late, but rather more Howard County. But, depending on the business, the broader reach of advertising could be seen positively.

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