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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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Frustrated by the declining amount of content in the Leader, he added, ―[If] there‘s nothing there to comment on, you don‘t get the comments.‖ Another popular form of UGC, especially for community publications, is photographs, although Pat Farmer, editorial assistant at the Leader, said that they don‘t accept or publish many photographs submitted by readers.

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[…] I don‘t know. Maybe they‘re particular about the quality. Maybe they can be more specific as to what it is they want for a given event, and they do tend to get away from just posed shots. They want more activity and something more interesting.

When the Leader does use a submitted photo, it gives credit to the photographer.

For instance, during the February 2009 snow storm, the Leader published a photograph on its website taken by my participant Rick Wilson and gave him credit for the shot. The editors likely accepted and published this photograph because it was difficult for anyone—including their own photographers—to travel during the crippling storm. But, Paul Milton, Executive Editor of Patuxent

Publishing, explained why the Patuxent newspapers don‘t accept more usegenerated content, like photographs:

Well, we should frankly and I think part of it is that it‘s a cycle that, once you start printing them, then people realize that you want them. There are a couple of factors. It‘s a space limitation. […] We have prided ourselves by having great photography. […] Two or three years ago we were named Best Regional Photo Staff from the East Coast, so we pride ourselves on taking our own pictures …The photos that we tend to get from the community are the kind of ‗stand alone and grins‘ as they call it and they‘re not as enticing to pick for your front page of your paper.

Yet, according to Elizabeth Leight, community columnist for the West County Gazette, pictures are a very important part of community journalism. As

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of the images she took while out reporting in the community. And, of course, Leight is not a professional photographer or journalist; she is a lawyer. Leight said that another important part of community photography is putting names to faces.

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Leader will have sent their photographers … Sometimes their pictures look similar, but I‘m the one going down the line going, ‗where are you from?‘ [and] ‗where do you go to school?‘ I don‘t see that they‘re doing

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Milton said that accepting more UGC is something the newspapers will need to think about as they go forward, especially given the financial distress the Tribune Company is facing.

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long term getting those submitted photos and that‘s part of where I think we‘re heading as the financial minds tighten the papers …. We have to look for alternatives and having citizen journalists … I don‘t know if I like calling them citizen journalists, but citizen contributors sending us photos is something we‘re going to have to take a longer look at.

News should make connections for readers G. Rick Wilson, 51, Old Town resident, Laurel blogger and community journalism enthusiast, agreed that the newspapers need to work harder and reinvent the way that they do community journalism. They need to find ways to

–  –  –

a woman named Catherine DeVore, who moved to Laurel in 1938. She was known by many as the grandmother of Wilson‘s street. And, he said, If you had a baby and you were pushing the baby up the street, she demanded that you come on her porch … present the baby, and then she fussed over the baby, and from that point on, whether you were new in

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The point of his story? He continued:

We need a digital front porch. So, the days of Catherine DeVore sitting on the front porch being the grandma of the street are over. People are way too busy. They would love to do that. It‘s not that they don‘t want to.

They either can‘t or don‘t make the time. So, how do you provide them that experience in a digital way? There‘s no kind of experiments about

–  –  –

Newspapers need to provide better ways for people to connect and converse.

Milton agreed that the newspapers do—or at least should—supplement or take the place of that conversation ―over the back picket fence‖ and should contain content that neighbors would be talking about in their back yards. He said that letters to the editor did this first, and now the Internet provides a way for people to converse through comments left after online stories.

For digital natives, who socialize and converse regularly via the Internet, like Julie, 22, newspapers are not doing as much as they could be to provide those social connections for readers.

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community… staging meet ups or something like that […] It would be like reading a yearbook so, like if they can play that role and kind of reconnect you with the people you know here and introduce you to new ones.

Milton said that Patuxent is working to make their website more interactive, like a social network, that would allow people to, ―upload their own notices … submit their photos online [and] talk to everybody else in a social networking format.‖ And, he said, the newspaper will become ―the aggregator of the local content,‖ finding a way to ―be that one stop portal, if you will, where people can find out about Laurel or their specific community, and that‘s where we‘re heading.‖ Whether the newspaper will aggregate content produced by citizens remains to be seen. But, in the meantime, citizens like G. Rick Wilson will continue to fill in the gaps by providing their own local content—through blogging.





Bloggers providing unique content, filling the gaps Many of my participants reported that they have been disappointed with both the quantity and the quality of news provided by the Leader and The Gazette.

And, several of them have actually taken steps to do something about it themselves. Laurel city council members told me that they were in the process of starting up an online newsletter, similar to a blog that would provide information straight from the council, rather than through the filter of a newspaper. Fredrick Smalls, city council member, said that the newsletter is in ―direct response‖ to criticisms they received after the last council election.

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who was running.‘ ‗We didn‘t know when the election was, where.‘... So we decided that it was our responsibility to share as much information with our community as possible.

Craig Moe, mayor of Laurel city, also writes and publishes a blog called Laurel Straight Up! The blog, which is the ―Official City of Laurel, Maryland Blog Site,‖ sets out to ―give you up-to-date information on what's happening in the City,‖ according to its home page (Laurel Straight Up). The blog provides residents of the city with information about local events and meetings.

In addition to writing their own blogs, members of Laurel city government follow several other local blogs, according to Fredrick Smalls, who said that doing so helps the members ―to get the pulse of what‘s going on in the city, particularly around certain hot issues.‖ If there‘s a controversial issues coming before the council or that has come before the council, a lot of people will sound off on a couple of the local blogs and we‘ll sort of go and measure the temperature of the community.

