FOI Privacy

Balancing the right to know with the right to privacy

Public records are the foundation for reporting a range of stories important to your readers.

Police reports reveal a string of continuing break-ins in a neighborhood. Minutes from a school board committee reveal discussions and eventual recommendation to close an elementary school. Letters sent from a state agency to landowners identify potential locations for off-site location of spent fuel from a nearby nuclear power plant.

All of these stories crossed my desk during my tenure as editor of the

Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. As you might suspect, none of the news sources willingly volunteered the information. We relied on open meeting and data practices laws to get the information. Our newsroom credo: The more roadblocks thrown our way to gain access to public information, the more aggressive we became in our efforts.

At the same time, newsrooms should not report public records with reckless abandon. As with any right, newspapers have an accompanying responsibility.

Consider our front-page report of a 7-week-old boy who was revived after suffering cardiac arrest. The “heroes” included the foster parents along with the Red Wing police lieutenant and other emergency personnel who responded – all whom we identified.

One name was purposely absent from the story – the name of the child, who was under foster care. We also didn’t publish the child’s name in the ambulance runs printed on a separate page.

In this case, we decided the potential hurt to the natural parent outweighed the public’s right to know the identity of the infant. We made the decision after speaking with personnel at the county social services.

This was one of those rare cases where we withheld information.

Our reticence stemmed from the fear that one or more of the child’s parents might be living in the area. Identifying the child, who was born with medical problems, would raise the obvious question among acquaintances of the family: Why was the boy not in his parents’ home?

The county welfare director confirmed our suspicion. In nearly all cases foster children are placed with families in the home county. That was true here as well; one of the youth’s natural parents lived in our home county.

In the final analysis, we asked ourselves whether we still had a compelling story without identifying the child. As the welfare director said, “It was a great story. The crew did a terrific job.”

Editors and reporters should remain vigilant in monitoring public information and the needs of readers. As with this instance, decisions to publish should be based on the merits of each case.

Flexibility is the best posture. Editors should try to blend policies to best serve community needs. But public information should be sacred ground to newspapers. It should be to readers as well.

If editors bow to readers’ wishes – and they were able to eliminate publication of news at the ease of a phone call – imagine the vast incompleteness of reports. An entire newspaper’s content would become suspect.

Readers often ask why newspapers stand firm on access to and publication of these records. It’s much like the proverbial “if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile.” If the press agrees to one concession, all too often an individual or agency will try to stretch the rules. Soon laws are enacted with additional restrictions on what once was routinely public data.

Newspapers should stand firm on the premise that readers are best served by a full menu rather than a selective serving of public data. Your argument is strongest if you deliver prompt and accurate reports.

Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 6

Community Journalism: Relentlessly Deviant? CATA of Normative Deviance and Localness in American Community Newspaper Websites

Marcus Funk

Computerized content analysis software, or CATA, offers intriguing insight into the publication of normative deviance on the websites of American community and non-local newspapers. CATA of news factors, ANOVAs, and Pearson’s correlations indicate that community newspaper websites remain “relentlessly local,” but are otherwise as focused on normative deviance as metropolitan and national publications. Put another way: Once localness is established, online community newspaper content is statistically indistinguishable from online metropolitan and national newspaper content.

Media sociologists are fond of theoretical models that analyze and describe journalistic behavior as a highly routinized group mentality (Gans, 1979; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996; Shoemaker & Vos, 2009; Sigal, 1973; Tuchman, 1978; White, 1950). One such theoretical model, gatekeeping theory (Lewin, 1947; White, 1950), has evolved into a consideration of normative deviance (Jong Hyuk, 2008; Shoemaker, 1996; Shoemaker, Chang, & Brendlinger, 1987). The concept is twofold. First, journalists construct news around events, behaviors, ideas, or groups that break established social rules or norms. The goal is to establish potential threats to either the physical security or ideological status quo of the community; this behavior is rooted in a basic sociological need for safety and security (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). Second, gatekeeping theory assumes media practitioners have little practical interaction with media audiences, and thus little public input into news creation (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). This line of inquiry intersects with two intriguing concepts in communication research.

The first concerns the news factor approach, largely pioneered in Europe (Badii & Ward, 1980; Eilders, 2006; Galtung & Ruge, 1965; Joye, 2010; Kepplinger & Ehmig, 2006), which can effectively measure deviance. Bridges and Bridges (Bridges, 1989; Bridges & Bridges, 1997) argue that particular news factors appear in a wide range of American media. Second, audience interaction can be easily measured via American community newspaper websites; these publications are famous for consistent and strong ties to the opinions, needs, concerns, and interests of local communities (Burroughs, 2006; Funk, 2013b; Garfrerick, 2010; Hansen, 2007; Lauterer, 2006; S. C. Lewis, Kaufhold, & Lasorsa, 2009; Reader, 2006). Studying how community and non-community newspapers utilize those news factors on their websites would provide intriguing insight into gatekeeping theory, normative deviance, and the study of community news.


Gatekeeping Theory & Normative Deviance

Gatekeeping theory evolved from a wartime food consumption study by Kurt Lewin (1947) and subsequent adaptation to communication studies by David Manning White (1950), who found that a newspaper wire editor named ‘Mr. Gates’ made both objective and subjective decisions about what news to publish. While White speculated that Mr. Gates’ individual preferences influenced his editorial choices, further research indicated that journalists adhere to highly socialized and routinized patterns common throughout the journalism industry (Bleske, 1991; Bowman, 2008; Cassidy, 2006; Gans, 1979; Gieber, 1956; Hirsch, 1977; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996; Sigal, 1973). Individual choices matter little, these theorists argued, because a journalist’s demographic identity is secondary to entrenched journalistic standards and a largely inflexible conceptualization of ‘news.’

One explanation for that homogenization is normative deviance (Miliband, 1969; Paletz & Entman, 1981; Shoemaker, 1984; Shoemaker & Danielian, 1991; Shoemaker & Vos, 2009), which argues that media homogenization is rooted in a psychological need for safety and stability. Media fill a primal need to monitor potential predators and default to the same basic patterns and trends in news coverage. In today’s world, a variety of real and imagined problems qualify as threats to either the personal safety of media consumers or the ideological status quo of society (Shoemaker, 1996; Shoemaker, et al., 1987). For example, violent behavior among anti-abortion protestors has been associated with greater news coverage than ordinary demonstrations or rational political discourse concerning abortion (Boyle & Armstrong, 2009). Socialist electoral candidates are considered newsworthy threats to the status quo (Daley & James, 1988), deviant events concerning clergy are ‘triggers’ for inter-media agenda setting (Breen, 1997), and deviant news literally drew eyeballs in an online eye-tracking experiment:

Watching the environment enables human beings to run away from or fight against threatening events. Those who monitor their surroundings carefully can adapt themselves to the environment better than those who do not monitor their surroundings. According to Shoemaker [1996], this biological instinct to monitor the surroundings accounts for human beings’ interest in news.” (Jong Hyuk, 2008, p. 42)

Shoemaker and Vos (2009) make two further stipulations: Deviance is derived from a lack of interaction between news producers and news audiences, and that deviance can effectively be measured through the study of news factors.

News Factors

News factors research focuses on condensing news articles into common, discreet pieces; this approach lends itself well to the study of normative deviance, as those individual pieces can serve as scales for deviant content.

The news factor approach stems from a pivotal study by Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge (1965), who analyzed coverage of three overseas crises in four Norwegian newspapers and outlined 12 ‘news factors’ common to crisis coverage: frequency, threshold, unambiguity, meaningfulness, consonance, unexpectedness, continuity, composition, reference to elite nations, reference to elite people, reference to persons, and reference to something negative. They found that the more factors a potential news item contained, the more likely that item would receive coverage (Galtung & Ruge, 1965).

Replications abound. Harcup and O’Neill (2001) found the majority of those 12 factors applied to daily news coverage in United Kingdom newspapers; unambiguity was particularly common, although the framework had some difficulty describing entertainment news, references to sex or animals, or news motivated by a photograph. Joye (2010) refocused Galtung and Ruge’s (1965) study from crisis news to disaster news in Flemish newspapers and found proximity, geographically and culturally, as the predominant motivator for coverage of European or western disasters and marginalized news coverage of Asian, African or Latin American disasters. Kepplinger and Ehmig (2006) argued that news factors could serve predictive purpose rather than simply offering post-production illustrative detail, while Lewis and Cushion (2009) found breaking news so prevalent on 24-hour British television news networks that factors of ‘unpredictability’ often usurped ‘predictability;’ breaking news can be banal, in a sense, as long as it was current first and foremost. Of note, too, are considerations of Islamic religious values serving as news factors in Arab newspapers (Elliott & Greer, 2010; Mowlana, 1996). Alternate sets of factors have evolved as well (Corrigan, 1990; Gladney, 1996; Schulz, 1976), and as previously mentioned, Bridges and Bridges (Bridges, 1989; Bridges & Bridges, 1997) studied proximity, prominence, timeliness, impact, magnitude, conflict and oddity.

Community Journalism

What distinguishes community journalism as a genre, and as a relatively stable market product, is its extant and explicit focus on a local community, local readers, and local issues. Scholarship has repeatedly identified the ‘relentlessly local’ focus of community journalism (Lauterer, 2006), which are commonly operationalized as publications with less than 50,000 regular circulation. Such publications are principally devoted to local readers (Bowd, 2011; Funk, 2013b; Garfrerick, 2010; Hansen & Hansen, 2011), dedicated to helping local communities survive crises (Dill & Wu, 2009; Hansen & Hansen, 2012), interested in maintaining positive working relationships with local audiences and local elites (Donohue, Olien, & Tichenor, 1989; Reader, 2006), and have historically attempted to preserve community identity when faced with wartime atrocities or Cold War propaganda (Bishop, 2009; Carey, 2013).

