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Rebranding the public journalism movement?

I was at the Canadian Association of Journalists conference last weekend and had an opportunity to attend some interesting panel discussions. There was the usual and expected offerings: future of news, ATIP workshops and data journalism –  all useful, especially for those who might not have access to training in their newsrooms. There were some other very interesting topics too. But the one that originally caught my eye was a panel entitled “Models for Community Journalism.” Were they really giving a nod to community news?

Alas, they were not. It was daily media talking about community engagement. Still interesting so I went anyway.

Before I talk about the panel and why I find the term ‘community journalism’ curious, let me add a bit of context about how I approached this (aka my bias). For the past eight months I’ve been picking away at my thesis while getting my coursework out of the way as I work on my Master of Journalism. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it seems I’ve taken Bill Reader’s comment to heart and have decided to work “against many entrenched institutional biases against the ‘silly little papers’ that dominate the journalism world” because I have chosen to focus my research on community newspapers. In very general terms, I am examining the role of Canadian community news in democratic social inquiry, with an emphasis on what that role looks like in a digital environment and what impact the Internet and social media is having on the long-term viability of community journalism.

See that key term in there: community journalism. Admittedly I am using a narrow definition. Community, after all, can take on many meanings (which could be a post unto itself). But what I am referring to here are the many weekly/bi-weekly papers we see scattered throughout the country. Those papers that focus on hyperlocal content. They are what the industry refers to as community newspapers. So it’s understandable there might be a bit of initial confusion when community journalism is used in a different context.

So what did this panel talk about? They did have some really interesting things to say and some initiatives that are worth examining and sharing. If you didn’t follow the link above or didn’t bother reading it, here’s the gist of what these models of community journalism look like: (1) a foodie community for food lovers (2) a news cafe that is a physical restaurant where journalists and the public can  mingle and (3) a media lab in the newsroom that’s a space open to the public for various functions or training opportunities. The real key take away from this was that these newsrooms are looking for ways to directly engage with their readers (or segments of their readership – food lovers, biz community) and connect with the public. In some cases that’s both online and offline.

They call it community journalism. There are a few things happening here, so I’ll  focus on the cafe and  media lab. What much of it sounds like is public journalism under a different name.

The story of public journalism goes something like this: The 1990s arguably saw increased dissatisfaction within media regarding the role of the press within democracy, as framed by social responsibility, where the press acts as a gatekeeper and fails to directly engage its audience. Instead of a two-way dialogue with its public (or publics), the old theory led news media to broadcast information to a mostly receptive audience. As the old adage goes, while journalists were not telling people what to think, they were telling the public what to think about.

The idea, which received a lot of attention, isn’t so much a full-fledged theory but is instead meant to grow from the ground up as a journalism of conversation. That there are no codified practices means the concept is malleable and can take on many forms. Public journalism “pays homage” to the audience and, “far from pandering to readers, this audience-based approach requires that journalists respect the intelligence and genuine needs of readers” (See Coleman, 2000). As a result, the idea of public journalism has been used in a variety of ways: sponsoring public forums, using polls to determine which issues should be covered, conducting focus groups, seeking questions from readers to pose to political candidates, and even revising traditional beat assignments. There is an inherent interactive dimension where the emphasis is on maintaining a dialogue with ordinary members of the public. Sort of like what we saw in some of the examples from the panellists, especially the second two.

What’s curious is that many of the tenets association with public journalism — and examples given by the panellists, like opening the newsroom to the public — have been in practice by community newspapers long before such a shift was suggested. In 1996 Garret Ray, a professor at Colorado State University at Fort Collins, suggested the public journalism movement was a product of “daily newspapers’ growing realization that they were out of touch with their readers . . . City newspapers that sneered at smaller papers’ ‘boosterism’ are  now discovering some virtues in purposeful connections with readers and community institutions.” (See Sheppard, 1996) That same year, Joe Meyer, managing editor of a chain of 21 suburban weeklies around Columbus, Ohio, noted that he got “a real kick out of public journalism, because that’s what we do all the time” (Sheppard, 1996).

Community newspapers weren’t totally ignored by the panellists. Near the end of the discussion Bob Cox remarked that smaller community newspapers have never forgotten that community engagement has to be the heart of what we do.

Speaking from personal experience, it is not uncommon for editorial managers at community newspapers to do double duty as co-ordinators of public forums. Community newspapers also generally have accessible newsrooms. That was one of the things I fell in love with when I started working for my first community newspaper in Nova Scotia. Our office was on the main street, and later moved beside the post office, and our door was open. We had walk ins all the time. While at times it served as a distraction, overall it was great. People knew they could come in and talk or share a tidbit of information. And trust me, they did. I had many great conversations (and even debates) as a result. And while many visits didn’t result in stories, we maintained a strong connection to our community and we really listened to them, which undoubtedly helped build a strong sense of trust. Admittedly that’s not the case for all community papers, some of which find themselves camped in industrial parks or, worse yet, in centralized offices in other towns. But that’s a structural issue beyond the purpose of this post.

In many ways, public journalism is a return to shoe-leather reporting and face-to-face engagement with citizenry, an aspect of reportage that was, to some extent, lost with the advent of the telephone, where journalists were no longer forced to leave the newsroom to gather information (See Ornebring, 2010), which might have helped spur the disconnect between reporters and their public. In many ways, calls for public journalism, variations of citizen journalism and increased reader engagement are about improving connections between professional reporters and the communities they serve.

So why was the panel called Models of Community Journalism? Well that’s the interesting bit. I was talking to a reporter who wasn’t pleased with the terminology. Others echoed that sentiment. One thought it was more about interest journalism. I can see that in some of the examples. Pictures of food or pets or whatnot doesn’t strike me as community journalism. Never mind community, it doesn’t really sound like journalism (call me elitist if you will). There’s probably a reason why some of the U.S. papers are using their marketing budget for some of their ‘community journalism’ projects instead of their editorial budget. I didn’t take notes, but if you followed the link you’ll see that one of the panellists noted that community used to be defined as geography but is now defined by passions. Perhaps true. Admittedly I initially thought it was a misappropriation of the term, but as noted, the term community can mean various things. Community can be defined by interests (food lovers), ethnicity, religion, geography, etc. Yet in an industry where community journalism has a strong association with community newspapers — at least for those who pay attention to them — it can be frustrating to see the term used for projects that bear little resemblance to what is traditionally considered community, or perhaps even journalism.

Semantics aside, it’s great to see projects that attempt to more fully engage with the public, or segments therein. It’s important that we make every effort we can to reach out to other voices in the community, and get out of the office or car and talk — really talk — to people. That’s the backbone of community journalism.

PRINT SOURCES:

Coleman, Renita. “The Ethical Context for Public Journalism: As an Ethical Foundation for Public Journalism, Communitarian Philosophy Provides Principles for Practitioners to Apply to Real-World Problems.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 24.1 (2000): 41-66. 

Glasser, Theodore L. and Francis L. F. Lee, “Repositioning the Newsroom: The American Experience with ‘Public Journalism’,” pp. 203-224 in Erik Neveu and Raymond Kuhn, eds., Political Journalism: New Challenges, New Practices. London: Routledge, 2002.

Ornebring, Henrik. “Technology and Journalism-as-Labour: Historical Perspectives.” Journalism 11.1 (2010): 57-74. 

Reader, Bill. “Community Journalism: A Concept of Connectedness.” Foundations of Community Journalism. Eds. Bill Reader and John A. Hatcher. United States: SAGE Publications, 2012. 3-19. 

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