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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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While its size and its divisions make Laurel difficult to call one big community, several participants suggested that there are many smaller communities within Laurel. Dan Schwind and Christine Folks described Laurel as a ―community of communities.‖52 This notion, while not defined precisely, seemed to imply that the larger Laurel was welcoming of communities and supportive of its neighborhoods, even if that larger entity did not itself constitute a community. At a minimum, Laurel promoted some local pride and identification with at least parts of it. Several others agreed that smaller communities—found in churches, local organizations, and neighborhoods—exist all over Laurel. Dan Schwind

further described it this way:

You‘ve got Laurel High School, their clustering. […]You have this massive school community. You‘ve got the police community with the police department and the LCPAAA (Laurel Citizen‘s Police Academy Alumni Association) and police auxiliary. And, you‘ve got the Main Street community. To me, it‘s a community of communities, and I know that sounds […] like some weird lame catch phrase that I‘m coining but, yeah, that‘s what it is. This giant collection of people doing different things that sort of impacts each other in different ways.

52 Upon review of a draft, Mike McLaughlin, neighborhood columnist, said that he liked the ―community of communities‖ description of Laurel.

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certainly more plausible than the Greater Laurel area being considered one big community.

As Ferdinand Tönnies first postulated, tension exists between the notion that community springs up organically or is created. City officials clearly believed that they have a responsibility for creating and nurturing community in Laurel. This was made clear when they outright said so, but also when they discussed the many events that they organize in an attempt to bring people within Laurel together. Furthermore, when describing Laurel, the city officials tended to go on at length about all of the amenities available to residents of Laurel— including police and fire protection, senior housing, retail, recreation, and schools—as if these amenities alone make Laurel a community. While they likely contribute, they are not solely responsible for making Laurel a community, as many of the comments from participants suggested. But, certainly, touting amenities creates the image of a community from a public relations perspective.

And, it seems to be working, as several participants who are not involved with the city government mentioned these amenities when describing Laurel to me.

While city officials may be very successful at creating a sense of community in Old Town, Historic Laurel, the greater Laurel community does not seem to fare as well with its efforts to create sense of community. Participants by and large seemed unconvinced that the greater Laurel area was in fact one big community. Rather, many seemed to accurately describe it as a collection of smaller communities—some the result of geography, others the result of shared

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the community found by participants in churches, parks, and neighborhoods. It is here where they more intimately know their fellow community members and begin to form meaningful relationships. However, participants‘ comments suggested that finding such community is not without some effort on their part.

Becoming part of such communities requires that people get out and become active, forming relationships and sharing experiences with one another. While people in these communities may share interests, experiences and culture, the 100,000+ people of greater Laurel seem to share only one major thing in common—their geography. While geography is a condition under which community can develop and grow, it alone has not seemed to go far enough in uniting the people in Laurel, where, as Tönnies said of Gesellschaft, ―they are essentially separated in spite of all uniting factors‖ (p. 65).

City government officials in Laurel make valiant efforts in organizing several activities throughout the year that draw people from the city and greater Laurel area together. But while these activities serve to bring people together temporarily, and have potential to spur deeper relationships, they do not guarantee them; the work of community remains that of the people of Laurel who can sustain it through more frequent interactions, certainly more often than once or twice each year. With more than 100,000 residents in the Greater Laurel area, however, such regular and meaningful relationships are difficult to sustain.

Laurel‘s sheer size creates the biggest obstacle for community there. But if there was one thing that could serve to unify greater Laurel in the hopes of creating a

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Research Question 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 and/or succeed at this?

The majority of my participants had very strong feelings about the role of the weekly newspapers in creating and/or sustaining community in Laurel. A 2008 Zogby poll found that while 70 percent of Americans think journalism is important to the quality of life in their communities, two thirds are dissatisfied with the quality of journalism in their communities. The poll seems reflected in Laurel. The majority of residents, public officials, and advertisers expressed dissatisfaction with the quality—and quantity—of community news available to them in Laurel.

Stakeholders’ take:

The majority of participants said they believed that newspapers played an important role in community life. Anne, 62, of West Laurel, provided an example of an elderly woman who works in the same office building as she does. Her office is a site where Leaders are dropped off each week. And, the people she works with look forward to their arrival.

We have a little lady who does passports service—she‘s in her seventies— and she makes an announcement, ‗The Laurel Leader‟s are here, the

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somebody makes it because she‘s not there.

A newspaper provides more than information, as my participants will attest to, but information—and in the case of community journalism, often hyperlocal information—is still one of its most important assets. Paul Milton, executive editor of Patuxent Publishing, explained.

I don‘t think there‘s anything more relevant than what‘s going on down the street from where you live. I mean, as horrible as it sounds, I think more people care about why the police car was down the street than they do about the Iraq war and I don‘t, I‘m not putting any value judgments on that, but I think that they know that even though they might think what‘s going on in Iraq is horrible or is necessary … they‘re going to be more taken by why the police car stopped at their neighbor‘s house down the street and that‘s going to consume them more … I think that that‘s just human nature because things have to wait to impact them, their lives,

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This hyperlocal information provides a way for people to connect, when it becomes difficult to do so otherwise. Christine Folks, neighborhood columnist for the Leader, said that the prospect of losing the local newspapers would be unfortunate, ―because we don‘t really have any other way of keeping in touch of what‘s going on in all of Laurel or even in just the neighborhood and just our neighborhoods of North, South, East or West.‖

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according to Pastor Segundo Mir, because he said people live very private lives.

