Home > Journalism > Fighting that ‘persistent myth’ about the community press

Fighting that ‘persistent myth’ about the community press

J-Source recently published an opinion piece by Dale Bass defending the community press. “Community papers do more than fluffy, ‘happy news’ stories” the title reads. I sighed as I read it. Not because I disagree with the author’s sentiments — quite the opposite — but because the criticisms levied at community news noted in the piece are similar to many others I’ve come across in my research. The  Bass piece includes the usual stereotypes that community news is a training ground for the nation’s reporters, weekly reporters are timid, and the papers are filled with puff pieces and are little more than an advertising vehicle. It’s reminiscent of the labels I’ve often come across, those being ‘boosterism,’ ‘refrigerator journalism’ and ‘commercial pluggery.’

There seems to be this persistent myth that the community press is substandard compared with larger papers. Bill Reader suggested this is in part due to a scathing rebuke about the lazy country editor that media critic Ben Bagdikian wrote in Harper’s Magazine in 1964. Bagdikian described weeklies (and most small dailies) as the “backyard of the trade, repositories for any piece of journalistic junk tossed over the fence” where canned copy and “commercial pluggery” are often found on the pages of smaller circulation papers. Even Jock Lauterer, who is considered an advocate of community journalism, levied strong criticism against the community press when, in 2006, he wrote:

Many small-town papers seem to attract and harbor the washed-up derelicts of our business; community papers at their worst become sort of a stale backwater for the flotsam and jetsam of journalism. This results in poor management, terrible writing and uninspired photography; a community paper that resembles the journalistic version of a zombie. It just keeps coming at you, dead or not.

While Lauterer did specify “at their worst” and I understand what he might be referring to (I am sure we’ve all come across one of those papers before), generalized criticisms leveraged against the community press not only serve to discredit the vital role they play, they help perpetuate the myth that community journalism is inferior.

Such criticisms may come, in part, from an elitist attitude regarding what is news or a misunderstanding of the distinct characteristics that comprise community journalism. Because weeklies are focused on items of significance within a specific geography, the content can often be less sensational and less urgent, or seem unimportant to an outside observer.

It’s important to note that Canada’s community press carved for itself a specialized role, filling a need for local, relevant and engaging content. In many respects, it was “the emergence of the metropolitan daily [that] permitted the weeklies to evolve into a distinct genre” (Voisey). By choosing to supply its readers with national and international news, the dailies lost the opportunity to serve smaller communities except as a provider of more big picture news. Community journalism grew to focus on news in a predominantly small, distinct geographic market, with an emphasis on information about community life and local news.

Charged with keeping the community informed and its people connected, it is only natural that some of the content found in community newspapers favours that which has relevance to a very specific group — a group defined by geography or an even smaller group within that localized setting. Content concerned with rummage sales, youth sports or the local Lions Club is inherently informational. As one small-town reporter I spoke with this summer noted, it might not seem like a bake sale is a big deal, but on the other hand they are raising money to keep something open.

It is curious that terms like ‘boosterism’ and ‘commercial pluggery’ appear to be aimed at the community press in particular. Other media are not without their share of such content. Many daily papers devote entire sections to food, entertainment, automotive and travel. What are those, if not thinly veiled advertising supplements?

While it is the inclusion of so-called soft news carried in weeklies that tends to lead to much criticism, Canada’s community journalists still undertake aggressive reporting and write investigative stories relevant to their readers. Many of those who work within the community news industry say “they get little credit for the tough journalism they do — and at much closer quarters with their readers than the big dailies” (See “The Strength of Weeklies” by Judith Sheppard, AJR). Weeklies still perform a watchdog function and cover their local governments and boards, holding public officials accountable. To remain relevant they must publish the good and the bad. After all, in smaller communities, it won’t take long for the audience to notice important omissions from their local community newspaper, which would ultimately lead to questions of what else is being intentionally left out.

Community newspapers do tell the difficult stories as well. Bass uses CCNA competition winners to demonstrate that community news isn’t just fluff. Over the summer I had a chance to not only chat with community news reporters across the country but also examine some of the content they produce. Community reporters aren’t shying away from controversy. One reporter spent about a year picking away at a piece that uncovered how the local government was funelling interest from its victim services account to its capital budget. Another newspaper closely followed developments when their local council resigned en masse due to financial difficulties that eventually led to fraud charges being levied against a former employee. And I know I certainly haven’t avoided tough stories. I let a community know their local municipal pound was shooting unclaimed animals (it worked out to more than an animal a day), documented the collapse of a regional economic development authority, and covered some of the more unpleasant cases at the court house.

Of course not all criticisms of the community press are without merit. Anecdotal evidence within the industry suggest some community journalists have little or no support when undertaking investigative work in the public interest. Many papers report responsibly on tough local issues, but there are still tensions. It would be wrong to fail to acknowledge those community papers that fit into the mould of ‘boosterism’ journalism and avoid controversial topics, for they do exist, but it is also equally erroneous to dismiss the many community newspapers that both engage with their audience and fight for the public’s right to be informed. “For every pandering publisher, they say, there’s at least one principled one who is unmoved by local pressures” (Sheppard).

Whether covering high school graduations, snapping photos of cheque presentations, analysing health documents, filing Freedom of Information requests, or partnering with volunteer groups, community journalism plays an important role in society. Its impact is lasting regardless of whether it’s because a photo lacking mass appeal endures on someone’s refrigerator or because a volunteer organization that grew in response to a series of articles still works in partnership with its local government to improve the lives of animals. It is this balance as community advocate and community watchdog that has helped shape and define the role of community journalism.

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