As Gene Burd (1979) has noted, however, “definitions of community [are] crucial to journalistic training, practice and performance. In fact, the separation of community from any type of journalism may be a contradiction” (Burd, 1979, p. 3). This mirrors arguments by Benedict Anderson (2006) that community and news media are co-constructed and intrinsically inseparable. This expands the potential definitions of ‘local’ and ‘community journalism’ into new and niche markets, both on and offline. Community news media catered to the online role playing realm of Second Life (Brennen & dela Cerna, 2010), niche homosexual media (Cover, 2005), and local health activism publications (McAlister & Johnson, 2000). American community journalism also has been suggested as a model for media development in China (Lauterer, 2012). The definition of ‘community journalism,’ even, is flexible and more closely rooted to community service than any particular variety of localness (Lowrey, Brozana, & Mackay, 2008).

Research Questions

Two primary research questions consider variance of news factors across circulation categories and potential correlations between news factors. These RQs utilize terms that will be operationalized in the methodology section, along with an exploration and literature review of computerized content analysis.

RQ1: How does the publication of deviant, social significance, and egalitarian news factors vary across the websites of American community weekly, community daily, large daily, and national daily newspapers?

RQ2: How are deviant, social significance, and egalitarian news factors correlated with circulation size on the websites of American community weekly, community daily, large daily, and national daily newspapers?


Content analysis is the systematic, inter-subjective study of content which is extant, and absent, within a media text. It is typically “systematic, objective, quantitative analysis” (Nuendorf, 2002, p. 1) that “limits itself to the produced content alone and draws conclusions based on what is there” (Poindexter & McCombs, 2000, p. 188). The goal is the valid and reliable translation of media content into useful statistical data. Traditionally, this has involved methodological categorization of data in media texts by trained coders following a strict codebook to derive quantitative data (Krippendorff, 2004; Nuendorf, 2002; Poindexter & McCombs, 2000; Weber, 1990). Computerized content analysis software, or CATA, essentially mechanizes and expedites the same process, concentrating both the strengths and weaknesses of the method.

CATA is capable of processing massive volumes of texts almost instantaneously, offering clear appeal to communication researchers; however, that analysis remains limited to what are essentially sophisticated word counts. Studies that rely upon even simple associations or context usually are beyond the software capabilities. One comparison of a traditional and CATA analyses concerning attribute agenda setting yielded vastly different results (Conway, 2006), and scholars are quick to advocate simplicity and specificity when dealing with computers (Krippendorff, 2004; Nuendorf, 2002).

The best method of ensuring validity uses words as the units of analyses. Proper computerized content analysis is achieved through the use of word dictionaries, essentially large word banks; the computer searches the text for every instance of every word in a word dictionary and groups those terms according to the researcher’s specifications.

For this study, word dictionaries will be constructed for each of Bridges and Bridges’ (Bridges, 1989; Bridges & Bridges, 1997) news factors; the program will count the frequencies of those words in the text, group those frequencies accordingly, and provide one frequency for each news factor in each category of media. The statistics are relatively simple. The challenge lies in ensuring that all relevant words are included and inappropriate words are struck from the word dictionaries; failing to do so could compromise the validity of the study. Once validity has been established, however, reliability is an extremely simple process. Computers cannot not be reliable. As a matter of design, they approach every data point in identical manner (Krippendorff, 2004; Nuendorf, 2002); there also is a substantial history of CATA in communication studies, particularly concerning rhetoric (Abdelrehim, Maltby, & Toms, 2011; Aust, 2004; Ballotti & Kaid, 2000; Cho et al., 2003; Conway, 2006; Crew & Lewis, 2011; Don, 2011; Gorton & Diels, 2010; Jarvis, 2004).


Proper operationalization of terms is important for any study, but particularly a CATA analysis. As such, the first pertinent definition concerns normative deviance, as defined by texts on gatekeeping theory (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009).

Behavior, ideas, groups, or events are deviant when they break social rules or norms. Normative deviance is studied through news factors, a vein of academic research descended from the work of Galtung and Ruge (1965). Specifically, this study adopts and adapts Bridges and Bridges’ news factors (Bridges, 1989; Bridges & Bridges, 1997). This study organizes these factors into three categories that deserve explication here: Deviant Factors, Social Significance Factors, and Egalitarian Factors.

Deviant Factors: News that emphasizes aberration from regular routines or society, deviant news factors focus on various types of conflict and celebrity (i.e., prominence, conflict, oddity).

Social Significance Factors: Social significance factors relate to news factors that pertain to details of volume or scope. Not intrinsically deviant or egalitarian, they serve as descriptors of other deviant or egalitarian factors (i.e., impact).

Egalitarian Factors: News that emphasizes ordinary occurrence, egalitarian news factors focus on tangible details and regular interaction (i.e., timeliness, proximity).

The individual factors also deserve detailed operationalization. The deviant factors used here concern prominence, conflict, and oddity.

Prominence: Prominence refers to elite or infamous individuals, issues or institutions mentioned in an article. Prominence can be local, as in a mayor or a sports team, or non-local, as in a president or an ambassador.

Conflict: Conflict refers to open disagreement between persons, groups, animals or issues, against one another or nature. Clear, articulate opposition is required; however, conflict can be broadly defined. Conflict includes elections, sports games, crime, and severe weather.

Oddity: Oddity refers to news coverage which recognizes a rare or strange event or occurrence. Odd news is news because it is odd, not simply an unusual detail of regular news.

Social significance factors cannot be considered deviant or egalitarian. They are expressions of quantity or depth that enhance, augment, magnify, or devalue deviant or egalitarian factors. Originally, following Bridges and Bridges’ (Bridges, 1989; Bridges & Bridges, 1997) framework, factors for impact and magnitude were adopted for social significance; ultimately, due to CATA complications, magnitude was dropped from the analysis.

Impact: Impact refers to the effect or consequence of a news story, either damaging or enhancing, massive or miniscule. It is akin to intensity. An article about major or minor freeway closures could have impact, as could coverage of cancer treatments, legislative hearings, or congressional elections.

Egalitarian news factors consider the tangible, ordinary, and normal. They are sometimes considered “contingent conditions” (Shoemaker & Danielian, 1991). Both timeliness and proximity were ultimately broken into sub-categories.

Timeliness: Timeliness refers to the currency of a news story. News content relating to an event that occurred fewer than two days prior to the publication, or forecasting a news event fewer than two days in the future, qualifies.

Proximity: Proximity refers to the local-ness of a news item. Articles that mention a location, event, individual or institution within the immediate coverage area of a newspaper (operationalized as within 20 miles) qualify as proximate.

The media under scrutiny also deserve definition. Indeed, “community journalism” suffers from more than a bit of ambiguity. The industry standard defines community newspapers as publications regular circulation of less than 50,000 (Lauterer, 2006). While there is worthwhile conceptual debate concerning the nature of ‘community’ and the relationship between physical and ideological community (Anderson, 2006; Burd, 1979; Lowrey, et al., 2008), this study utilizes conventional circulation size as an operationalization.

Community Weekly Newspapers: Weekly, local, for-profit, American newspapers with regular print circulation of fewer than 50,000 copies.

Community Daily Newspapers: Daily, local, for-profit, American newspapers with regular daily print circulation of fewer than 50,000 copies.

Large Daily Newspapers: Daily, for-profit, American newspapers with regular daily print circulation of more than 50,000 copies but fewer than 500,000 copies.

National Newspapers: Daily, for-profit, American newspapers with a regular daily print circulation greater than 500,000 copies.


A framework of 125 American newspapers was used to establish a dataset: 40 community newspapers, 40 community daily newspapers, 40 large daily newspapers, and five national newspapers. Establishing geographic diversity ensured that geographic biases did not call results into question. Following in the footsteps of Reader (2006), who divided the United States into 14 geographic categories to derive a qualitative dataset of 28 newspapers, this study partitioned the United States into eight discreet regions based on common cultural, economic, and socio-political characteristics.

Each region was allowed five community newspapers, five community daily newspapers, and five large daily newspapers. The random selection process utilized a set of multi-sided dice to determine random starting points and publications. Publication frequency and circulation size were then confirmed through the Ulrich Periodic Index. This random sample accounted for 120 American newspapers stratified by circulation size and regional geography; this sampling was based largely on a previous study of community newspapers and Benedict Anderson’s theory of ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson, 2006; Funk, 2013a). The Funk (2013a) study used identical regional categories, a 120-newspaper sample, and served as the basis for the random dataset; the researcher updated and confirmed the circulation size and categorization in October 2012. Additionally, one national newspaper was chosen from five different regional categories. Random selection was employed in regions with multiple national newspapers.

The data collection process utilized a constructed-week format. Since some weekly newspapers publish online content once a week, data was never collected from the same publication more than once in any given week. The 125 newspapers were randomly sorted into five groups of 25 newspapers each. Five constructed weeks were designed over a nine-week period; technical difficulties resulted in rescheduling one data collection point during a tenth week. Data were collected between January and March 2013.

Data consisted of the three most prominent news articles on each news website. The full articles, headlines and subheadlines were copied and pasted into Microsoft Word. Bylines, authorship, and contact information was omitted. The Word documents were organized by group and circulation size category, and also included the day of the week and date in the document title (ie, ‘A.CW.Monday.1.1’ for a hypothetical data collected from community weekly newspapers in Group A on Monday, Jan. 1). There were a total of 375 articles downloaded each day per group and a grand total of 2,625 articles from newspaper websites.

Word Dictionaries

Word dictionaries were designed to be exhaustive and inclusive. They included any word that could qualify for each of the news factors, as well as different conjugations (i.e., conflict, conflicting, conflicted) and forms (i.e., violence and violent). Word dictionaries for prominence, conflict, oddity, and impact were straightforward but vast. Dictionaries for the remaining factors were more complex.

