«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
banner. There‘s no masthead there. It‘s just me. It‘s my reputation. And that‘s the kind of a different dynamic online and that brings this whole other set of emotions that I go through every time I want to write something, cause it‘s me. Now that actually impedes me from doing what I think is the real journalist‘s point of view. I will not take on those stories that I‘m uncomfortable with, so if you‘re a real journalist right, those journalist‘s stories you need, you need to be able to hide behind the masthead, right? So, I‘m not going to do an investigative piece on the city even though there‘s many, many times when I kind of know the inside story, but if I use that, right, I‗ve crossed [a line].
Wilson‘s comments show the difficulty of being an ―insider‖—of living in a community on which you report. But, they also show one of its big advantages—
knowing the inside story. He continued:
If you‘re a blogger and you‘ve got this community that is close to you, these people aren‘t separate from you. […] I‘m part of the establishment.
I sit on boards and committees. I‘m a person. I live here. Well, now I‘m going to be conflicted to get too deeply into a story, but you still need that function, so there may be bloggers that are going to be rock throwers in the world [who are] willing to do that … but I‘ve never been comfortable
Theresa, 59, Old Town resident, agreed that losing the newspapers in Laurel could lead to issues of accountability, further suggesting that traditional
an important role.
If you have somebody who isn‘t shielded from the consequences of reporting a story, then there‘s no incentive. If you‘re just an ordinary citizen and … you make a huge stink about something or you make life difficult, maybe they look at your permits or something as a way to make your life difficult, whereas if the reporter is doing the reporter‘s job, the city may complain and scream and do this but it‘s shouldered by the newspaper or the radio station or whatever and when there‘s none of that available to you [as a blogger], that‘s dangerous.
On the flip side of the coin, Wilson said that when he takes issue with a way a story was reported in one of the newspapers, he feels more comfortable taking on the masthead than he does the individual reporter or editor—in the case of the Leader, his neighbor, Melanie Dzwonchyk. The masthead provides a protective barrier that allows him to express his disappointment with how a situation was handled without attacking a writer or editor personally. But, for bloggers, no such barrier exists. Furthermore, Wilson can, using tracking statistics, see the domain names of people accessing his blog, making his relationship to the audience that much more intimate. And people are reading. Since Rick began his blog in 2005,
he has had 42,185 visits; that‘s an average of 15 site visits per day (Connections:
Site Summary). While he said the stats do not allow him to see the name of the person who clicked on the blog, often he can speculate who is reading based on that domain name.
2005. But, he told me in an email in August 2010 that, while he enjoys community blogging, he is not sure he can sustain coverage of Laurel alone.
I'm beginning to think that a successful hyperlocal site needs to be a group activity. A single person cannot sustain the effort. Lots of voices are needed to make sure that there is fresh content. I've been talking to Mike McLaughlin about starting a new group site (Wilson, email communication, 15 August 2010).
But, for Wilson, this is not really a new idea. It‘s not new for anyone, really.
Hyperlocal sites are popping up in big cities everywhere, but not all are created equal, as the following examples will demonstrate. Everyblock.com, founded by former journalist and Web developer Adrian Holovaty, launched in early 2008 in Chicago, New York and San Francisco as an online journalism experiment.
Everyblock.com provides ―an assortment of local news by location so you can keep track of what‘s happening on your block, in your neighborhood and all over your city‖ (About EveryBlock). Readers can search from their city down to their city block to get hyperlocal news. Holovaty told the New York Times that EveryBlock has ―a very liberal definition of what is news. We think it‘s something that happens in your neighborhood‖ (Miller & Stone, 2009).
Everyblock does not employ journalists, but rather serves to aggregate existing local information relevant to hyperlocal audiences.
Another hyperlocal start-up, AOL‘s Patch.com, is similar to EveryBlock in that it aims to provide community-specific news to hyperlocal audiences. The
freelancers to contribute to the site. They even provide head shots and brief biographies of the various editors and contributors in the individual communities served and reveal information about the editors—their political affiliations and religious beliefs. They put their beliefs on the record, they say, so that they will ―be ever mindful to write, report and edit in a fair, balanced way‖ (Joshua Garner). They also have an editorial advisory board in place, with members including the well-known journalism scholar Phil Meyer. This structure allows Patch to provide ―comprehensive and trusted local coverage‖ to its readers (About Us).
As of December 13, Patch.com has gone live in Laurel. The Laurel Patch has an editor—Joshua Garner—and a handful of writers. And, Patch.com‘s ―Give 5‖ program was developed in order to ―can give back to the communities we serve.‖ To do this, Patch ―gives 5% of its advertising space, free of charge, to local charities from the communities Patch serves‖ and ―all Patch employees spend 5 working days each year volunteering in the communities Patch serves‖ (Volunteer). Patch seems like a great model for supporting the community, but like any new venture, is not without faults and early criticisms.
Anonymous charges have been made against Patch that working conditions are ―unfair and grueling,‖ and that the $40K-range salaries are not enough for a round the clock job. Patch has also been criticized for instances of plagiarism and of trying to scoop up editors and reporters from existing community news outlets in the new Patch towns (Palser, 2010). Perhaps the latter
review of a draft of this work, that he had ―resigned effective immediately‖ from the Leader on January 10, 2011. Shortly after receiving this news from Driver, I happened to be poking around the Laurel Patch.com website, and I noticed that Driver‘s byline was on the very first story appearing on the Laurel Patch website on January 22, 2011.
