«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
The tendency to lean on individual rights has become second nature for most Americans. Carey (1997a) argued that ―the assertion of rights has become a mere tropism, as automatic as a plant turning toward light. In the biological world, however, tropisms get organisms into trouble when the environment radically changes‖ (p. 209). Though individual rights are important, they do not necessarily trump the needs of the community, as the republican conception of freedom and democracy shows. Rather than deny the rights tradition, a proper balance between communities and individuals is needed, respecting the need for individual rights—and individuality—but understanding the importance of living and working together. Upholding individual rights while forsaking community is not plausible; democracy requires community if it is to be sustained.
others are not plausible nor, as a result, is democracy. Community, open dialogue and conversation in the public sphere are not easy to achieve. In 1927, Dewey proclaimed that ―optimism about democracy is to-day under a cloud.‖ In 2009, the same proclamation could very well be heard. Present day headlines proclaim that voter turnout is generally low; newspaper circulation is way down (Arango, 2009), and ―public life is not going well‖ (Merritt, 1997, p. xiii). According to Warren (2001), the ―foundation for people‘s development as members of society and as democratic citizens lies in local communities. It is the institutions of local community life, schools, churches, and less formal interactions that integrate people into democratic society‖ (p. 22). If this is true, communities have the potential to revitalize democracy, encouraging a more active citizenry in public life.
In many instances, citizens are active in both public (community-oriented) and private (individually-oriented) life (Schudson, 1998). But, private life is more easily possible today than it was in the past; communication and transportation technologies make it so. While this poses challenges to democracy and community, it is a reality of the modern world. Rather than allow the private and the public domains to clash or to hinder one another, people must find meaningful ways for them to work together. They cannot continue to give in to the temptation to retreat into their private lives because they share the same lifeboat (Carey, 1997b, p. 6). A strong democracy requires that people be active in their local communities, which can lead to a stronger, more vibrant public arena, where
problems. This is especially needed now, when global issues are affecting us at local levels, and vice versa.
Global issues need local solutions Global issues are impacting people locally and, likewise, local problems are growing into global concerns. Examples of such impacts are everywhere. For instance, a growing homeless population is the result of increasingly unstable global economies. Homelessness touches communities across the globe, but is often dealt with on local levels. Nearly every global issue—from global warming to public health—has both local implications and, in many cases, local responses or solutions. Community response—beginning at local levels—will be crucial for reacting to the growing challenges we face domestically and abroad. Organizing locally first, in small numbers, can begin the necessary processes to help preserve natural resources, find renewable energy solutions, put an end to poverty, hunger and homelessness, and cure diseases. Democracy is more than a political form of government; democracy is empowerment. Placing power in the hands of ordinary citizens to organize locally and to take action through shared dialogue and community building is the essence of democracy. Refreshing, and in some cases, rebuilding our local communities is essential for reviving American democracy.
Building social capital is one way to do this; but, perhaps more important is seeing the bigger picture and creating stronger links across different communities (Warren, 2001). Retreating into the safety and comfort of communities—without looking beyond them—is nearly the equivalent of retreating into private,
communities‖ in order to begin thinking globally by acting locally (Warren, 2001). Just as individuals cannot go it alone, neither can communities.
Communities, too, require interdependence; they must take advantage of resources outside of their own borders in order to remain viable and effective (Warren, 1986). But how, in a world where people are scattered, where people succumb to tendencies to retreat into private life, and where face-to-face conversations are few and far between, can communities—and democracy— remain vibrant?
The next chapter explores the role of local journalism in creating, supporting, and sustaining local communities. In the absence of face-to-face dialogue, journalists and their newspapers play an important role in sustaining the community conversation.
In order to maintain the balance between individuals and communities, we need third parties—or ―fair-minded participants‖ (Merritt, 1997) to make heard the instances when we get off kilter. Communities need newspapers as much as—if not more than—newspapers need communities. After all, ―communities are human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness‖ (Block, 2008). When community members are too numerous (or too preoccupied with their personal lives) to engage in face-to-face dialogue with their neighbors and to come together at city hall to discuss not only problems, but solutions, newspapers serve as the facilitator of the community conversation. On the pages of the newspaper, community members should hear each others‘ voices. They should
They should understand the community‘s values, its challenges, and its goals.
And, most importantly, they should feel as though they are a part the community about which they read each week on the pages of their community newspaper.
Journalism—and specifically community journalism—plays an important role in the life cycles of communities, in supporting democracy, and in maintaining relationships among neighbors, friends and civic leaders. Chapter 3 examines community journalism as a medium for community, discussing the role of journalists and ordinary citizens in helping to maintain communities in time (Carey, 1989).
Because community is important—important for individuals as well as societies, and especially for democracies—an examination of community journalism, the method by which people record the good works and challenges of communities as well as engage in conversations, is necessary.
Journalists use a variety of communication technologies to do community journalism in the twenty-first century, including radio, television, the Internet, and even social media. No longer are they restricted to ink and newspaper, though it remains one of the central ways communities spread their news. This chapter examines the community newspaper and its ability to support local, physical communities. The community newspaper, like several other communication media, is experiencing transition, as more and more readers look to the Web in search of local news, and as many newspapers—community ones included—shut their doors or cut back their staffs for economic reasons. But, before a discussion of the challenges of community journalism can begin, a definition of the practice must be explicated. After doing that, this chapter explores the relationship between community and communication, with special attention given to community journalism—as done by professionals and amateurs using ―old‖ and ―new‖ media—to better understand its role in supporting community life.
