«Title of Dissertation: Community journalism as ritual: A case study of community and weekly newspapers in Laurel, Maryland Lindsey Lee Wotanis, ...»
An historical glance at early American community presses Print has long been understood to maintain connections and support community. In a collection of historical case studies about the relationship between local communities and the press, Nord (2001) articulated some of the interesting ways that newspapers have been used in community life. The cases cover a wide span, going back to Puritan times and leading up through twentieth century. He examined the production of news by looking closely at ―the producers, the institutions, and the content‖ of early journalism (p. 14). Nord speculated that for those who refrain from participation in public affairs, the newspaper ―is the place we go for this community experience; indeed, it is the only place where this community exists‖ (p. 13). He offered, in his introduction, an example from his own contemporary local newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana of a letter to the editor written by a fellow Bloomington resident. The woman sent her sympathies and regards to fellow residents who were dealing with the disappearance of their daughter. She wrote: ―To the Behrman family, I want you to know that I have kept you and Jill in my prayers since day one. I have never met you, nor may ever, but that doesn‘t matter. We are part of the same ‗family‘—God‘s family—and I share in your sorrow‖ (p. 13).
He also offered a number of ways that local journalism has facilitated a sense of community. He argued—as did the famous Chicago sociologist Robert
could talk about politics and public life, helped to form early American communities; indeed, they helped forge the nation. Interestingly, these early newspapers were also characterized by controversy, which they amplified on their pages rather than diffused (p. 89). This example shows that newspapers do not necessarily need to act as boosters in order to support a community and foster shared goals. Working out public affairs problems via public dialogue—and on the pages of newspapers—can help to strengthen communities.
Nord‘s analysis of nineteenth century Chicago newspapers also demonstrated that newspapers, especially the Chicago Daily News, ―provided their audience with a limited, organized, common frame of reference, so that diverse city dwellers could communicate with each other—communicate in the sense that they could think about the same things at the same time and thus share a vision of social reality‖ (p. 111). Nord‘s investigation of Chicago newspapers demonstrated the capabilities of a newspaper in facilitating community life in cities, towns and even urban neighborhoods, as is the case of the Chicago newspapers. Especially in urban areas, where ―society‖ seems more prevalent than ―community‖ as a result of sheer population numbers, newspapers can do much in the way of creating a sense of fellowship among the dwellers in a specific locality.
Nord showed the undeniable relationship between the practice of journalism and the social, political, and technological climate within which it functioned. For instance, during the early and mid-1800s, newspapers helped
society such as the United States, the newspaper emerges as one of the few bulwarks against the menace of individualism‖ (p. 93). His study of the Chicago Daily News at the height of modernization and urbanization revealed that the newspaper had an ―urban vision‖ born out of changing times and necessity. This vision was one of a public community, ―public because it was nontraditional, not face to face, nongeographical, built upon government, formal organization, and mass communication; community because it was rooted in shared private interests, common experience and sympathy, and a deep sense of interdependence‖ (p.
128). The newspapers played a crucial role in creating a sense of community in the cities they served.
Steiner (1983) examined a geographically dispersed community—of women suffragists—and the ways its members used print to keep their community alive. In her analysis of nineteenth century suffrage periodicals, Steiner found that the stories and experiences shared on the pages of the suffrage periodicals enabled the women to bond as a community with shared interests. She concluded that ―no national movement could have survived, much less succeeded, without the newspapers which dramatized the experiences and visions of the new women and provided the ground on which they could come together as a community‖ (p.
Park (1922), to return to the aforementioned study of the immigrant press in America, showed specifically the necessity of community presses. Park predicted the continuation of such immigrant publications without a foreseeable
racial or nationalist interests, they will have papers to interpret events from their own peculiar point of view. […] The press has become an organ of speech. Every group has its own‖ (pp. 12-13). In the case of the immigrant presses, their languages provided definitive boundaries; those who could not read or understand the language of the press could not have access to the community and to its distinctive culture and ethos. Likewise, today newspapers, especially small, local newspapers, have features that provide boundaries. For instance, a local town paper only prints crime reports for infractions committed within the town‘s boundaries, and only prints obituaries of people from the town, making some of that information irrelevant to people outside of those boundaries. A local paper only tells the stories of the people within its publication‘s scope or reach. It communicates, via a local language, the morals and values important to its readers. In doing this, the local newspaper presents, and has a hand in creating, a distinctive community culture that is grounded in place and time. It sets examples of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. It hails some and vilifies others. In doing so, it creates a shared culture. Of course, these examples—provided by Nord, Steiner and Park—represent newspapers in an idyllic sense, a point at which they reach their fullest potential in helping to create a sense of community among readers.
The 20th century community press in America In the mid-twentieth century, more formal studies of what is today called ―community journalism‖ began. Morris Janowitz (1952), an urban sociologist of
such newspapers, looking at Chicago weekly newspapers, which he defined as ―weekly, English-language publications‖ (p. 19). He sought to distinguish the community press from other forms of journalism, such as mass media, like national and regional daily newspapers. Among the features that distinguished the community press from these other forms included its specialized and bounded audience as well as its content. Janowitz began by asserting that ―while the daily press adheres itself to the whole metropolitan center, the unique character of the community press arises from the fact that it has as its audience the residents of a specific sector of the urban metropolis. Its local community audience conditions its content, determines its appeal, and facilitates its impact‖ (p. 7). He believed that the urban community press existed because people worked outside of their residential communities; because work was a primary means of social integration, people needed something else to help them integrate in their home communities.