Proximity was split into two sections, general proximity and specific proximity. General proximity consisted of terms like ‘local’ and ‘area.’ Specific proximity was derived primarily through the website, which constructed a transparent radius around each listed community in Google Maps; the map was then zoomed to a two-mile scale and scanned for any cities, towns, villages, or labeled neighborhoods located wholly or partially within the radius. The dictionary also included the name of the home community’s county, counties, parish, or parishes. Each category of newspapers had its own specific proximity dictionary; i.e., community weekly newspapers in the A group, or A.CW, had one dictionary, as did A.CD, A.LD, A.ND, B.CW, C.CW, and so on.

Similarly, timeliness was sub-divided into ‘recentness’ and ‘dates.’ Recentness contained words stating timeliness, such as ‘recent’ or ‘current,’ while dates was customized for each individual set of articles to include the date of publication as well as the two dates before and after (i.e., within the word dictionary itself, for hypothetical dataset A.CW.Monday.1.1, the dates dictionary would include ‘December = 30, December = 31, January = 1, January = 2, January = 3).

The final of Bridges and Bridges’ (Bridges, 1989; Bridges & Bridges, 1997) news factors, magnitude, is an expression of quantity that was ultimately abandoned. Although DICTION 6.0 can count quantitative figures, it cannot distinguish between numbers which are not expressions of quantity. It cannot tell the difference, for example, between the phrases ‘221 percent tax increase’ and ‘221 Baker Street,’ or between 5,125,555,555 people and the phone number (512) 555-5555. Efforts to engineer a solution were ultimately unreliable and unsuccessful.

A sample list of terms used in each word dictionary is available in Table 1. The construction of these dictionaries was conducted in Microsoft Excel. This enabled easy comparison and construction of dictionaries and an expedient search for duplicate entries. It was important to ensure that, for every dictionary but those designed for specific proximity, every word be included in only one dictionary. For specific proximity, it was acceptable if (hypothetically) Springfield, Massachusetts and Springfield, Oregon were in two different specific proximity dictionaries as only one specific proximity dictionary would be enabled at a time. However, it was important that ‘Springfield’ appear only once in each dictionary.

To ensure validity, the researcher solicited input and review from six graduate students and professors at a major research university. This process was theoretically analogous to inter-coder reliability procedures; while one individual may plan word dictionaries with validity errors, consultation with a group of researchers reduced the likelihood of improper inclusions or exclusions.

The final step imported each of the 26 dictionaries (prominence, conflict, oddity, impact, recentness, general proximity, and 20 dictionaries for specific proximity) into DICTION 6.0’s custom dictionary feature. Finally, the dates dictionary was adjusted manually prior to each individual analysis.

Once the word dictionaries were constructed, the analysis began. DICTION 6.0 computed means for each word dictionary for each Word document containing downloaded articles. Data were then processed and analyzed in Microsoft Excel and SPSS for ANOVA analyses and Pearson’s correlation analyses.

Finally, because the data analysis process utilized a multi-step and multi-platform process, the final ‘n’ in the SPSS analysis is only partially representative of the full dataset. SPSS processed what it considered 140 dense units of data – one unit for each document representing thousands of downloaded articles. One data unit represented DICTION 6.0 analyses of online news articles from community weekly newspapers in Group A, another for community daily newspapers in Group A, and so on. The number 140 misleads here as it represents only the final step in the data analysis process and understates the density of the dataset. As such, this study includes an n to represent the number of data points measured by SPSS and an n0 reflecting the number of articles and, thus, the true number of data points.

Table 1: Word Dictionaries
ProminenceMayor, governor, president, senator, executive, elite, CEO, COO, reigning, actor, musician, singer, celebrity, athlete, professional.
ConflictWar, conflict, clash, spat, difference, disagreement, disparity, confrontation, violence, violent.
OddityOdd, strange, bizarre, unusual, uncanny, unnerving, rare, extraordinary.
ImpactImpact, change, difference, meaningful, major, important, crucial, critical, altering, changing, ending, beginning, genesis, cataclysm.
RecentnessYesterday, today, tomorrow, soon, lately, (Not: next, last.)
DatesThe specific dates for the date of data collection, two days previous and two days following, as well as the corresponding days of the week, for each set of articles.
General ProximityLocal, area, nearby.
Specific ProximityThe name of every city, town, village, or neighborhood within 20 miles of each newspapers’ home community, as well as the community’s county or counties, or parish or parishes.


Broadly, computerized content analysis found that circulation size plays no significant role in the use of deviant or egalitarian news factors, and a limited role concerning egalitarian factors. Put another way: Community weekly newspapers and national newspapers are equally focused on conflict, prominence, and oddity in their online news content.

RQ1 asked how the publication of deviant, social significance, and egalitarian news factors varied across the websites of American community weekly, community daily, large daily, and national daily newspapers. ANOVA indicated that American newspapers of all circulation sizes demonstrated clear, unanimous consistency concerning deviant and egalitarian news factors. Variance for only one factor, specific proximity, was statistically significant (p < .001**, df = 3, n = 140, n0 = 2,625); smaller newspapers were significantly more likely to publish specific proximity factors than larger newspapers. Put another way: community newspapers were significantly more likely to publish the names of their home communities, and nearby communities, in their news coverage. The remaining factors saw no significant variation across circulation categories (see Figure 1 for means and ANOVA analyses).

Figure 1: Word Frequency Means of News Factors on Newspaper Websites by Circulation Category

RQ2 asked how deviant, social significance, and egalitarian news factors are correlated with circulation size on the websites of American community weekly, community daily, large daily, and national daily newspapers.

Pearson’s correlations were used to determine potential relationships between circulation size and use of deviant, social significance, and egalitarian news factors in online news. Analysis indicated only one pertinent significant correlation, between circulation size and specific proximity (r = -.342**, p < .001, n = 140, n0 = 2,625); the negative orientation indicates that the larger the circulation size, the lower the frequency of specific proximity. This is consistent with ANOVA analysis of the same data. The remaining factors had non-significant relationships with circulation size. Analysis also indicated a significant relationship between oddity and general proximity (r = .279**, p < .001, n = 140, n0 = 2,625). This relationship is not particularly relevant, but the full correlations set is reported here in the interest of comprehensiveness (see Figure 2 for correlation analyses).


Data presented here indicate the spectrum of American newspaper websites remain predominately preoccupied with news about deviance. Deviance remains a constant focus in news construction, even among hyper-local community newspapers which are also focused on localness. The relationship between circulation size and geographic focus is not surprising; indeed, this is consistent with the editorial mission and business model of community journalism. It is surprising, however, that news content in hyper-local community newspapers is as focused on deviance as national media like The New York Times.

Figure 2: Pearson’s Correlations of Means Comparing Circulation Category and News Factors on Newspaper Websites

The weekly, hyper-local Weekly Observer is certainly concerned with local news about its home in Hemingway, South Carolina; The Los Angeles Times, conversely, is less concerned with news about Los Angeles and more devoted to major national and international news. Once that local focus is accounted for, however, there are no significant differences between the two concerning the remainder of their editorial content.

Put another way: If quantitative analysis had not measured for specific proximity and had instead been solely concerned with the use of deviant news factors, then the news content in The Weekly Observer and The Los Angeles Times would yield statistically identical results. Thus, the only important difference between community journalism news content and national journalism news content is a focus on localness – the “community” may generate differences in newspaper business models, but a pervasive industry standard on deviance clearly defines the “journalism” part, regardless of a publication’s circulation size.

These findings also speak to a remarkably high degree of media socialization across ostensibly diverse varieties of journalists, thus reinforcing media sociology and gatekeeping studies (Cassidy, 2006; Gans, 1979; Gieber, 1956; Lewin, 1947; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996; Shoemaker & Vos, 2009; Sigal, 1973; White, 1950). It also speaks to the prevalence of normative deviance in American media and the predictive power of news factor studies.

However, data also are contrary to gatekeeping theory’s stipulation that journalists default to news about deviance due to a lack of interaction with media audiences. Given community newspapers’ well established dialogue with local communities, it seems apparent that normative deviance is a foundational part of American news. It is not a construction of isolated journalists; instead, these data show normative deviance is independent of journalist-audience interaction.

This study identifies two major opportunities for future research. First, findings indicating that normative deviance is not the result of poor journalist and audience communication are a noteworthy repudiation of gatekeeping theory (Shoemaker & Vos, 2009). Deviance, instead, is a constant focus of American online news regardless of a newspapers’ circulation size. Why? Why do journalists who do have near constant communication with audiences remain focused on deviance, and what might interviews with those journalists and audiences reveal? Findings point to a need for better theoretical understanding and definition of normative deviance.

Second, as definitions of community and localness continue to evolve, it would be meritorious to consider how deviance applies to non-geographic community journalism. How might community media focused on particular ideological niches, professional trades, or sports teams incorporate normative deviance? Would they reflect a consistent focus on deviance, or not? Future studies could apply the frameworks used here to other varieties of community media.

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About the Author

Dr. Marcus Funk is an assistant professor of journalism at Sam Houston State University.

Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 6

Community Journalism for the 21st Century: Cultural Competence and Student Reporting in Urban Neighborhoods

Dianne M. Garyantes

This study sought to identify factors that influence the cultural competence of student journalists covering urban neighborhoods. The findings indicate that professional norms, including objectivity, contribute to a culturally competent approach to community reporting. An over-reliance on these norms, however, can hinder culturally competent reporting. Empirical support was found for previously identified dimensions of cultural competence: awareness, knowledge, and skills to interact effectively with people from different cultures, as well as that the ability to negotiate an “insider” or “outsider” status. The study provides the possibility of a new norm for community journalism – to promote understanding across cultures.

Community journalism, like the rest of the news industry, is undergoing major changes in the way that it conceptualizes, produces and presents news content. Digital technologies in particular have created an unprecedented interconnectedness within localities and across the globe, which has re-oriented the field of community journalism toward geographically dispersed audiences as well as previously untapped local communities (Garyantes, 2012; Meyer & Daniels, 2012; Reader, 2012). The result has been a re-examination of the requirements of the field, including the need to connect with and better understand people from a wide range of communities and cultures.

