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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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If a school is having a science fair or a carnival, that‘s fun and that‘s cool but if there is a shooting in that same week, what do you think people need to know more about, you know, that there‘s a shooting in their neighborhood or that there was a carnival? I feel like our obligation is to, regardless of what people necessarily want, to report what the story, the

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Dan‘s description of the tension between readers‘ needs versus wants (Mindich,

2004) showed that he believes it is journalists‘ responsibility to focus on the need rather than the want. While journalists still in many ways see their role as watchdog and public servant, for them, a tension exists between this role and that of business people who need to ―sell‖ their news. Likewise, most public officials noted that they would like to see more positive than negative coverage of Laurel in both newspapers. While journalists need not completely ignore news values— to which they were trained and hired to adhere—they perhaps need to re-evaluate what counts as news in local newspapers. Gwendolyn Glenn told me that to her, news is news, no matter if a journalist is writing for a national radio show, a regional broadcast, or a local newspaper. But readers, advertisers and public officials in Laurel felt differently. To completely ignore what readers want will be detrimental not only to bottom lines, but also to the communities they claim to

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ability to create community news, journalists must be more mindful of ways to ease these tensions and maximize their readership. While none of the reporters, editors and executives said they felt threatened by the competing weekly newspaper or by the local bloggers, the landscape is changing again with the addition of AOL‘s Patch.com, which launched a Laurel edition in mid-December of 2010. More examination is needed to evaluate the impact of this new source of community news in Laurel. At the time of this research, most readers, advertisers and public officials were disappointed by the state of community journalism in Laurel and felt it was not reaching its potential, which many said was to help sustain the local community. So what can journalists do now to improve the state of community journalism in Laurel?

Restoring great community journalism in Laurel  Maintain editorial offices in Laurel, respect the specialness of place Participants expressed anger, disappointment and sadness at the Leader‟s decision to relocate its office—formerly a Main Street institution—ten miles north to Columbia, Maryland. If the Leader wants to demonstrate its commitment to good, in-depth coverage of Laurel, journalists need to be working in town. Chapter 2 discussed the importance of place as a condition for community. Carey‘s (1997a) notion of a ―republican community‖—one in which people recognize the interdependence of their lives—―is organized around the principle of common social space in which people mingle and become aware of one

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the community if they are to be seen as a part of it. Kristie Mills, city administrators, recalled a time during Gertrude Poe‘s tenure, when she could eat lunch at a local sandwich shop called Graville‘s that used to be located on Main Street. Seeing Leader reporters, or even Poe herself, there on any give workday was not unusual. But, she said, that doesn‘t happen anymore. ―I never run into anyone from the Leader at lunch,‖ she said. Rather than hiding behind the masthead, community journalists should frequently interact with people in the community; doing so provides a deeper level of intimacy with not only their readers, but also with Laurel. Such an intimacy can inform their reporting, bringing to the forefront more of those connections readers say they want. 53

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town where reporters and editors frequently interact, the sense of community among the journalists is weakened. According to Dzwonchyk, there is little regard for ―brick and mortar‖ not at the Leader; reporters and editors are working from home or from in town on location, but rarely 53 Upon review of a draft, Melanie Dzwonchyk said that while my observations about Laurel and the Leader were ―accurate,‖ they ―represent a slice of time‖ in early 2009 when the Leader had just relocated to Columbia. She argued that since that time, much has changed but ultimately, that both sources and readers understand the move and that it hasn‘t affected her staff‘s ability to cover Laurel. She said, ―We continue to hear the occasional complaint about not being located on Main Street, but mostly we are just teased by Laurel officials who now, I‘m pretty sure, understand that moving our office was a business decision that was totally out of our hands. And now that our staff is fully equipped with laptops, air cards and cell phones, we are working outside of the office regularly, without much regard for bricks and mortar to define our workspace. In the two years since we moved our office, I have continuously worked on the ‗damage control‘ such a move would inevitably require and increased my own visibility in the community. I think our readers, if asked now, would be more sympathetic to our forced move and would also agree that it hasn‘t affected our coverage of news and events in Laurel. In fact, at least once a week, I find out that a reader or community leader doesn‘t even know that we have moved from Main Street, even though we announced it loud and clear.‖

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there are likely fewer conversations around the water cooler and debates at daily editorial meetings about what readers in the community both need and want to read, and this too can have an impact on the sense of community fostered by the newspaper. More study is needed inside community newsrooms to wrestle with these tensions.

 Produce more content and more human interest news that readers can

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In all fairness, the editors and journalists at the Leader talked with excitement and passion about their work and did appear to be working hard to provide good community content of interest to their readers given the limited resources afforded them. But my participants, even those who were quick to acknowledge those facts, still said that they want more community news than they‘re getting in the print editions of both weeklies. Some who are comfortable surfing the web, like Rick Wilson and Theresa, seek out more news through Internet sources like blogs and RSS feeds. But others, who depend on the print edition for their news, said they wanted more from both the Leader and The Gazette. When I asked Jan Robison, city council member and Old Town resident, how long she keeps the newspapers around before tossing them to the recycling bin, she said usually only one day. Then she whispered, as if she were uneasy saying it aloud, ―It doesn‘t take a whole lot [of time] to read it.‖ Those who said they thought the coverage was good usually followed up their

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who recalled nostalgically the days of Gertrude Poe, when the paper was both physically larger and contained more human interest news, seemed to longingly hope for those days to return. But, no one seemed optimistic about such a turnaround. In fact, most speculated about how much longer the weeklies would last before closing up shop for good.

