«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
1. Do the stakeholders in Laurel perceive it to be a community?
I was interested in whether the stakeholders in Laurel considered it to be a community for a few reasons. My primary interest in this research began as a desire to understand the role that community journalism played in Laurel. But, as I began reading more and more research on the relationship between communities and the press (which was discussed in Chapter 3), I realized that every study I encountered took for granted that the ―community‖ under examination was, in fact, a community. However, as I began to learn more and more about Laurel, its structure and size, I began to wonder if Laurel was a community—a place where people take advantage of their physical proximity and shared goals to form meaningful relationships—or merely a town where people lived and worked. So, I set out to ask my participants about Laurel, what it is like to live and work there,
as a town or as a community.
2. Do those connected to Laurel have a sense of community in Laurel or in other groups and/or Laurel-based organizations they may be a part of? Is that sense of community guided by local news media, personal Historical research by Steiner (1983) and Nord (2001) as well as empirical research by Park (1922), Janowitz (1952), Rakow (1992), Wei & Lo (2006), Hampton (2007), Rosenberry (2010), and Stamm, et. al. (1982; 1985; 1991; 1997) demonstrated the potential for mediated communication to create a sense of community among readers. Though, research by Stamm (1985) and Stamm, Emig and Hesse (1997) also showed that other factors, like longevity of residence in a particular place as well as interpersonal communication, can help to create a sense of community. I assumed that local news reading alone would not create a sense of community for my participants, and so was curious to know from them what else, if anything, was a factor.
3. Do the local news media—mainly referring to the two dominant weekly newspapers—play a role in creating and/or sustaining community in Laurel? Which media, including which other local news media, try to or
I arrived at this research question easily, as one of my primary goals was to better understand the role the two weekly newspapers played in creating
led me to feel a strong connection with the local community, and I assumed that this would be true for others, as well. James W. Carey‘s (1989) theory of ritual communication is that communication is a process through which people share, create, modify and transform culture (p.43). Unlike the transmission model of communication, which puts a premium on sending greater amounts of information more quickly and more efficiently across greater space, Carey‘s ritual view of communication suggests that communication—both interpersonal and mediated— is not simply a means to transmit information, but rather a ritual that draws ―persons together in fellowship and commonality‖ (p. 43). As citizens participate in the act of reading the same local news—and interact with one another through letters to the editor or online comments at the newspapers‘ websites, or even conversations around town about something they read—they share a common knowledge and experience that community journalism provides. They read not to learn new information, but rather to experience their community. Though Anderson (1983) argued that newspaper reading creates merely an imagined sense of community, this research question asks to what extent that community is a reality.
4. How (if at all) do the various groups of people in Laurel make use of media to participate in community/civic life?
Historically, news media has played an important role in democracy (Schudson, 1998). And, a strong democracy requires that citizens actively participate in civic life. As proponents of the public journalism movement
communities where people work together with journalists to make public life go well (Merritt, 1997; Rosen, 1999). This requires not only readers to interact with others on the pages of the newspaper or website, but also journalists to act as ―fair-minded participants‖ (Merritt, 1997) in the community. I was interested to learn not only how citizens and journalists utilized the local newspapers to participate in public life, but also other stakeholders, like government officials and local business owners. I was also interested to learn whether they perceived news reading to be an act of participation in civic life.
To try to answer these questions, I interviewed 40 people connected to Laurel by work or residence, including five journalists at the Laurel Leader, two newspaper executives, three neighborhood columnists, three Laurel business owners, four members of Laurel city council and Laurel‘s mayor and city administrator, and 21 Laurel residents ranging in age from 20 to 88 years old. I solicited participants through unpaid advertisements like flyers and Craigslist postings, as well as through snowball sampling.
Why they’re questions worth asking Asking questions of community and community journalism—and especially the intersection of the two—is important for a variety of reasons. The newspaper industry struggles to keep pace with other news media (Sessions Stepp, 2008). The explosion of social media means that people carry news in their pockets (on the screens of their cell phones) as they never did before. Now, more than ever, journalists and news executives are concerned with the speed at
channels through which they can send it. Sessions Stepp (2008) said:
The journalist-in-the-middle is a ringmaster, a maker and a consumer, a grand impresario of a two-way information flow that has no beginning, end or fixed schedule.[…] What changes is how news is assembled and shared. Here too power has slipped from journalists. News becomes a collaborative and cumulative work in progress pieced together by multiple contributors, rather than a media-certified byproduct carved in press plates
Yet, local journalists retain this fixation on controlling the message, especially at the Laurel Leader. And, there too, journalists seem more concerned with the transmission of the message than with the message itself. Journalists and news organizations more concerned with the sending of the message rather than understanding how and why readers want to read the message are stuck in what Carey (1989) called the transmission view of communication, where the premium is placed on sending greater amounts of information more quickly and more efficiently across greater space.
But what sustains community and draws people together, as Carey said, is not the speed with which a message is delivered or its medium. It is about the process, or ritual, of consuming the news. However, when a lack of relevant content makes readers look elsewhere for news or causes them to stop reading altogether, the ritual is interrupted, and that threatens the strength of any community the newspaper aims to sustain. While local news organizations cannot
they can place equal focus on the actual messages they are sending. No matter the speed or medium, people long for content that provides them with a connection, as one of my participants, Rick Wilson argued.
