«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
In Laurel, readers appear far more passive. A cursory survey of the letters to the editor in both the Leader and The Gazette showed that people are not writing letters to the editor. Many readers questioned whether letters were not appearing because the newspaper wasn‘t printing them or because people were not writing them. According to Melanie Dzwonchyk, editor of the Leader, the latter was truer, though she struggled to cite a reason why. So, while people in Laurel may be reading the weeklies—and even that needs more investigation— they certainly are not actively participating by writing letters to the editor or submitting other content, like photographs. Yet, these seems somewhat ironic, given the popularly of Rick Wilson‘s blog; many of his posts spurred his readers to write comments in response to his posts.
Pat Farmer, editorial assistant at the Leader, and Paul Milton, Executive Editor of Patuxent Publishing, said that the Leader does not accept much usergenerated content (UGC). This prohibits readers from even having the opportunity to participate in the production of community news. The weeklies should allow UGC. Readers who feel as though they have a hand in producing
becomes more costly to produce, eliciting free content from readers seems like a logical solution worth giving a try. Altschull (1997), Hindman (1998), Nord (2001) and Howley (2005) argued that community journalism is at its best when it is participatory in nature. Altschull (1997) argued that community journalism draws ―in the citizen at every step of the news process, from defining the news to determining the news sources to even helping to gather the news‖ (p. 149). Nord (2001) reminded us from history that ―in any society those who hold the power and authority always seek to control communication‖ (p. 3). If community journalism is to enable citizens to participate in the governing of their own lives in Laurel, readers need open access to the dominant communication systems that function there.
Bloggers, like Rick Wilson, are taking back some of that control.
Community blogs offer more local citizens with the ability to voice their point of view. Blogs like Laurel Connections are examples of successful communication tools that connect neighbors and friends through real conversation with real people rather than a masthead. Like newspapers, blogs can help to facilitate relationships and sharing, providing a sense of community (Kaye, 2007). And, blogging, which encourages conversation in the community, is a function of civic participation. Fanslow (2009) defined ―civic bloggers‖ as those who ―tend to set a civil tone that encourages people to remain neighborly‖ and ―discourage anonymous commenting‖ (p. 29). Wilson certainly fits Fanslow‘s definition of a civic blogger. And Wilson and his blog are playing an important role in sustaining
replace the Laurel Leader and The Gazette, as discussed earlier. Until individual bloggers are willing to work like journalists do when behind a masthead, community newspapers will remain relevant, important and necessary to local communities. But, the fact remains that many community newspapers, like the Leader, are struggling to survive financially. Finding ways to work with readers and local bloggers to enhance community news content is important work heading into the future.
Contributions to theory and application Community theory This study, like most that examined community and came before it, has shown again just how complicated the concept of community is. Community is and will always be an elusive concept. But, looking at community through the lens of community journalism has shown that the conditions of place, sharing and relationships are workable constructs with which to examine community. My participants‘ comments showed that the shortcomings of the two weekly newspapers, discussed in question three, relate to these three conditions.
Participants‘ anger and frustration about the Leader‟s move to Columbia demonstrated the importance of place in community. Their desire for more content and human interest news validated the need to have something to share in common as well as a need for historical record, which also contributes to community. And finally, participants‘ desire for content that makes connections between citizens in Laurel showed the importance of relationships in community.
only the size of the town, but also the physical, perceptual, and semantic divisions that exist there. Certainly, my participants expressed feeling a sense of community in Greater Laurel—in part based on their reading of the weekly newspapers. Yet, calling the Greater Laurel area a community is difficult. Better would be calling Laurel a ―community of communities,‖ as my participants suggested. In the smaller communities, participants feel a more organic representation of communities, in the spirit of Tönnies‘ Gemeinschaft. Here, they have meaningful relationships where they interact frequently with fellow community members, sharing whatever it is that brings them together. However, in Greater Laurel, participants have more distant relationships, and the things they share are more universal. But, the community weeklies, as well as these distant relationships and universal commonalities, do create a sense of community among people in Laurel. Certainly, more scholarly exercise is needed in the space between the concepts of community and sense of community in order to better explicate how people distinguish between the two concepts.
Carey’s ritual theory of communication This study provides an example of Carey‘s ritual theory of communication put to the test by two local newspapers. Carey‘s ritual view of communication suggests that communication—both interpersonal and mediated—is not simply a means to transmit information, but rather a process that draws ―persons together in fellowship and commonality‖ (p. 43).