This study seeks to identify the factors that influence the cultural competence of community reporters by studying journalism students as they report on urban communities in a large northeastern city. The communities covered by the students are, for the most part, quite culturally different from the cultural backgrounds and perspectives of the students, according to demographic data and student surveys.

The need to understand cultures other than one’s own has been growing in importance. The process of globalization, in which people and nations are becoming more integrated economically, politically, and culturally, is continuing, even in the face of the dramatic global economic downturn in late 2008 (McNulty, 2009). In recent decades, the pace of globalization “has dramatically increased. Unprecedented changes in communications, transportation, and computer technology have given the process new impetus and made the world more interdependent than ever” (Global Policy Forum, 2014, p. 1). Meanwhile, U.S. Census figures predict the U.S. population will be considerably older and more racially and ethnically diverse by 2060 (Colby & Ortman, 2015; U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). We are becoming more integrated worldwide and more diverse domestically.

Studies of the news industry have found people learn about diverse cultures and perspectives through the news media (Hannerz, 2004; Lippmann, 1922; Tuchman, 1978). Journalists, however, have been criticized for their inability to effectively and accurately report about cultures and perspectives that differ from their own (Brennen & Duffy, 2003; Davis & Kent, 2013; Friedman & Hoffman-Goetz, 2006; Ibrahim, 2003; Natarajan & Xiaoming, 2003). Some practitioners and scholars have advocated for a new approach to journalism that is more inclusive of diverse perspectives and has the potential to enhance our understanding of others (Davis & Kent, 2013; Gans, 1980, 2011; Hallin & Briggs, 2015).

For students learning about the craft of journalism, the concepts taught include objectivity, fairness, accuracy, and a code of ethics, which are related to the traditions of the profession and the socialization of reporters (Folkerts, 2014; Mari, 2015). Today, the instruction of multimedia and digital skills has been added to most journalism programs (Creech & Mendelson, 2015; Kelley, 2007). Above all, the notion of public service and journalism’s role in democracy have underscored the evolution of the profession and its accompanying curricula (Deuze, 2006; Lowe & Stavitsky, 2016; Mari, 2015). Because reporting is grounded in public service and is so closely intertwined in its community and the world at large, a journalism curriculum needs to “define ways to culturally and thematically contextualize its program” (Deuze, 2006, p. 27).

One way to bridge differences in cultures is through “cultural competence,” a relatively new concept that has been embraced by an increasing number of professions, including social work, psychology, public relations, second-language training, business, government, education, and health care. Cultural competence involves the extent to which individuals develop the awareness, knowledge, and skills necessary to understand and work effectively with people from a variety of cultures (D’Andrea, Daniels, & Heck, 1991; Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992). Georgetown University’s Center for Child and Human Development features a National Center for Cultural Competence (2016), while the National Association of Social Workers (2001) has developed a policy that “charges social workers with the ethical responsibility to be culturally competent” (p. 7). Cultural competence programs also have proliferated in U.S. medical schools in response to increasing national diversity and mandates from accrediting bodies (Kripalani, Bussey-Jones, Katz, & Genao, 2006).

While cultural competence during the past several decades has been expanding in use and credibility, the concept also has been criticized as vaguely defined, inconsistently measured, and missing important perspectives (Herman, Tucker, Ferdinand, Mirsu-Paun, Hasan, & Beato, 2007; Kocarek, Talbot, Batka, & Anderson, 2001). Others criticisms include that the concept does not address dimensions such as power, structure, and positionality (Dean, 2001; Jenks, 2011; Suzuki, McRae, & Short, 2001). Still other scholars maintain the concept actually narrows the concept of culture and can lead to stereotyping (Lee & Farrell, 2006).

This study seeks to address criticisms about the concept as it attempts to determine the factors that influence the cultural competence of university students learning journalism skills through a community journalism project. By studying cultural competence in relation to student journalists and their work, we can gain new knowledge about the concept and its potential to be included in journalism curricula, increase the possibility that community news reporting will be more inclusive of diverse perspectives, and potentially enhance our understanding of others and ourselves.

Community, Community Journalism, and Cultural Competence

The concept of community is multifaceted and difficult to define. An early definition of community is that it is a master system encompassing social forms and cultural behavior in interdependent systems or institutions (Arensberg & Kimball, 1972). Lowrey, Brozana and Mackay (2008) defined community as a process of negotiating shared symbolic meaning and noted that community media aid this process by “both encouraging pluralism and offering cohesive, coherent representations of the community” (p. 1). Community also has been defined as existing in the abstract, where there is a sense of commonality among people, and in the concrete, where specific groups of people connect over certain circumstances or interests (Christensen & Levinson, 2003).

Further distinctions among communities can be found in the Encyclopedia of Community (Christensen & Levinson, 2003) and in an essay published by Hatcher and Reader (2012), which distinguish communities as proximate communities, in which membership depends on residence in a particular place; primordial communities, or those built around ethnicity or shared heritage; instrumental communities, which are developed around specific, relatively short-term goals such as political purposes; and affinity communities, which connect people by areas of common interest. Today, virtual communities, which connect people online in diverse and socially supportive ways free from geography, also thrive (Hampton, 2003).

Urban neighborhoods, which are the focus of this study, share the complexities and characteristics of community outlined above – including but not limited to proximity, shared heritage, and affinity – and often are served by community media (Janowitz, 1952). The various conceptualizations of community necessitate a need for reporters to understand and represent a community’s overlapping layers and definitions.

Community journalism historically has been characterized by small newspapers covering a specified geographical area with an emphasis on local reporting and close relationships between the reporters and audience members (Kennedy, 1974; Lauterer, 2006; Reader, 2012). The emphasis of the coverage, according to Lauterer and Reader, was on people and face-to-face interactions. The degree and implications of “connectivity” between journalism and its communities are important, particularly in the study of community journalism (Reader, 2012). This focus on community in community journalism encourages reporters to determine the priorities of local residents, as well as their concerns and perspectives on different issues (Kurpius, 1999).

Today, however, increased mobility and digital technologies have fostered the emergence of communities that are connected not by particular places, but by common interests and the distribution of information. Rather than defined by geography, community “instead becomes more about shared interests than shared locations” (Meyer & Daniels, 2012, p. 199). The structural shift from communities of place to digital, niche communities presents potential challenges for community journalism (Friedland, 2012). News organizations, local news and civic engagement could be diminished or even lost if the trend continues. This potential loss was uncovered in one study, which found local residents were mixed in their support of a new county-run digital information and media center (Mwangi, Smethers, & Bressers, 2014). While some residents strongly supported the center, others were critical of its high cost and said their lack of technical skills prevented them from participating in the center’s information hub (Mwangi, Smethers, & Bressers, 2014).

Other studies have found, however, that the new breed of online news entrepreneurs, particularly former journalists, has been primarily focused on the public service mission of covering local communities (Ferrucci, 2015; Nee, 2013). Moreover, the goal of online communities and traditional community journalists is similar: to bring people together (Meyer & Daniels, 2012). Thus, the move to online communication potentially has both deleterious and beneficial effects to community journalism.

Community and community journalism are located within the larger context of culture (Arensberg & Kimball, 1972; Deuze, 2006; Hatcher, 2012). Yet the concept of culture also has been evolving and becoming more complex over time. Over the past 140 years, anthropologists have conceptualized culture from “a complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor, 1874, p. 1) to a total way of life, a way of thinking, feeling, and believing (Geertz, 1973; Rosaldo, 1993). Culture is a broad concept, one that is learned, historically situated, and continually evolving (Geertz, 1973; Rosaldo, 1993). Geertz (1973) wrote culture is a way of creating meaning and artfully described it as “webs of significance that he (man) himself has spun” (p. 5). It is characterized by change, inconsistencies, and contradictions. Moreover, individuals have multiple identities within a culture.

Anthropologists, sociologists, and other social researchers also acknowledge subcultures within larger cultures that are based on their own values and norms (Mendoza-Denton & Boum, 2015; Vigil, 2003). Another perspective involves the notion of cultures in the plural, which denotes difference and situates cultures within various contexts (Brumann, 1999; Hannerz, 1997), while cultural processes (Appadurai, 1996) also indicate difference and help to mobilize group identities. Thus, culture is a major influence within and on communities and needs to be understood by community journalists.

Cultural competence

Definitions of cultural competence vary, although most focus on “the capacity to function effectively in other cultural contexts” (Paz, 2008, p. 3). One conceptualization adapted from a definition developed by Cross, Bazron, Dennis and Isaacs (1989) states cultural competence is “a developmental process that evolves over an extended period. Both individuals and organizations are at various levels of awareness, knowledge and skills along the cultural competence continuum” (National Center for Cultural Competence, 2016, p. 1). The three main dimensions of cultural competence as used by Sue et al. (1992) and D’Andrea et al. (1991) are still used in most conceptualizations and models of cultural competence today. They are awareness of one’s own perspectives and biases (also referred to as attitudes and beliefs), knowledge about culture and cultural perspectives, and skills to interact with a variety of people belonging to various cultural groups.

While cultural competence is considered valuable in a variety of professions, some studies have associated it with positive outcomes. In research examining the effects of cultural competence training in health care, for example, cultural competence training has been related to positive patient outcomes (Lie, Lee-Rey, Gomez, Bereknyei, & and Braddock III, 2010) and the potential to reduce ethnic and racial health disparities (Lie, Carter-Pokras, Braun, & Coleman, 2012). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health and individual U.S. states now actively promote cultural competence training and approaches in health care (, 2009; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016).

Cultural competence has not been adopted in the field of journalism in the same way other professions, particularly by the medical, mental health and social work fields, have embraced it, yet some of the goals of the journalism profession and journalism education are aligned with the concept. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics (2014), for example, states journalists should “boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear” (n.p.) and to avoid stereotyping. It adds “journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting” (p.1). In another example, one of the nine standards outlined by the Accrediting Council of Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (2017) is Diversity and Inclusiveness, which includes curriculum that “fosters understanding of issues and perspectives that are inclusive in terms of domestic concerns about gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation…(and) across diverse cultures in a global society” (p. 1).