Journalists, editors and executives must pay more attention to their audiences and, thus, the communities they serve. Knowing the audience‘s values—and not simply whether they prefer to read the news in print or on a cell phone screen—is imperative; without timely, relevant and accurate content, audiences will disappear, regardless of the ease with which they can access the news. And, knowing the ―community‖ that the ―community newspaper‖ serves is vital to its success. If members of that community are ignored, if issues of importance are ignored, the paper‘s potential to not only inform, but to sustain community are greatly diminished. If weekly newspapers wish to remain viable in the years to come, they must re-evaluate their focus and goals and find ways to cover their communities more intimately. Doing so means investing in journalists who understand the dynamics of the community, and who intend to stick around long-term. The next sections examine each research question in more depth, providing conclusions based on participants‘ insights.
Research Question 1: Do the stakeholders in Laurel perceive it to be a community?
Asked if they considered Laurel to be a community, my participants gave me those warm and fuzzy answers I expected. Mike Leszcz, 63, member of city council, said the fact that ―people help people‖ and ―people know their neighbors‖
resident, said that ―people from all over the area come together to do things,‖ making it a community.
Most participants agreed that community exists in Laurel, but most often, participants went on to talk about all of the things seemingly working against community there.
Things working against community A failing mall As literature on community suggests, especially for geographically located communities, the nature and ―quality‖ of the space matters; transportation routes, architecture, city planning mechanisms, and the arrangement of shopping, schools, and parks can encourage—or can impede—development of a sense of community. For instance, many participants talked about the Laurel Mall and the fact that it is failing. Husband and wife, Doug and Carol, said that they are afraid to go to the Laurel Mall. And, my youngest participants, Gina, Brian, and Julie called it ―a joke.‖ And, three years later, nothing has been done to help revitalize the mall. A recent Laurel Leader article headlined, ―Vacancies, delayed renovations plague Laurel Mall‖ said that ―the health of the mall is plagued by many issues: weak holiday sales, numerous vacancies, continued closure of namebrand retailers and a stalled $450 million proposed renovation project‖ (Glenn, 2010). To some participants, the Mall is a place where people could bump into one another and interact regularly. It represents a town center. Without that vital third space—places of recreation outside of the home or work place where people
together outside of their homes and places of work.
A depressed Main Street Another potential third space is the Main Street, which runs right through the heart of Old Town, connecting it with the Route 1 (the major highway that runs from Florida to Maine constructed in 1929) corridor. Participants from all stakeholder groups commented on the depressed state of Main Street, and the fact that Laurel has by and large not found an effective way to revitalize it. Gina, a 20-year-old college student, Brian, a 21-year-old police officer, Julie, a 22-year old recent college grad, and Sam, a 44-year-old salesman talked about other places, like Alexandria, Virginia, that has successfully revitalized their downtown areas to make them places where people want to stroll, shop and dine. Lack of upscale dining was a frequent complaint of the majority of my participants.
Fredrick Smalls, a member of city council, talked about the fact that city government does desire to revitalize the Main Street, but the age of the buildings made such a process too expensive for most who have expressed interest in locating restaurants or other shops there.
Without a vibrant Main Street, and without a vibrant Mall, Laurel lacks communal space that brings people out of their homes and together for recreation.
A walking path stretches along the Patuxent River, just behind the Main Street, and could serve as a key component in a riverfront-type revitalization project. As a resident of Laurel for two years, I walked the path often. But, not many people, it seemed, took advantage of it. Many opportunities exist in Laurel for such
topic of much debate in Laurel demonstrated that vibrant third spaces are possible in Laurel, as it is one of them. Having spent many hours in the library doing research, I know well that this is a space which many residents frequent. As Gwendolyn Glenn, reporter for the Leader, noted in one of her comments in Chapter 6, she, like many others, often must wait to access one of the ten or so computers, because they are frequently all occupied.
With the proper planning, spending, and execution, Laurel can be revitalized into a community that feels alive. It‘s still breathing now, but it‘s labored. Jane Jacobs (1961) famously argued that planning alone cannot create community; rather, planners must have an innate sense of the function of a space before they can design its form. Main Street in Laurel has a rich history. And, also working in its favor is the fact that many of the members of Laurel city government are long-time residents who have a sense of its current function.
Together with planners, the public officials should be able to find ways to revitalize the space so that it can meet the Laurel residents‘ expectations and create spaces where people will want to frequent and gather.
A divided town The most omnipresent challenge working against community in greater Laurel is the fact that the town is divided, or sectioned off, physically, semantically and perceptually. The divisions seem to be a result of Laurel‘s size.
As it grew outward, people likely used the qualifiers, like North, West, etc., to easily distinguish the part of Laurel in which they lived. But, these divisions
participants commented on the fact that Laurel is broken up into sections (see Table 2, Chapter 4). Residents almost always identified with one of these sections when I asked them where they lived. Brian, 21, who has lived all of his life in Old Town, or within the city limits, was even a bit defensive about the fact that people from outside of the city still say they are from ―Laurel.‖ Christine Folks, Leader neighborhood columnist, husband and wife Nate and Ann, and husband and wife Doug and Carol, all strongly identified with West Laurel.