Comparing Cuba with the United States [and] with Laurel, we [in Cuba] don‘t have paper, we don‘t have radio, we don‘t have anything but we are … talking face to face [with people every day]. We don‘t need the media.

We are the media. But here [in Laurel] people living in house or car, work.

We don‘t know each other. […] The media … let the people know each

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G. Rick Wilson, referring to Putnam (2000) said that the newspapers are important because they help to build social capital by providing connectivity.

When everyone reads the same newspapers, they are connected based on shared information and knowledge. Theresa, 59, said earlier that to lose the newspapers would mean losing a sense of community—as well as history. Theresa added that ―a community‘s memory is very short,‖ so if things happening in communities are not recorded by the local newspapers, they are easily forgotten.

But, Pat Farmer, Laurel resident and editorial assistant at the Leader, said that the Leader has gotten away from recording many of the human interest happenings in town.

Many years ago in the paper they covered all kinds of things. We used to have Laurel BPW (Business and Professional Women) meetings listed and we would have our special events with a photo. Times have changed and they haven‘t been able to do that, but years ago … anybody in the area

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belong to an organization or were involved.

She added that for people who aren‘t already involved in the community, the newspapers are essential for making them feel a connection. ―I think you have to have a community newspaper. Then you know what‘s going on … if you‘re not actively involved in the community,‖ she said.

But, my participants made clear that the newspapers—especially the Leader, which many of them dubbed the ―hometown‖ newspaper—could be, and should be, doing more. The Leader‟s move to Columbia, as well as the changing media landscape, has in many ways upset the state of community and community journalism in Laurel. While several readers, public officials and advertisers said that the Gazette does a good job in covering Laurel, others talked about it with disdain, calling it a ―county‖ paper. In most instances, calling it a ―county‖ paper had a negative connotation, suggesting that they desired a newspaper that would cover Laurel exclusively and in-depth. In his most recent blog post about the

new Laurel Patch.com, Rick Wilson had this to say about the Gazette:

We have two local newspapers in town. Well, we really only have one, the Laurel Leader. The Gazette quietly shuttered their Laurel operation earlier this year and clumps Laurel's news in with Beltsville, College Park and other communities in the northern part of the county. And let me be honest, the Gazette really never committed the resources necessary to serve our community well (Wilson, 2010).

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participants after the newspaper moved its newsroom to Columbia. Advertisers were upset that the Leader left town and in the process drawn business out of Laurel and into neighboring towns. Joan Kim, owner of Main Street Pharmacy, was so angry that she found new ways to advertise her business and stopped placing ads in the Leader. ―I thinks it‘s [the Leader] a great source. I just wish that it was more involved in our neighborhood events. They should give some if they‘re going to take some,‖ she said.

Bob Mignon, Russett resident and owner of Minuteman Press, expressed a great deal of disappointment with the state of the Leader. ―These people aren‘t providing the content to make themselves successful,‖ he argued. He said that when his son was younger, he used to write and submit short weekly articles reporting the results of his son‘s baseball team. He would submit two paragraphs of information, but said that the editor [then Joe Murchison] would ―hack the heck out of [it].‖ I basically got to the point where I question highly what is the function of the community newspaper if it isn‘t to talk about what‘s going on in the community? Is it a distribution vehicle for Lowe‘s flyers and Home Depot flyers and Safeway and Giant coupons? Is that what the function of a newspaper is? I don‘t think so. I think those are vehicles to help pay for the newspaper, but you need to have reporters. The newspaper should be dedicated to and interested in what‘s going on in the community.

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local newspapers as well as local and regional politicians to the grand opening.

He said that both the Gazette and West County Gazette sent reporters, but the Leader did not. This left him with a ―real sore tooth,‖ he told me.

I called the Laurel Leader and I said, ‗We‘re having an open house, the mayor‘s here, Tom Dernoga is here, the councilman. Don‘t you want to come and cover this as a newsworthy event on Main Street?‘ There were like a hundred people there. There were traffic issues there because people would gather outside of the store and, the person I spoke to said, ‗Oh, we‘re too busy; we don‘t have enough time to come down.‘ Bob is not the only one who felt this way. Doug, 76, West Laurel resident, agreed when he said, I think [the newspaper] brings the community together, but I think … they have to be very careful and make sure that they stick with the community and know what‘s going on in the community and here. If they don‘t do that, then I think people will stop reading.

Elizabeth Leight, neighborhood columnist for the West County Gazette, said that good community news isn‘t always hard-hitting; often the soft, human interest stories are the best examples of community journalism. ―It‘s [soft news] important to the people who make it important,‖ she said. ―It‘s not earth shattering; it‘s not going to be, you know?‖ The journalists at the Leader disagreed. Melanie Dzwonchyk, Dan Schwind, and Gwendolyn Glenn all suggested that news conventions dictate what

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important as soft news, if not more important and as journalists, they have a responsibility to made a distinction and a decision regarding what to print. Dan


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