Still, the newspapers, as some participants said earlier, do serve to connect the people in Laurel. Reading the same community content becomes something members of the community share in common, and sharing, as shown in Chapter 2, is also an important condition for community. Rich community news content also serves as an important historical record for a town like Laurel, whose local museum relies most heavily on newspaper articles as historical records. Sharing history also serves to unite members of a community (Selznick, 1992; Fowler, 1995).

As the amount of community content lessens, so too does the most common record of community history. A decline in content, then, weakens the potential for community.

 Hire more reporters dedicated to producing community news content Several participants said that both weeklies need more reporters to cover the community. As shown in Appendix 11, Laurel organizations are active and plentiful. To cover the work of these organizations, along with everyday news happening in Laurel, requires more reporters who can spend time attending events and reporting on them. Several participants,

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more for the paper—through a subscription—if they could be assured that the newspapers would hire more reporters to cover Laurel. These reporters need to have an intimate knowledge of the community, and they

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editorial staff continued to shrink because of attrition throughout my time living and studying in Laurel. The Leader was not investing in the number journalists needed to cover Laurel in the ways the community expects.54 But, by all indications, neither is The Gazette. A cursory examination of The Gazette clearly shows that there is usually only one reporter—Timothy Gelles—covering the majority of Laurel news for the

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community blogging to provide more community content for those who desire it, Wilson said that he does not consider himself to be a reporter.

He said that he often doesn‘t feel comfortable taking on controversial issues because his personal reputation within the community is at stake.

He blogs for fun rather than for work, and this is an important distinction 54 Upon review of a draft of the work in January 2011, Gwendolyn Glenn noted, ―I‘m the only full-time Leader reporter now…Dan Schwind left last year and his position has not been filled.

We get reporting help from Howard County Times reporters, use Baltimore Sun stories on Laurel issues occasionally and other news services.‖ She added, ―I don‘t know what their plans are in terms of Dan‘s full-time position, but he will be working on a freelance basis on sports stories, since David has left … Not having a larger staff, as we did when I first came on board, means we can‘t realistically cover news in Laurel at the level we did in the past. The smaller staff is another reason we can‘t cover every single feature the city wants us to, but we do try our best to cover the hard news stories, which have more of an effect on the lives of our readers. This is not to say that we are disregarding feature stories, but we can only do what we can with the resources we have, along with the help from the Howard County Times staff when they are available.‖

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that the majority of Leader reporters do not is insider status. Wilson lives in Laurel, and has for many years. His longevity in Laurel provides him with an intimate knowledge of the local politics, connections, and values.

For a professional journalist, this type of intimate knowledge could very positively influence the reporting of difficult stories. But, for Wilson, such intimacy becomes detrimental because when he blogs on a sensitive subject, his social status in the community could be called into question;

taking a stance on a local issue in contrast to that of his friends and neighbors could create tension or hardships in his personal relationships.

Wilson‘s example shows why community news organizations are necessary and will remain relevant into the foreseeable future.

Communities need journalists who are not afraid to fulfill the watchdog role. Bloggers can supplement, but not replace, the important role of community news organizations in towns like Laurel.

More journalists who are also insiders—like the community columnists, Christine Folks, Mike McLaughlin, and Elizabeth Leight—are needed. These individuals, while not professional journalists, understand community news from a reader‘s perspective, and as a result, are producing content that my participants reportedly enjoyed. The community columnists serve as an excellent example of the dedication a community journalist and newspaper need in order to cover a community intimately.

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Social connections—relationships—are another important condition for community (Putnam, 2000), and community newspapers need to do more bring to light the connections that exist among member of the communities they serve. Wilson, who named his own blog ―Laurel Connections,‖ is an advocate for more in-depth reporting, reporting which serves to make connections between actions and actors. Mary, 22-yearold college student, agreed that the stories in the local newspapers don‘t do enough to make connections, or to follow up on previous stories with new information in ways that make new connections. This lack of connection-making is an interesting observation. If one of the primary conditions for community is relationships—connections—community journalism should be working to highlight connections—positive and negative—in the communities they cover. Connecting people in the community through reporting would heighten readers‘ understanding of the social network that exists in Laurel, and provide them with a better understanding—or a map—of the relationships between people there.

Research Question 4: How (if at all) do the various groups of people in Laurel make use of media to participate in community/civic life?

All of my participants reported reading the newspaper—from briefly to indepth—each week. Nord (2001) showed that the Philadelphia Federal Gazette served a civic function for readers during the yellow fever epidemic in the late 1700s. As American cities like Philadelphia grew and more and more formal

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―build community and to hold it together,‖ so grew the role of communication systems in sustaining a sense of community, said Nord. His historical case study showed that during the yellow fever epidemic, ―the newspaper was the place for community participation‖ and readership became ―a form of citizenship.‖ Nord‘s readers, however, were also active in that they wrote and submitted letters which were published and responded to in the newspaper.

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