The newspaper, he argued, provided such a social link (p. 15).
Janowitz‘s content analysis of Chicago weekly newspapers from 1920, 1935, and 1949 revealed some of those newspapers‘ distinctive content. He found that the majority of content was news and features, with only approximately five percent of space devoted to editorial concerns. From 1920 to 1949, the percentage of news and features grew by about three percent, while editorial content diminished by nearly three percent. This mirrored the content distributions in daily newspapers, which he analyzed for contrast (p. 76). News, however, was defined quite differently in the community press. Janowitz reported that ―in the
associations, municipal services, and voluntary community service receive the most space in that order‖ (p. 85). In contrast to Nord‘s findings, Janowitz found an overall overwhelming booster quality to the community newspapers (especially the independently-owned ones) which minimized conflict and rarely reported instances of controversy within the community (making it appear as though no controversy ever existed). When controversy did arise, for instance when a daily newspaper published something negative about the community, the local newspaper would defend against the criticisms in order to uphold the image of a positive community (pp. 87-88).
Janowitz showed that the advertising appearing in the weeklies reflected local businesses, thus promoting again a sense of unified community; all content, in other words, was local and relevant to the community audience. Stories containing hard news were more prominent than stories of human interest, though there was a plethora of news relating specifically to people, including ―births, confirmations, engagements, weddings, deaths,‖ which readers submitted (p. 82).
In addition, both professionals and citizens frequently submitted publicity releases for upcoming local events. Over time, however, he did find that local content began to decline in favor of more city news. For example, in his 1920 content analysis, he classified 92.8 percent of the content as ―local‖ and only 1.2 percent of the content as ―city-wide.‖ By 1949, the total percentage of ―local‖ content had dropped to 75.4 percent and the ―city-wide‖ content had risen to 9.3 percent (p.
79). This might reflect changes in ownership (from independent to chain),
only 30 percent of community newspapers were owned by chain organizations; by 1950, 87 percent were owned by chains (p. 69). The decline in local coverage seems directly correlated with the decline in local, independent ownership. He does discuss ownership, which he chunks into three main categories: small independents, large independents, and chains (p. 106). He found that the chain news content is less community oriented, less intimate, and less personalized than the independents. As compared with independent newspapers, chains publish more items about business enterprise, more about accidents and commercial amusements, less about organized religion, less social news, and fewer items about local voluntary associations. These differences place the chain community newspaper closer to the daily newspaper than the independent community newspaper
As more and more community newspapers were—and continue to be today—bought up by chains, the content is likely to change. From 1978 to 1996, the number of independent newspapers dropped from 634 to 317 (Garaneau, 1996). In 2005, 40 percent of all U.S. newspapers were owned by 21 of the biggest companies by revenue (Percent of Daily Newspapers). This means, likely, that owners of such publications are absent from the communities which they serve, among other implications, discussed in more detail in the next section.
Another distinctive quality of the community newspaper was its dedication to local history. According to Janowitz,
utilization of community history, not only by specific items about local community history but more frequently through a style of writing which proudly refers to the age of individuals or to the number of years an organization has been in local existence. Even routine announcements try to emphasize the stability and persistence of organizations, and all types of anniversaries are seized upon for this purpose. The most extreme form which this type of news coverage takes can be found in the special editions celebrating the historical anniversary of the local community or
Corporate chains that swoop in and buy up local newspapers are often uneducated about the historical nuances of the town on which they report.
Janowitz‘s work on the Chicago community newspapers offered important insights into the distinctive qualities of the community press, including its human interest content, its local audience, and its editorial operation. His study, as well as Park‘s research on the immigrant press, put community journalism on the scholarly agenda. Soon others began exploring the relationship between local newspapers and communities, who was involved in their production, and how and why people read them. The next section examines some of these works.
Stakeholders in community journalism Another fruitful body of research examines the ways that different constituent groups—readers, journalists, government officials, and business owners—understand the practice of community journalism. These groups of
at individually rather than in conjunction.
Citizens/readers For example, Stamm (1985) studied the relationship between ―individuals and newspapers vis-à-vis the individual‘s ties to community‖ (p. 3). Specifically, he found that readership ―emerged consistently as a correlate of ties‖ to community, though it was not the only variable. Other variables that affected people‘s participation in community included political participation, time spent reading, and interest in the news (p. 105).
Stamm predicted that people‘s use of the community newspaper would change over time. The primary direction of this change, he (correctly) predicted, would be ―toward increasing ties with a complex, regional community‖ (p. 191).
He posed some of the following questions in his conclusion:
Will newspapers be used to help understand the complex interrelationships between the sub-communities (―nuclei‖) which make
Will newspapers be used as a substitute for transportation between nuclei? (e.g. to read about an event in a nearby community before, or
study of Laurel, Maryland, a community that might be described as a ―regional community‖ as its population numbers push 100,000.