One of the blogs read frequently by members of city council is written by G. Rick Wilson. In his blog titled ―Laurel Connections‖—found at http://conexshuns.blogspot.com/—Wilson posts short articles, commentary, photographs and even audio interviews. During the huge blizzards that hit the D.C. metro area in February of 2010, Wilson posted hundreds of photos of Laurel, while the Leader posted only two—and one was image was taken from Wilson‘s blog. For his blogging through the storm, Wilson and two other local bloggers

–  –  –

public radio stations, including WAMU 88.5 FM, American University Radio on February 11, 2010.

On the show, Nnamdi asked his participants, which included Wilson, whether or not he believed local blogs and listservs were replacing local newspapers. Wilson argued that during the storm, he and the Leader were feeding off of one another for content.

I‘ve got a very good relationship with our local newspaper, the Laurel Leader, so during this snow crisis, the Leader was going online, putting up their stories, they were referencing my blog, and then from my blog, I was referencing back to the Laurel Leader. And, Melanie Dzwonchyk is the editor of the Leader, a very innovative editor, and beginning to work with the local community in being able to do that, so it is more than just waiting for the newspaper to come out on Thursday (Blogging a Blizzard).

Wilson‘s blogging through the storms provided an excellent example of how a local blog can serve a hyperlocal community, which Wilson said is his goal. To Wilson, ―hyperlocal‖ means more than writing about a tightly bounded geographic space. He said on the Kojo Show, ―I‘m not doing journalism … Most of the people that read my blog live within a few blocks of me and we know each other. And that relationship existed before the blog.‖ And, this type of approach to community blogging, he told me, affects both the stories he write and how he writes them.

–  –  –

really think about that issue, but I know by doing that, I‘m going to alienate these people that are real faces to me. It‘s the same as if they

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To provide an example, Wilson cited the controversy surrounding the Laurel Library, located near Emancipation Park. Many Old Town residents, including Wilson, want the library to relocate to Main Street in the former police station building. They believe such a move would aid in the revitalization of the downtown. A group called BOLD, or ―Bring Our Library Downtown,‖ formed in support of the relocation. However, residents of The Grove wished for the library to remain in their neighborhood (Glenn, 2010). At the time of our interview, in late April 2009, Wilson was not ready to speak out publicly—on his blog—about his feelings on the status of the library. He further explained the challenges of being a community blogger.

If you start from my premise, which is I‘m trying to replace the porch … I wouldn‘t try to alienate [my readers] or offend them in any way. I‘m

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He said that he writes about controversial issues only when he feels as though the issue is one he would be willing to discuss, face to face, with his neighbors in his back yard. It was not until August 8, 2010 that Wilson blogged about the Laurel Library. He even posted a poll on his blog, asking readers whether they think the library should move downtown or stay where it is. But, he clearly laid out an argument in favor of relocating the library downtown. Although based in several

–  –  –

blog and what separates it from more traditional forms of community journalism.

People say you can‘t read a blog because that‘s somebody‘s opinion. I wrote a couple of pieces on my blog that says exactly that—what I‘m writing here is my opinion. If you don‘t like it, write your own blog, which is cheap and easy to do, and/or don‘t read it.

He added that some readers—namely politicians or ―their minions‖— accuse him of being unfair in his writing. What they do not understand, he argued, is that he has no obligation to be fair in his blog. He said that he has even offered to help people set up their own blog in order to allow them the opportunity to express their views. But, the slant is not the only challenge associated with blogging.

The problem with the blog … [is] I‘m not doing this for a living; I‘m doing this for fun. So, you can‘t count on a blog to give you news. You

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According to Wilson, blogging cannot replace traditional community journalism. Both are valuable and necessary. Wilson blogs only as frequently as his schedule allows, which is about once per month or more often when something newsworthy—like the February 2009 blizzard—occurs. And depending on the issue, readers do comment on Wilson‘s blogs. One of Wilson‘s most recent posts on the library issue titled, ―Rebuilding Main Street with a New Library,‖ and posted on August 8, 2010, received 18 comments. The remodeling/relocation debate regarding the Laurel Library is a hot local issue, so the number of comments is not surprising. Other posts, like ―Fall Morning in

–  –  –

Lake, garnered only three comments.

But, unlike on traditional journalism websites that allow for reader comments, on Wilson‘s blog, he is actively involved in the conversations. Wilson engages in conversation with the commenters when he responds to peoples‘ posts, often thanking them for providing their insights on any given issue. In this sense, Wilson is not only engaging his audience, but also forging relationships with others in the community as they discuss issues of importance to Laurel and its citizens.

The intersection of community journalism and blogging While blogs serve to give a voice to average citizens in Laurel, as well as to promote community conversation, they do have some shortcomings. While some may believe, as Wilson argued, that blogs cannot be relied upon for news because a blogger writes with slant, knowing where a writer stands on a hyperlocal issue can also be positive. Wilson argued that writers with ―smell‖ have a place in the news media landscape, citing the popularity of commentators like Rush Limbaugh. Yet, bloggers, who often operate independently, face challenges and pressures most traditional journalists do not. For Wilson, the first challenge, described earlier, is personally knowing most readers of his blog and also staking his reputation on his posts. His explanation is worth quoting at length here.

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