The transformation of the mainstream media being driven by digital technology has brought citizens’ voices into territories where once only journalists trod and altered "the balance of power between those who control the means to publish and those who have something they believe is important to say." With those words Nieman Reports opened its Winter 2005 issue’s exploration of the emerging engagement of citizens in newsgathering and commentary and the impact these new voices are having on traditional news organizations.
In Anniston, Alabama in February a different kind of discussion took place on the subject of citizens and journalism, advancing more conventional ideas around the belief that community newspapers can and should make enduring connections with their communities.The focus was on an important kind of journalism that takes place when journalists are embedded in their communities with stories conveyed largely through the printed pages of local newspapers. Participants in these discussions characterized Weblogs and other forms of digital communication, including those at their own newspapers, as impersonal and less effective than the face-to-face conversations that are at the core of the continuing conversation between the newspaper and its community.
"The Emerging Mind of Community Journalism" conference was held at The Teaching Newspaper, a new enterprise in journalism education that seeks to emulate the traditions of the teaching hospital in training doctors by merging teaching with practice. To do this, masters degree students in community journalism from the University of Alabama will study in the newsroom of The Anniston Star. The Knight Community Journalism Fellows program, funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, will enroll its first class in August.
The conference drew more than 200 students, university professors, and journalists who work at community newspapers (fewer than 50,000 daily circulation). These newspapers represent about 30 percent of the total daily circulation and 1,238 of the 1,456 dailies in the United States. Many are owned by families who live in communities where their papers are published, and they understand that personal relationships are at the heart of the paper’s role in the community. (Ethnic, neighborhood and cultural sections published by metro newspapers also can be described as community journalism.)
In his keynote speech, Alberto Ibargüen, president of the Knight Foundation, observed that good journalism helps a community define itself, providing readers with information and a sense of place. Though technology and profit-driven corporate ownership of newspapers pose challenges today, he said, "the core mission of informing our community is still there and still needs doing."
Words and expressions not typically heard when journalists discuss their craft and their business seemed a natural part of the Anniston conversation. For example, "backpack journalism" becomes an antidote to gathering information by Internet and e-mail in the newsroom. Tools — a computer, cell phone, camera and video-cam — go into reporters’ backpacks as they head out to their local hospitals, police stations or homeless shelters, not to do old stories but to bring back a new perspective to share with readers.
"The Wal-Mart nation" symbolizes those places in the community where journalists can find a diversity of values and a range of religious and economic circumstances that can broaden the thinking and understanding in newsrooms. This is important, noted John X. Miller of the Detroit Free Press, because diversity that focuses only on color and ethnicity creates a workplace of journalists that share commonly understood values of journalism but don’t necessarily relate to the diversity of aspirations in the community.
"Family relationships" speaks to the connection between the newspaper and its community, which in many cases "is so distant it has become aloofness," said H. Brandt Ayers, owner and publisher of The Anniston Star. "A newspaper’s ties to the community should embrace all the emotions you have in a family — scolding, loving, challenging, grieving, celebrating, sometimes hurting, sometimes being hurt — emotions people feel intensely."
"The industrial age of journalism," in which newspapers tend to separate themselves from the community, is crumbling. A promising replacement is a newspaper that can create a sense of hope and belief in the possibility that communities can solve problems. This model is constructed on a central idea: A newspaper can’t be independent unless it is interdependent with its community of readers. When people believe something can be done, they will re-engage in the community and remain steadfast readers of their local newspapers.
At a time when most Americans say they don’t trust the press, it was refreshing to be among journalists talking about the ideal of public good and the need to go about their work in a spirit of humility. They saw their newspapers as sturdy institutions in their communities and themselves as grounded in the belief that feet-on-the-street journalism will lead them into the future.
Bob Giles, a 1966 Nieman Fellow, is the curator of the Nieman Foundation.