In a study of 105 accredited and non-accredited journalism programs, researchers found that the relevance of diversity for all types of practitioners in mass communication and the importance of diversity in the job market were reasons why journalism programs made diversity important in their curricula (Biswas & Izard, 2009). Biswas and Izard wrote: “Cultural competence and multicultural knowledge are increasingly being demanded in the diverse, competitive environment of the job market” (p. 391). Moreover, employers also believe diversity and cultural awareness are skills sets that are vital in the communications field (Gotlieb, McLaughlin & Cummins, 2017; Herk, 2015). Herk (2015) cited surveys that found employers believe it is important for candidates to possess “knowledge related to being able to work effectively in organizations and markets that are increasingly global and diverse. This runs the gamut from ‘awareness and experience of’ diverse cultures (either inside or outside the U.S.)… to the ability to work with/get along with others from diverse cultures … to the ability to ‘operate’ in different cultural settings” (p. 5).

Factors that have been identified as contributors to cultural competence in previous research include the ability to examine one’s own prejudices and biases toward other cultures, understand the other person’s world view, and directly engage in and desire to engage in cross-cultural interactions (Campinha-Bacote, 1999); demonstration of open-mindedness, self-confidence, inquisitiveness, and maturity, as outlined in the California Critical Thinking Dispositions Inventory (CCTDT) (Doutrich & Storey, 2004); and the ability to explore and reflect on culture, racism, classism, sexism, and historical factors that might shape health behaviors (Betancourt, 2003).

The concept has largely been measured quantitatively through surveys and indices developed for cultural competence training (Delgado, Ness, Ferguson, Engstrom, Gannon, & Gillett, 2013), although some scholars have argued the concept of culture itself is complicated and best assessed through mixed methods or qualitative research methods (Johnston & Herzig, 2006; Williams, 2007). A problematic aspect of the concept is the notion of obtaining specific knowledge of cultures other than one’s own. Critics of cultural competence argue that having “knowledge” of a culture can lead to stereotyping. Some anthropologists have argued the cultural competence ultimately essentializes the complex nature of culture and could be a “backdoor to racism” (Lee and Farrell, 2006, p. 1).

The term “competence” also has been challenged (Kirmayer, 2012; Kleinman & Benson, 2006). Competence can indicate the erroneous notion that culture can be reduced to a technical skill for which professionals can be trained (Kleinman & Benson, 2006). These criticisms have led current cultural competence scholars to argue it is time to move past the concept’s “list of traits” or “do’s and don’ts” approach to cross-cultural interactions and develop an open, questioning approach with people from different cultural groups about how social, cultural, or economic factors influence their lives (Betancourt, 2006; Betancourt & Green, 2010; Jenks, 2011; Kleinman & Benson, 2006).

This research seeks to identify factors that influence the cultural competence of student journalists through a case study of undergraduate student reporters producing a community news website in a culturally diverse, urban setting. A broad operational definition of cultural competence was constructed for the study that conceptualizes cultural competence as a broad, multidimensional process and includes the three main dimensions of cultural competence tailored specifically for community journalists: awareness of one’s own cultural perspectives, knowledge of culture and cultural perspectives, and the skills and attributes to effectively and appropriately communicate, interact with, and represent people from a variety of cultures (see Appendix 1). The knowledge dimension of cultural competence was divided into two levels: 1) a broad “macro” level, which includes an understanding that collective cultural practices conform to common codes and norms, shared language, and common historical, political, social, and economic development; and 2) an understanding of an anti-essentialized “micro” level of culture, which includes complexities of culture such as that culture is not static, but a process that is constantly being constructed by people within the culture, that there are as many differences and influences within a cultural group as between different cultural groups, that cultures continually change due to internal and external influences, and that individuals can have multiple identities within the culture.

Research Questions

The theoretical underpinnings of the research include the social construction of reality, which examines how people within social groups interpret the world around them (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Schutz, 1944), and concepts related to social cognition including individual and group schema, attribution, and cognitive complexity, which address how individuals and societies construct and perceive the world around them (Fiske & Taylor, 1984; Hamilton, Devine & Ostrom, 1994). Increased attention to these matters could lead to a more culturally competent approach to journalism, which would encourage an awareness of one’s biases and could motivate a reporter to seek out alternative schemata. In addition, a higher level of cognitive complexity on the part of reporters, in which they are able to perceive diversity in opinion, grasp ambiguity, and understand that knowledge and values are contextual rather than right or wrong, will help them transcend their own perspectives or question their narrow perspectives. Support for the cultural competence of journalists also could begin a renewed discussion of issues such as the importance of providing multiple perspectives, or providing a more “multiperspectival” approach to news, as advocated by Gans (2011). Two main research questions were explored:

RQ1: What are the specific factors that contribute to the cultural competence of student community journalists?

RQ2: What specific factors hinder student community journalists’ ability to offer culturally competent news coverage?


This case study is based on survey, interview, and participant observation data collected from 2007 to 2009 from student journalists working in a multimedia urban reporting lab. The lab is at a large northeastern university, where student reporters work in groups of two or three to produce multimedia news pieces about urban neighborhoods that are under-served by the mainstream media. Cultural competence was not taught as part of the course, although the students were encouraged by the professors in the lab to be open-minded, fair and accurate in their reporting about the neighborhoods. It is worth noting that student journalists are an important population to study because they represent the next generation of reporters who are likely to produce content for online publications and for culturally diverse, even global, audiences.

This research represents the second phase of a larger research study. An earlier phase of the case study involved an in-depth analysis of the reporting and news texts by two groups of student journalists covering the same urban neighborhood (Garyantes, 2012). The first phase of the study also used a multi-method approach to identify factors that influence the cultural competence of journalists. The findings included the students were able to negotiate their “insider-outsider” status in the neighborhood and the increased context provided by multimedia storytelling offered the potential to move the reporters and their news texts toward a more culturally competent approach to community journalism.

In order to further refine the factors that influence reporter cultural competence and study them on a broader scale, this phase of the research examines a wider range of the student reporters’ experiences in and perceptions of various neighborhoods, as reported through more than 200 survey responses and dozens of in-depth interviews. These data were triangulated with participant observations and interviews with news sources and neighborhood representatives, who reviewed the students’ news texts representing their cultures and communities.

Specifically, the data include 223 self-assessment surveys of the student reporters administered at the beginning and end of the semester over six semesters. The 38-question survey at the start of the semester involved closed- and open-ended questions on topics such as the student reporters’ awareness of cultural influences on themselves and others, their perceived ability to relate to and interpret individuals who have cultural perspectives different from their own, their level of knowledge about the neighborhood they covered, and their perceived ability to understand and represent the complexities of the neighborhood. The second survey was a 19-question instrument that asked closed- and open-ended questions related to the students’ experiences in the field, such as their perceived ability to represent the communities in news texts and how their perceptions of the neighborhood had changed during the semester, if at all.

The case study also included 71 randomized, semi-structured interviews with 46 student reporters, 17 news sources, 4 representatives of neighborhoods covered by the students, and 4 professors from the multimedia class. The interviews with the news sources and neighborhood representatives contained questions similar to those in the survey about the students’ ability to relate to and interpret people and cultures in the communities they covered and served as an important counterbalance to the students’ perceptions of their community interactions and resulting news texts. Moreover, the news sources and neighborhood representatives reviewed the news texts produced by the students and assessed whether they accurately and fairly represented the community and its cultures.

Within the random sample of student interviewees, 28 participant observations were conducted with 15 different student reporting groups covering 11 different neighborhoods. Participant observation has not been used extensively as a data collection method in previous cultural competence scholarship and use of this method helped refine measures for the concept. The data collected during the observations included formal, informal and non-verbal behavior and communication between the reporters and their sources, the types of sources the students sought, and the nature of the information collected during reporting.

Themes from the data were drawn using a theoretical thematic analysis approach, which uses the study’s research questions to guide the analysis and identifies, analyzes and reports patterns within data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The analysis was conducted using a six-step approach: becoming familiar with the data, generating initial codes, searching for themes, reviewing the themes, defining and naming the themes, and documenting the results (Braun & Clarke, 2006).

The 223 survey respondents ranged in age from 20 to 37 years old, with 87.4% (n = 181) falling between 21 and 24 years of age. The classes contained more women than men (58.4% female, n = 128; 41.6% male, n = 91). Three-quarters of the students reported their ethnicity as Caucasian (73%, n=154), while 13.7% (n=29) reported their ethnicity as Black or African-American, 4.7% (n=10) were of mixed race, 4% (n=9) were Asian, 3.3% (n=7) were “Other,” including Russian, African, and Trinidadian, and .9 (n=2) were Hispanic or Latino.

Nearly half (43.5%, n=87) of the students reported that they came from families with annual incomes of $75,000 or more; one-quarter (24%, n=48) reported annual family incomes of more than $100,000. Nearly two thirds (63.3%, n = 133) described the community in which they grew up as suburban, one quarter (21.4%, n = 45) described the community in which they grew up as urban, while approximately 11% (n = 23) reported they grew up in rural areas. More than half of the respondents (54.1%, n = 112) said the communities in which they lived had populations of 100,000 or less; more than one quarter (28%, n =58) grew up in communities with fewer than 30,000 people.

The city in which the study took place has a population of approximately 1.5 million people, 44.2 % of whom are Black or African-American, 36.3% White, and 13.3% of Hispanic or Latino origin (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013). The Census also reported that approximately 22.2% of the population is under 18 years of age and 12.4% was 65 years old and over, while the median household income from 2009-2013 was $37,192.