But, criticisms aside, Patch seems to be doing some things different and which could catch on. Acknowledging that their reporters and editors are people, often who live in the communities on which they report, and who have biases, is a step in the right direction, as is supporting the community through advertising incentives for non-profit charities.
Newspapers are also starting to recognize the need to integrate the community into their news operations. BlufftonToday.com works in conjunction with the South Carolina Bluffton Today newspaper to provide hyperlocal community content to readers. The ―About‖ page explains how
This is a place where you take the lead in telling your own story. As a registered BlufftonToday.com user, you get your own weblog, your own photo gallery, and the ability to post entries in special databases such as
way into the Bluffton Today newspaper. By posting here, you grant us permission to do so. We may edit items selected for the newspaper. We ask that you keep your BlufftonToday.com contact information up-to-date
online and in print. We promise to be open, accessible, and easy to contact. With your help, we will continuously improve Bluffton Today, BlufftonToday.com and the Bluffton community (About
Another similar example comes out of Bakersfield, California. The Northwest Voice is a weekly print publication that works in conjunction with the
bakersfieldvoice.com. According to its website:
The Northwest Voice is all about down-home news, told from your perspective. Most of the information and pictures in The Voice is contributed by readers, community organizations, churches and schools.
We hope you'll participate! Our policy is to publish all contributions on our Web site and include as many as possible in the print edition (Who We
As with BlufftonToday.com, editors work as a filter, monitoring the content published on the websites. This is not true of all hyperlocal community sites;
many allow any registered user to post directly to websites without filters (like 51 Upon review of a draft, Mike McLaughlin said that he ―didn‘t buy‖ Bluffton Today‘s catch phrase that ―news is a conversation.‖ He added, ―I think it is just a marketing tagline to stimulate comments, which add up to clicks.
websites vary in terms of quality of content, the fact that so many are appearing in the news media landscape is worthy of additional scholarly attention.
Wilson talked about creating a new hyperlocal news website for Laurel during our April 2009 interview. He described his new idea as a ―miniature Huffington Post,‖ which would bring together a variety of voices in the community and allow people to write about news and events in which they were already involved or invested. For instance, someone was involved in the PTA and attend meetings regularly could post news and information about the meetings.
Someone else involved in the historical society could post about events at the Laurel museum. ―That way, you‘ve got 10 or 15 points of view, you‘ll get some news, you‘re not going to get professional news, but you‘ll get some news, you‘ll at least have a way of moving this information around the community,‖ he said.
But, perhaps the most challenging thing about delivering and consuming news in the digital era is the vast amount of information available and circulating on the Internet. The only way to get around this, according to Wilson, is to have an editor who is sifting through the mess. ―I need an editor that says this is important and this is not. This goes above the fold. This goes below the fold.
And, I would prefer it to be a professional,‖ he said. But, Wilson has done some editing and aggregating of his own on his blog, where he provides links to six other local blogs, as well as several other websites of interest to citizens in Laurel.
As Paul Milton, Executive Editor of Patuxent Publishing, said earlier, newspapers are in the information gathering business. In 2010, it seems nothing
and important to your audience. Newspapers and editors play an important role in that process, but according to Theresa, who actively seeks out local news and information on her own, using Real Simple Syndication (RSS), the local Laurel newspapers are not keeping pace in the digital era.
Truth is, I can go to homegrown news.com at this point, because I have all this stuff on my RSS feed and I‘m getting two-thirds of the stories that are appearing in the Leader before the paper even arrives. … If I didn‘t ever
Newspapers like the Leader and The Gazette are challenged with coming up to speed in an era when they are expected to do more with fewer resources.
While the Internet provides significant advantages for delivering community content, journalists are still needed to gather and sift through it. They also need to find ways to ―push‖ content out to readers, rather than waiting for their websites to ―pull‖ readers in. Listservs function well in this regard. According to Wilson, a new business model is needed if the Leader is to survive—in print or online.
And, as Jan Robison pointed out, both mediums are important in the Laurel community. With a significant elderly population that has yet to adopt an online reading habit (Online: Audience Behavior)—the print editions are a necessary medium of circulating community content.
This chapter has explored the challenges of news distribution and consumption in Laurel. Participants cited circulation issues with the print edition of both the Leader and The Gazette that discourage many residents of Laurel from
newspapers‘ electronic editions. While electronic editions show a great deal of potential for aggregating more user-generated content, the Leader seemed to be cautious about accepting it. Such UGC has the potential to provide connections among readers, recreating the ―front porch,‖ as Wilson put it. Hyperlocal websites like EveryBlock.com, Patch.com, BlufftonToday.com and BakersfieldVoice.com are beginning to reshape the community journalism landscape. Blogs like Wilson‘s are helping to bridge the gaps as traditional outlets of community journalism, like the Leader and The Gazette, struggle to find their way in a rapidly changing news media landscape. But, blogs are not likely to replace these traditional outlets, which serve as established local institutions that can take seriously the role of watchdog and whistle blower. The intersection of blogging and community journalism, however, is not likely to diminish as we press further into the new digital terrain.
This dissertation set out to discover how citizens of one town, Laurel, Maryland, negotiate issues of community, as well as to assess the role that community journalism plays in creating and/or sustaining that community. This chapter revisits the original research questions. It also discusses the contributions of this research to the larger scholarly community, explains limitations of the work, and suggests future research possibilities.
Revisiting the research questions
As I began this research, I was guided by the following questions: