Community Journalism Defined

By Linda Gilmore (from The Review, January 1999, Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media; it was also reprinted in “Community Journalism: A Personal Approach, 2nd ed., by Jock Lauterer, University of Iowa Press, 2000.)

Recently I was challenged by the publisher of a large metro daily to explain how the Huck Boyd Center defined “community journalism.” He believes that what they do at his large paper can be called community journalism. I didn’t want to say otherwise, but I also didn’t want to agree completely with him. I found myself fumbling around to describe what we really mean when we say community journalism. I even found myself getting defensive about it.

Because, when it comes right down to it, I really believe that community journalism is truly practiced in smaller newspapers — weeklies and small-market dailies. That’s not to say that metropolitan newspapers don’t serve their communities in different ways. But a “community” of half a million people just doesn’t seem to quite fit the definition.

The term “community” implies that the people who live there have certain things in common: a common frame of reference, common knowledge about infrastructures and people and systems. It also implies a certain interactiveness, an accessibility to all.

James Carey talks about communication in terms of “sharing, participation, association, fellowship and the possession of a common faith” *(Carey, 1975). He goes on to say in the same article, “A ritual view of communication is not directed toward the extension of messages in space but the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs.”

A person can only share and participate with so many people at a time. When a community becomes too large for most of the people to share those things, then perhaps it is not truly a community. Most large cities are actually made up of many smaller communities. In those settings, the people there share many things in common that others in the city as a whole don’t share.

What all this has to do with community journalism is this: in the small towns and cities of America, the local newspaper is one of the links that connects people to each other. It is one of the ways that the community is maintained. It is part of the local discussion on issues that concern a community.

In a large city, the newspaper can only represent so many views at a time. Certain special projects, or a diverse letters to the editor section can bring more voices into a paper, but the audience is still measured in the hundreds of thousands.

There are other differences that I believe apply to the definition of community journalism. Often a community newspaper must rely on its own limited resources. The publisher who challenged me has the resources of a large newspaper chain behind him. If he faces unexpected disaster, those resources are at his disposal, at least to some extent. If some of his staff gets sick, there are people who can fill in. It may be hard, and require long hours, but the manpower is available.

At many community papers, if the editor gets sick, there’s no one to fill his shoes. If the building burns down, he has to rely on the good graces of the local bankers and hope they will back him in rebuilding. If most of the staff eats tainted fruit and comes down with hepatitis A, there is no one to put out the paper. All these examples really happened at community weeklies I’m familiar with.

But somehow, in spite of these obstacles, the paper comes out every week, or every day, as the case may be.

In the small communities I know, the publisher and editor and reporters are recognized on the street and the members of the community can take them to task, or praise them, about something in the paper. The people at the newspaper belong to the same local organizations and churches as the rest of the community, their kids attend the community’s schools and play softball in the community leagues. For the most part, the people at the newspaper fall into the same economic bracket as most of the community members. There is an accessibility and interactive quality that is lacking at most larger papers.

Looking at this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners, I was pleased to see that community journalism is represented. The Grand Forks Herald, which won the public service award, is a community paper, though it has the resources of a huge corporation behind it. But it exemplified what community journalism is all about during 1997’s devastating flood. The staff of the paper were experiencing the same effects as the rest of the community and suffered just as much loss. They managed to put out the paper anyway.

The winner for editorial writing, Bernard Stein, is a community journalist in New York City. His paper, the Riverdale Press, serves a community within the larger city. It has long been an outstanding example of community journalism.

One of the finalists for editorial writing, George Pyle of the Salina (Kan.) Journal, is another fine editorialist. He is often at odds with the opinions in conservative Kansas, but he is a part of his community and holds to his mission of challenging people to really think about the issues.

A member of the Pulitzer Prize Board is also a representative of community journalism: Edward Seaton is publisher and editor-in-chief of the Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury. The Mercury serves a town of about 45,000. The Seaton family has owned the paper for a long time, but Seaton’s ties to his community haven’t prevented him from becoming involved in the Inter-American Press Association, an organization that works for press freedom in Latin America, or the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), of which he is president this year.

All this finally comes around to my final point about community journalism. Providing the news and information that helps hold a community together doesn’t preclude telling the hard stories or voicing unpopular opinions. Community journalism isn’t synonymous with mediocrity. This year’s edition of the Showcase of Excellence is proof of that, as are this year’s Pulitzers. Community journalists are doing their jobs, with distinction, day in and day out, usually with little recognition. It’s time that journalism educators and the newspaper industry recognized the significance of community journalism and encouraged continuing excellence.

In the future, when challenged to define community journalism, I plan to be ready with a definition and an explanation. I will leave defensiveness behind and will move ahead to promote a better understanding and greater respect for the journalists I serve.

(The quote by James Carey can be found in the following article: Carey, James W. 1975. A cultural approach to communication. Communication. 2(1975): 1-22.)

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