Factors Influencing the Cultural Competence of Student Journalists

For ease in reporting the findings, RQ1, which examined factors that contribute to the cultural competence of community journalists, and RQ2, which asked about factors that hinder the cultural competence of community journalists, were combined. The themes that emerged from the data indicated that the use of certain professional norms and routines, particularly an objective approach to reporting, contributes to a culturally competent approach to reporting. However, an over-reliance on these norms, such as solely focusing on facts and accurate information and minimizing context, is a potential hindrance to cultural competence.

The data also suggest support for a finding from the first phase of the study-that the ability to negotiate an “insider” or “outsider” status contributes to cultural competence. Empirical support also was found for the dimensions of cultural competence identified in previous research, while an absence of the previously identified factors was found to be a potential hindrance to a culturally competent approach to reporting.

Relying on Journalistic Norms and Routines: An Objective Approach

News sources, neighborhood representatives and the student reporters all indicated that objectivity in reporting helped to promote positive interactions with sources and news texts that accurately represented life in the neighborhoods. They suggested that the objective approach allowed students to step away from their own perspectives and avoid biases in order to fairly represent the reality of the cultures within the neighborhoods-an indicator of cultural competence. For example, a drug treatment counselor who had been interviewed by students reviewed their video focusing on the neighborhood’s drug market and said they had provided a fair representation of life in the community. “That’s the reality,” he said. A city resident that was interviewed as a news source for another story said:

It didn’t seem like [the reporter] had much experience with this neighborhood at all, but it didn’t seem like it made her close-minded about it or judgmental about [the neighborhood]. It doesn’t have the best reputation, but she didn’t come with pre-conceived concepts.

A neighborhood representative who reviewed student news stories about his community said the reporters had done a good job of representing life in the neighborhood and noted:

I think it’s important for reporters to open themselves up every time they do a story, to open themselves up and say, “I’m not gonna bring anything to this”…That could be difficult if you have a student who grew up in rural America and then they come to an urban setting… that’s a lot to overcome right away…. I don’t know if they teach that in classes, but I think that’s part of it.

The students themselves indicated in surveys and interviews that taking an objective approach to reporting helped them avoid bias and fairly represent the neighborhoods. For example, in open-ended responses to the survey question, “Why/Why not were you able to accurately represent life in the neighborhood through your media coverage?” the 223 respondents indicated 60 times at either the beginning or end of the semester that reliance on professional norms such as objectivity helped them to accurately represent life in the neighborhoods. Some students indicated they were able to represent the complexities of the neighborhoods by stepping away from their own perspectives and allowing others to “tell their story.” Others said they were able to represent the complexities of life in the communities by not inserting their opinions or exploiting residents in news stories, by remaining open-minded, and by asking only pertinent questions. One student reporter said in an interview: “Don’t compare it to your own culture unless that’s ultimately what your piece is about…. Try to turn off that filter in your brain that says, ‘Well, we do things differently.’”

Participant observations of student reporters in the field confirmed that they were able to interact with residents in a neutral, objective, respectful and professional way. Although common courtesy or the presence of the researcher could have influenced this dynamic, it seems that the students-as evidenced by their own comments-were exercising the norm of using an objective approach to journalism to bypass their biases and perspectives.

An Over-Reliance on Norms And Routines

Some student reporters indicated in open-ended survey responses that they were relying exclusively on journalistic norms such as an objective approach or the quest for accurate information in order to report on the neighborhoods. One student wrote in the survey, “I think I can (represent the neighborhood) well because I’m very unfamiliar with the neighborhood, that (sic) allows me to be and stay objective.” Another said he was able to represent life in the neighborhood “because being a reporter is about reporting the facts and conveying peoples’ stories to the public, even people of a differing culture. As long as one does their (sic) job accurately, this can be accomplished.”

Being unfamiliar with a neighborhood and relying on accuracy can be problematic in community news coverage, according to news sources. Sufficient context is key. An editor from a community newspaper who was interviewed by students as a news source said the facts in a student story about housing in the neighborhood were accurate, but the piece was ultimately incomplete. He said: “What it doesn’t capture is why, because there is a lot of housing stock in [the neighborhood] that is in bad shape…. It is accurate, as far as it goes. It’s quite accurate, in fact.” The editor said the story needed more context in order to get closer to the local residents’ perspective. One student reporter validated this comment when she suggested during an interview that community reporters need to go beyond facts when they’re reporting and producing news stories. She said: “I think journalists can be kind of cocky about that, like, ‘Yeah, I got all the facts.’ I think it’s more than the facts.”

Awareness of and Ability to Negotiate an “Insider” or “Outsider” Status

The ability to negotiate one’s role as an “insider” or “outsider” in a community has become complicated for community journalists. As noted earlier, community journalists historically have considered themselves part of the fabric of a community and were comfortable with an “insider” role. Yet, today’s digital environment has disrupted these traditions and the student reporters in this study represented that disruption. While some students were residents of the communities they covered, making them traditional “insiders,” most were not and considered themselves “outsiders.” Being an “outsider” meant the student reporters had to develop strategies to understand and accurately represent the communities and their cultures to other “insiders.” Moreover, because their news texts were community-focused and appeared online, they also had to explain and represent the communities to other “outsiders,” since their audience had expanded beyond the neighborhoods’ geographic boundaries.

As “outsiders,” the students said they found it difficult to understand and represent the communities they were covering. For example, when responding to the open-ended survey question, “Why/Why not were you able to accurately represent life in the neighborhood through your media coverage?,” 34 mentioned they found it difficult to represent life in the neighborhoods because they felt like “outsiders” in the communities. One student wrote: “I…feel like the people who actually live there would be better suited for the job.” Another student reporter said in an interview, “I definitely felt like an outsider…just because I’m not from around here and I think I kind of give off that, like I just…I don’t think I have the [city] vibe.” He added:

The way I feel about the neighborhood is kind of like…what happens behind closed doors…stays behind closed doors…and that’s how I feel my stories have kind of turned out…just like, OK, whatever is going on…I don’t really know…but what they put on the outside is what I can report on…what they’re willing to disclose.

It is important to note that the students raised the issue of being an “outsider” more in the beginning of the semester than toward the end of the semester. This finding indicates student reporters were finding ways to negotiate their initial “outsider” status. Students who felt like “outsiders” said in interviews and surveys that they were able to navigate this potential barrier in a number of ways, including strategies that involved skills related to cultural competence such as remaining open-minded and spending time in the neighborhood to build trust with residents. Other strategies included conducting a great deal of research about the community so they could talk knowledgeably with sources, working in groups so they felt more comfortable in the neighborhood, being open and making friends with the residents, allowing people to tell their own stories with little interference from the reporter, and gaining access to “insider” sources who could help move the journalist closer to an “insider” status. Some students said they even dressed in ways that would not immediately identify them as outsiders. Observations of students in the field revealed that some student reporters were able to negotiate an “outsider” status by being friendly with local residents and by taking a genuine interest in their lives. Two students preparing to interview a local artist in his home played with his dog for a time before beginning to set up their equipment. Another group of students interviewing residents in a senior citizens housing complex spent time looking at the ladies’ homemade crafts before and after their interviews.

There were 30 students who reported in the survey they had grown up in the city in which the study took place, and at least four students grew up in the same neighborhoods they were covering for the class. These “insider” student journalists reported the advantages of this status, such as being comfortable moving around in the community, easily generating story ideas, and being able to more quickly build trust with news sources. Yet, in some ways it was almost easier to operate as “outsiders” when acting as journalists in the community, according to these students, because they felt they would be able to be more objective and would be taken more seriously by neighborhood residents. One representative of a neighborhood covered by the students said in an interview:

I think it is important for everyone to recognize different perspectives whether you are an insider or an outsider…. It is easier as an insider as long as you understand the outsider’s perspective because that is whom you are writing for.… For an outsider, you kind of have to come at it from the back door as being able to understand the insider’s point of view without judging it. Neither one is easy.

Evidence of Previously Identified Dimensions of Cultural Competence

The most common dimensions associated with cultural competence in previous studies are awareness, knowledge and skills. The data in this study, much of which were gathered using an inductive approach, found empirical support for these previously identified dimensions of cultural competence.

Awareness of the importance of culture and one’s own cultural perspective: Some of the student journalists indicated in open-ended survey responses and in interviews they understood their perspectives about the world were due in part to their cultural backgrounds. One student wrote in the survey: “My culture, African-American, greatly impacts how I see myself in society as a whole. I attribute my background in the ways I can overcome struggles just like my ancestors overcame slavery and segregation.” Another said: “Being Jewish, culture is a really big part of my life…. So I can relate to that, for the people, the Latino people of (the neighborhood) because that they take so much pride in it and I do in my own.” While these comments reflect what anthropologists might consider a narrow view of culture-one based on ethnicity and religious beliefs-they also express an understanding of culture as conceptualized by anthropologists as the way people make sense of their lives or the ways in which people make meaning in their lives.

In some cases, a student’s self-awareness developed as a result of reporting in the neighborhoods. One student, who with her group produced a multimedia package about one neighborhood’s drug culture that one of their news sources called “impressive” and a “well-rounded, well-covered piece,” said in an interview she became aware of and changed her views of the neighborhood as a result of reporting on the story. She said:

I used to think of a drug addict as a bum, didn’t really think of them as a person, you know? And I couldn’t understand their mindset or why they would be that way. I didn’t have any sympathy for why they would do that…. But I just realized the humanness of everything…. Like [one addict and drug dealer she interviewed] grew up there his whole entire life. It’s the only thing he knew so how can you really blame him if that was the only life he was exposed to.

Lacking awareness of the importance of culture and one’s position, cultural perspectives and biases: A potential inhibitor to a culturally competent approach to community reporting was a lack of understanding on the part of the student reporters of the concept of culture, their own positions, and their own cultural perspectives. For example, 12 of the students who said in the survey that they believed their cultural backgrounds had a “very limited” or “limited” influence on their thinking and behavior said they believed this was because they were not part of a particular “culture.” One student wrote, “When you come from a place that doesn’t have culture, but rather a zip code and a lot of trees, you learn to be malleable to your present settings, since there is little ingrained ways about you.” This student seemed to believe that being part of the white, suburban culture in the United States meant she did not have a “culture” and therefore did not have a cultural lens through which she viewed the world.