State of community journalism Community journalism is often thought of as small-town journalism— carried out by weekly (sometimes daily) newspapers with circulations fewer than
(Lauterer, 2006; Howley, 2005). But, it can also comprise small niche media outlets targeting specific groups of people with particular identities and interests.
According to the National Newspaper Association, ―the distinguishing characteristic of a community newspaper is its commitment to serving the information needs of a particular community,‖ and ―despite the emergence of new information technologies such as the Internet, community newspapers continue to play an important role in the Information Age. Over 150 million people are informed, educated and entertained by a community newspaper every week‖ (About Community Newspapers, 2008).
Ziff (1986) characterized two kinds of journalism—provincial and cosmopolitan. The community newspaper, or ―the provincial newspaper … is implicated in local values and if it feels it must criticize a deeply held community value, it does so for the benefit of other, deeply lived communal beliefs‖ (p. 164).
In contrast, the cosmopolitan newspaper ―insists on an objective and dispassionate accounting of the news, and may stand above local values in its editorials‖ (p.
164). Ziff challenged the argument that journalism ―is or ought to be governed by universal standards of ethics and responsibility‖ (p. 159). While some standards, like ensuring accurate content, are universal, many others are not. The community, or provincial newspaper, because of its literal closeness to its audience, must approach reporting with a great deal more thought and concern for its audience, its reputation, and in many cases, its bottom line.
and scholar, said, in comparing big city dailies, that at community newspapers ―there is a profound philosophical difference in the way we look at our community, at our readers, at our advertisers, and how we write, handle and package the news‖ (1995, p. xiv). That difference, he went on to say, is in the way they understand the ones about and for whom they write: ―At a community newspaper, news is not events happening to sources. News is people, your people, and how the changing world affects their everyday lives. News is people being caught up in events‖ (p. xiv). Community journalists understand the essence of community—the importance of place, of the relationships that people maintain, and of the values and goals they share and work toward. They also understand that they cannot hide behind a masthead. Their readers are their neighbors, their fellow church members, and the people they‘ll see in line at the local grocery store or coffee shop.
By contrast, the rest of the news media, according to Lauterer, is the subject of readers‘ frequent complaints. Some of those complaints include that the news media are not involved in the community and maintain an ivory tower mentality, they are condescending, sensation-driven, self-righteous, impersonal, inaccessible, unaccountable and uncaring (Lauterer, 2006, pp. 71-73).
This anecdotal evidence may provide one explanation for why weekly community papers far outnumber dailies. ―People hunger for community, but the economic reality of the mainstream media is that they can‘t supply that need anymore, or choose not to‖ (Densmore, quoted in Fanslow, 2009 p. 24). As of
newspapers and only 1,408 daily papers circulating in the United States (Maddux, 2009). According to Editor & Publisher, a ―weekly‖ is defined as ―any publication printing at least once a week, but less than four times a week (one to three times a week)‖ (Maddux, 2009). The outlook for daily metro papers only has become grimmer as the popularity of online news and an economic recession further weaken the industry. ―Daily newspaper circulation has declined every year since 1987‖ (Sessions Stepp, 2008). Maddux (2009) reported that the ―total U.S.
daily newspaper circulation dropped 2.1 million, from 50.7 million to 48.6 million‖ as of February 2009 (Maddux, 2009, ―Part I: Dailies‖). Circulation of weekly papers (paid and free) is nearly on par with dailies, at a total of 45.5 million as of February 1, 2009 (Maddux, 2009, ―Part II: Weeklies‖). Beyond this data, there is little literature on the difference between free versus paid weeklies, or on the difference between chain versus independently owned weeklies, although such literature could be useful. The growth of the Internet, major media conglomeration mergers, and a growing distrust of newspapers generally, have been cited as some of reasons for the decline (Seeyle, 2006; The State of the News Media 2004).
The 2009 Survey of Journalism & Communication Graduates, conducted by the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research at Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Georgia, showed that the job market for new graduates with bachelor‘s degrees in journalism was grim. Journalism and mass communication graduates faced a
percent. Those graduates who did find employment at daily or weekly newspapers made comparable median starting salaries, of $27,000 and $25,000 respectively. And, of those searching for employment in journalism, 18 percent desired to work at dailies, while 11.7 percent wanted to find work at weeklies, though nearly 20 percent reported looking for work in online markets. Just more than three percent of graduates seeking work in print reported finding work in dailies, while 1.7 percent reported finding work at a weekly (Becker, et al., 2009).3 The job market for young journalists looking for work at community weeklies is difficult to crack, likely because community newspapers tend to operate with very small staffs. Each of the two newspapers under examination in this study has only a handful of editors and reporters. Yet, the community each staff serves is 20,000 times its size. How can five journalists cover a community of 100,000 residents? Can the few stories they write represent the diversity of voices in the community? Certainly, communication in many forms is an essential component to successfully community life—and newspapering is merely one form of such communication. The next section examines the role of communication in community life.