‗participation,‘ ‗association,‘ ‗fellowship,‘ and ‗the possession of a common faith.‘ This definition exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the term ‗commonness,‘ ‗communion,‘ ‗community,‘ and ‗communication.‘ A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of
Carey‘s ritual theory makes clear that conversation and communication are the elements that make community possible. A sense of community is created and sustained through the process of communicating—whether face to face or through media. In talking specifically about newspapers, Carey said that a ritual view of communication views ―newspaper reading less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass, a situation in which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed.‖ Furthermore, readers of news see portrayed ―an arena of dramatic forces and action‖ where news ―exists only in historical time; and it invites our participation on the basis of our assuming, often vicariously, social roles within it‖ (p. 21).
Reading community news in this study is proven more about ritual than information. Participants who were long term residents of Laurel expressed the most dissatisfaction with the state of community journalism in Laurel, especially the state of the Leader. Many cited its shift from independent to chain ownership in the early 80s. The ―golden days‖ of community journalism in Laurel—during
the way community news is produced and the quality of its content has interrupted those readers‘ ritual. Readers‘ expectations for community news content and for an ―arena‖ where their view of the community is ―portrayed and confirmed‖ are not currently being met. And as a result, their reading experience has become shortened, inconsistent, and for a few, virtually nonexistent.
Key to any ritual is consistency and expectation. Like church-goers attend Mass and recite the same prayers over and over to maintain their faith, news readers read news not to learn new information, but to maintain their sense of community. For people in Laurel who utilize the newspaper as a major source of their community experience—to get that sense of community—this change in news content is altering their community experience. Because community news in Laurel is experiencing turbulence and inconsistency brought upon by corporate mergers and financial constraints and as a result falling short of readers‘ expectations, the readers‘ ritual is interrupted. The ritual of news reading is what helped to create a sense of community in the first place. Readers‘ sense of community is weakened with the interruption of the news reading ritual.
Remedies for application To restore a sense of ritual to community journalism in Laurel, the weeklies need to make investments as well as some adjustments. First, the weeklies need to make financial investments in journalists who will stick around.
Less than one year after I interviewed Dan Schwind, the 26-year-old education reporter for the Leader, he had moved on and taken another job, likely because he
we discussed during our interview. In order to create quality content that makes connections for readers, journalists must have more intimate, insider knowledge that only comes from times spent working in the community. Such high turnover impedes the newspaper‘s ability to develop reporters who can cover the community intimately.
The newspapers also need to invest more time and dollars in audience research. Neither Melanie Dzwonchyck nor Paul Milton could recall the last time the newspaper had conducted a readership survey. And, Melanie admitted that she frequently wonders whether the Leader is producing content of interest to all readers. While this study‘s sample was small in comparison to the number of readers the Leader has, it has revealed that many readers‘ expectations are not being met. Investing in some audience research can reap rewards for the newspapers.
The weeklies would also benefit from opening up their pages to more user-generated content. Allowing readers to have a more participatory role in creating community news can help to strengthen the news reading ritual. By having an active role in the creation of the content, they will be more invested in the process and in the regular reading of the news.
And, finally, the newspapers must give equal attention to both content and delivery. With all of the changes the Internet has brought to the way people send and receive news, newspapers have been very focused on adapting their methods of delivery to suit the needs of the digital consumer. However, in some cases, this
equally, if not more important to readers.
The Internet provides an endless number of possibilities for community journalism. Going solely online would eliminate a majority of costs and concerns related to printing and distribution. The elimination of these costs might allow the organizations to hire a couple of extra reporters, though a comprehensive financial analysis would be required to determine feasibility. It would also make easier the process of soliciting and publishing user-generated content in addition to tracking and interacting with readers. The growing popularity of social media allows readers to share community content more easily; for news organizations, this kind of viral distribution of content is akin to word of mouth and in small communities, is sometimes the best form of advertising, as Joan Kim, owner of Main Street Pharmacy, found through her own advertising strategy when she decided to forgo advertising in the weeklies.
While the Internet could help to remedy some of community journalism‘s current cost challenges, the fact remains that many people still prefer reading community news in print, as the majority of my participants reported preferring the printed newspapers to their online editions. And, one of the biggest costs of good community journalism—competitive salaries for dedicated reporters— remains, no matter the platform on which the news is presented. If added value were provided in online editions, perhaps more readers would flock to the web;
but in the face of their current preferences, my participants seem to need a compelling reason to do so. The community news organizations must find ways
and adopt an online news reading habit. These reasons could include more community content, including content generated by users, like photographs, columns and announcements.