Another potential inhibitor to a culturally competent approach to community reporting was the concomitant tendency to unconsciously categorize the neighborhoods and their residents into broad categories that are socially constructed or created through abstracted notions or schema. For example, one student reporter describing the mostly Latino neighborhood he was covering said in an interview:

It doesn’t feel like America, you know, it kind of feels like a foreign place cause everything is just Puerto Rican. The marquee signs are in Spanish and people are speaking Spanish, eating Spanish food – I mean Puerto Rican food – I just didn’t think that was in [the city], you know?

This student’s remarks reflected not only a lack of knowledge that Puerto Rican people hold U.S. citizenship, but also a stereotype of what it is to be “American.” The student implied that the broad, stereotyped category of “America” is non-Latino, or, more specifically, presumably speaking English and eating food that would be not associated with Puerto Rico.

Knowledge of culture and cultural perspectives: An understanding of culture, including a particular culture’s structure and history, or “macro” knowledge, as well as its complexities and contradictions, or “micro” knowledge, is tremendously important, according to news sources. In interviews and participant observations, it was found that students gained much of their macro-level knowledge through Internet research, while micro-level knowledge was gathered by spending time in the neighborhoods and talking to residents.

Regarding “micro” level knowledge, nearly all of the 46 students interviewed indicated they had developed some micro knowledge of the neighborhood during the semester; several mentioned they had come to appreciate the complexities of the neighborhood, its cultures, and the people in it. One student expressed an understanding of the need for micro-level knowledge when she wrote on her start-of-the-semester survey, “I know that there are people in the neighborhood that actually care and sometimes you just need to take a closer look at things.” Another wrote:

I’ve realized the [neighborhood] is more than a few corner bodegas and Catholic churches. There’s so much more to the Latino community there, and they’re all very willing to tell their stories. They just need people who care to listen.

Another student demonstrated an understanding of the concepts of culture, cultural competence, and the various cultures within the neighborhood she was covering when she noted it was difficult to represent her neighborhood in news texts because “there’s just so many dimensions of that neighborhood…. There’s so many different levels and I don’t even think there would be enough time for us to really do every one justice.”

Observations of students in the neighborhoods demonstrated their accumulation of a certain amount of micro knowledge. They recognized people on the street, possessed a certain level of comfort and knowledge of how to get around in the neighborhood, and were able to recognize neighborhood nuances. Some students knew storeowners and some people on the street by name. Others were able to explain cultural symbols, such as a certain type of music played by the residents or the urban symbol of sneakers dangling on telephone lines.

Lack of knowledge of culture, including its “macro” and “micro” aspects: The data also suggest, however, that the students’ micro knowledge, like all knowledge, according to Clifford (1986), was only partial. The students themselves noted there was much about the neighborhoods they did not know. Several observations revealed some of the student reporters would frequent the same people or places for stories. In some neighborhoods, there were entire sections, particularly residential sections, that students knew little or nothing about. One student noted the influence of popular culture in his neighborhood when he said he “didn’t see much” culture there because:

There’s a lot, I think there is a lot of pop culture. You know, kind of, a lot of pop culture kind of dominating the culture…. In my hometown… you see groups that carry on tradition or are creating tradition but, I think it’s hard to find.

The student was implying a conceptualization of culture based on maintaining traditions rather than culture as a changeable process that is influenced by phenomena such as popular culture. Thus, the students during their time in the neighborhoods gained some understanding of the nuances and micro levels of the local cultures. However, their micro-level knowledge was limited, which likely affected the news content they were able to produce.

Macro-level knowledge of the neighborhoods also seemed to be lacking. One news source, commenting on a student’s story about dropout rates at a neighborhood high school, said the story needed historical context to explain why some students were not attending school. She

If you look at deseg [desegregation] in this community, you didn’t cross Front Street if you were a person of color because you got your ass kicked… There is a culture there, so if you were a kid who went to [one local high school] or [another local high school] and would get whooped after school if you didn’t make it on the bus, you would tend not to go over there. Culturally that still exists. So people have to understand those historical perspectives.

About one-quarter (n=12) of the 46 students interviewed explicitly expressed the importance the macro-level knowledge of their neighborhood’s history in interviews, although, in some cases, they said its history was important because it was a major part of the community’s identity. Most students said they had done some research about their neighborhoods before they went out, but few had a specific understanding of a neighborhood’s history or the political and social forces that had an impact on its development. Students did not cite a particular reason for not knowing the history of a neighborhood; the historical and political context did not seem to be a priority for them.

Skills and attributes to effectively and appropriately communicate, interact with and represent a variety of cultures: Skills related to a more culturally competent approach to journalism include being able to communicate effectively and appropriately with people in a community during formal interviews and informal encounters. This effective communication includes clarity of verbal and nonverbal communication with sources and a lack of communication miscues with sources. Other skills and attributes involve being able to listen well, having empathy and respect for local residents, being able to start conversations and prompt responses from residents about local concerns, being adaptive, and having confidence when communicating with others. Some attributes and skills related to cultural competence were unique to community journalism, including interviewing a wide variety of local residents and community leaders for news stories.

Observations and interviews with students and their sources revealed that the student community reporters in varying degrees demonstrated these culturally competent skills and attributes. One news source said of a student community reporter, “My impression was that this particular writer captured the essence of our concerns here in the local community…. She listened. She listened and she asked me questions for clarification.” She praised the student’s article about a local issue because it included perspectives from “across the span of community members… She did get just about every facet that I could think of.”

The need for effective communication in order to learn about the community and its cultures was raised by another news source, who said:

Communication… a lot of people take it for granted. Just cause we know some words and we talk back and forth doesn’t mean that you’re always understanding the message that someone’s trying to give. It’s a real skill, and even if you have a reporter who’s excellent in it, you could be interviewing someone who may not be getting the message that they want out… conveying it correctly in words. So that art of communication is very important.

Lack of skills and attributes to effectively and appropriately communicate, interact with and represent a variety of cultures: In some cases, however, the student community journalists were unable to communicate effectively with sources, sometimes due to language barriers but at other times due to miscues or a misreading of the neighborhood and its culture. One news source told the story of a student who called him to talk about the issue of his neighborhood being “blighted.” He said:

I don’t even understand what the term “blighted” is. And so when you use a term like that to describe a neighborhood, you should understand how it’s used and what it means and what makes this neighborhood “blighted” and that neighborhood not “blighted.” And sometimes it’s a matter of perspective.

Other students discussed in interviews and during participant observations that relating to neighborhood residents meant getting “down to their level,” as if there is a hierarchy in place in which the students are placed above the residents, requiring them to move “down” in order to relate to them. In an interview, the community newspaper editor said, “Don’t assume that people are not cognitive, very cognitive, of issues of their lives because they don’t look middle-class or talk it. People are not dumb. People are smart about things that matter to them.”

Discussion and Implications

This research seeks to address gaps in cultural competence scholarship by applying the concept to student journalists and identifying factors that could influence their potential to adopt a culturally competent approach to community reporting. The research also aids in refining the definition and measures of cultural competence. The data revealed that the students’ use of an objective approach to journalism helped them to step away from their own cultural perspectives and effectively and appropriately interact with news sources from a variety of different cultures. Promotion of professional norms such as an objective approach to news is vital at this time in the journalism profession when reporters and user-generated content are moving away from professionalism and more toward personal expression.

Yet relying solely on certain norms such as the quest for stories, facts, and accurate information, as some students did, cannot replace the thoughtfulness that goes into becoming aware of one’s position and perception of the world, then having the willingness, if necessary, to challenge one’s attitudes and beliefs. In addition, some students minimized context in their news stories, according to news sources, which moved the texts away from a culturally competent approach to community journalism. In order to become more culturally competent, journalists would need to become aware of and transcend their biases, develop knowledge and skills to relate effectively with and represent others, and adhere to current norms.

The data also showed support for a contributing factor of cultural competence found in the first phase of the research: Students’ awareness of and the ability to negotiate one’s status as an “insider” or “outsider.” This is a particularly complicated skill for community journalists, who increasingly communicate not only locally but also globally through digital technologies. Other themes gathered through surveys, interviews, and participant observation provided empirical support for dimensions of cultural competence identified in previous research and models, i.e., awareness, knowledge and skills that influence the process of an individual becoming more or less culturally competent. The student reporters in this study demonstrated varying degrees of cultural awareness and communication skills, according to the data, but seemed to be lacking in micro-level and macro-level knowledge of neighborhoods and their cultures. Not surprisingly, a lack of any of the previously identified dimensions of cultural competence was a hindrance to a culturally competent approach to community reporting.

Evidence of the social construction of reality, schema, and attribution was revealed particularly in relation to expressed stereotypes or communication miscues with sources. The finding about students’ over-reliance on journalistic norms to represent the neighborhoods also demonstrated evidence of social construction of reality and schema. Community journalists need to go further to become aware of their own group schema, role schema, and news schema to avoid falling into biases created by abstracted, constructed expectations that are not based on experience with members of the group. A table identifying the factors that contribute to or hinder the process of a culturally competent approach to community journalism is in Appendix 2.

The findings can help journalism educators incorporate cultural competence in their curricula. Journalism educators for decades have embraced a pedagogical approach that acknowledges that students learn by “doing,” or by actually reporting, and also through theories and concepts relevant to journalism that they learn in the classroom (Folkerts, 2014). While it is likely the case that some of the awareness, knowledge and skills associated with cultural competence were learned by the students as they reported in the neighborhoods, journalism education clearly has a role in encouraging students to take a culturally competent approach to community journalism. For example, professors could place an emphasis on the macro-level aspects of culture, such as the historical and structural contexts of communities, because students seemed to be lacking in this area of knowledge. Micro-level knowledge of a community could be taught through an overview of the concept of culture. Awareness of students’ own biases and perceptions and their knowledge of culture and cultural perceptions-not just skills-also could be taught to future community journalists. In the case of the important journalistic skill of listening, for example, a culturally competent approach would ask students not to just listen to their sources, but to first examine their own perspectives so that they could take those perspectives into account while listening to someone else, and then try to remove their own filters as the person is speaking.

Future Research and Limitations

This study focused on student community reporters in one multimedia lab in one U.S. city. Future research could focus on student and professional reporters in multiple settings and in multiple countries and cultures. Additional research also could be conducted to assess how an individual’s cultural background influences one’s position on the cultural competence continuum. This would allow further investigation into issues of negotiating “insider” and “outside” status.

An important area of future research would be a close examination of the news texts produced by the students who indicated a culturally competent approach to journalism, according to the data produced in this phase of the study. While news sources and neighborhood representatives reviewed the students’ texts for this study, a closer examination seeking evidence of cultural competence in the news texts could reveal important information about how community reporters can move toward a more culturally competent approach to journalism.

This study helps to provide new significance for what it means to be a community journalist. A community journalist in today’s world needs to be able to transcend his or her cultural perspectives and dwell in the borderlands, occupying liminal spaces as neither an “insider” or an “outsider” and promoting a new norm of understanding, both of ourselves and others.

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Appendix 1: Proposed Operational Definition of Dimensions and Potential Factors Influencing the Cultural Competence of Community Journalists

Awareness of One’s Own Cultural Perspectives Knowledge of Culture and Cultural Perspectives Skills and Attributes to Effectively and Appropriately Communicate, Interact with and Represent a Variety of Cultures
Awareness of one’s own position, cultural perspectives, and biases, including: Knowledge of macro aspects of culture and particular cultures, including: Being able to communicate effectively and appropriately with culturally diverse news sources, including:
· Understanding by the student community journalists that they were raised in a particular culture with a language, history, power and economic relations with other counties, and particular beliefs and values · Knowledge that cultures are broadly defined, complex and continually changing · Sending and receiving of messages appropriately and effectively—assessed through the clarity of verbal and nonverbal communication with sources, a lack of communication miscues with sources, and listening
· Understanding by the student community journalists of their more specific, individual cultural influences, which are related to socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity, education level, religion, age, political ideology, and geography · Knowledge of particular cultures’ history, political, economic, and political structures, and specific beliefs and values · Demonstrating attributes and skills such as empathy, respect and nonjudgment of people from different cultures. Communication skills and attributes include being open-minded, adaptive, and able to obtain and reflect multiple and diverse perspectives
  · Knowledge of local language(s) · Maintaining a questioning approach with news sources, including in regard to cultural perspectives
  Knowledge of micro aspects of culture and particular cultures, including: · Seeking out a news sources from a variety of cultural backgrounds
  · Knowledge of the nuances of cultures, including its cultural cues, variation of behaviors and beliefs of individuals within particular cultures, and understanding that individuals have multiple identities within cultures · Negotiating “outsider” status, such as gaining access to “insider” sources or using the advantages of being an “insider”
    Producing news texts in a way that represents the complexities of cultures and communities for a mass media audience, including:
    · Creating news texts that avoid stereotypes and that provide context for the way in which people make sense of their lives
    · Producing news stories in ways that acknowledge the perspective(s) offered ultimately reflect a partial truth
    · Producing a wide variety of stories
    · Producing news texts that express the news sources’ perspectives

Appendix 2: Contributing and Hindering Factors of a Culturally Competent Approach to Community Journalism*

Use of Journalistic Ethics, Norms, and Routines
Contributors to Cultural Competence Hindrances to Cultural Competence
Relying on journalistic ethics, norms, and routines, such as striving for an objective approach, which helps to remove community reporters from their cultural positions Over-relying on journalistic ethics, norms, and routines such as objectivity and accuracy without the thoughtfulness that goes into becoming aware of one’s position and perception of the world, then having the willingness, if necessary, to challenge one’s attitudes and beliefs
Ability to Negotiate an “Insider” or “Outsider” Status
Contributors to Cultural Competence Hindrances to Cultural Competence
Being able to negotiate “outsider” status Not being able to negotiate “outsider” status
Gaining access to “insider” sources who could help move the journalist closer to an “insider” status Not making use of the advantages of being an “insider”
Using the advantages of being an “insider”  
Awareness of Culture and Self
Contributors to Cultural Competence Hindrances to Cultural Competence
Having an awareness of the importance of culture and one’s position, cultural perspectives, and biases Lacking awareness of the importance of culture and one’s own position, cultural perspectives, and biases
Knowledge of Other Cultures and Cultural Perspectives
Contributors to Cultural Competence Hindrances to Cultural Competence
Developing a macro knowledge, such as understanding of the complexity of culture and understanding particular cultures’ historical, political, and socioeconomic context Lacking macro knowledge, such as the complexity of culture and particular cultures’ historical, political, and socioeconomic context
Developing micro knowledge, such as recognizing nuances, contradictions, and various perspectives within particular cultures, as well as grasping similarities and differences within the culture and among various cultures Lacking micro knowledge and understanding and representing particular cultures in oversimplified and stereotypical ways
Skills to Interact With and Represent a Variety of Cultures
Contributors to Cultural Competence Hindrances to Cultural Competence
Demonstrating skills and attributes such as an ability to listen, as well as open-mindedness, respect, nonjudgment of people from different cultures, and a lack of communication miscues Lacking the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with culturally diverse news sources

* It is important to note that some elements within the factors that influence cultural competence overlap. For example, skills that influence knowledge of the “Other,” such as effective communication, also can be listed as a skill to interact with and represent a variety of cultures or used to negotiate an “outsider” status in the community. In these cases, a decision was made to include an element within the factor in which it operated most strongly or where it seemed most appropriate.

About the Author

Dianne M. Garyantes, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of journalism at Rowan University.



Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 6

Crafting a Community: Staff Members’ Conceptions of Audience at a City Magazine

J. David Wolfgang and Joy Jenkins

News organizations often develop content that serves the interests of advertisers and audiences. City magazines, which cater to affluent readers while aiming to reflect their communities, provide an important site of analysis for this trend. This study used participant observation and interviews at a Midwest city magazine to understand how it used the relationship between editorial content and advertising to increase profits and serve readers and advertisers. The findings reveal how staff members discursively constructed their audience, commodified that audience as a product for advertisers, and understood the community they serve and their function within it.

City and regional magazines, which draw a combined 3.5 million circulation in 66 markets around the country (City and Regional Magazine Association, 2017), have achieved profitability by informing, entertaining, and advertising to a desirable readership of educated, affluent readers (Burd, 1969; Hayes, 1981; Hynds, 1995b; Riley & Selnow, 1989). These publications have existed in the United States since the 18th century (Riley & Selnow, 1991) and proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s (Hayes, 1981). They emerged not only to serve as “urban survival manuals,” informing readers about how to enjoy their surroundings (Riley & Selnow, 1989, p. 3), but also to address challenges facing urban and suburban communities, such as unemployment, pollution, crime, and transportation issues (Hynds, 1995b).

Because of these publications’ focus on targeting an imagined community (Anderson, 1983) of middle- and upper-class “consumers” and creating positive brand associations for their communities, many have emphasized entertainment and advertising over in-depth reporting (Greenberg, 2000). Even so, editors of city and regional magazines have cited their interest in pointing out community needs in coverage, taking stands on issues, and engaging readers in civic life (Hynds, 1995a; Jenkins, 2016b; Sivek, 2014). Studies have also shown that city magazines offer differing viewpoints from local newspapers (Hynds, 1995b), and their distinctive narrative and photographic approaches show potential for addressing community issues and engaging readers (Jenkins, 2016a; Sivek, 2014).

These trends have not just affected city magazines. As journalism grew into a form of mass-circulated and broadcast content, the value of advertising and other revenue streams encouraged the consolidation of news organizations into corporate entities (Schiller, 1989) and a focus on media content not merely as information but also as commodity – a social good that can be sold (McManus, 1994). News organizations have begun to realize the value of not only cultivating and presenting diverse viewpoints but also promoting certain perspectives, notably “the dominant, though tiniest, stratus of the propertied class” (Schiller, 1989, p. 40). Therefore, news content prioritizes the needs of audience members who serve not only as readers and viewers but also as consumers. These changes could shift the nature of content production, the influence of advertising sales, and the relationship media organizations cultivate with their communities.

The journalistic duty to represent the public’s interest can conflict with the organization’s interest in generating profit, resulting in a natural tension that often ends with the organization downgrading or corrupting journalism (McChesney, 2013). Local journalists may face specific challenges, such as organizational policies that limit their ability to challenge the preferred meanings of powerful sources, as doing so could economically threaten their organizations (Berkowitz & TerKeurst, 1999). Additionally, the relationships between magazine producers and their advertisers tend to be more intertwined than other media, reflecting less formal relationships than networked practices (Gill, 2007).

The purpose of this study is to examine how staff members at a city magazine crafted an understanding of their community and used that understanding as a heuristic tool to develop content, advertising, and events that would appeal to their desired readership. This study used participant observation and interviews to address the influence of public and private interests on organization members’ audience construction and consider the implications of this conception of the imagined audience on the magazine’s perceived community role.

Literature Review

In 1947, in response to growing disfavor with the powerful press during the Great Depression and World War II, the Hutchins Commission called for including social responsibility to the community as a journalistic norm. Since then, a number of researchers and journalism scholars have made similar statements criticizing journalism that fails to protect the public’s interest (e.g., McChesney & Nichols, 2010; McChesney, 2013; McManus, 1994). This self-creation of journalism as the fourth estate has led to developments in journalistic normative theory that establish roles of journalists based on the relationship between the journalist and the citizen – often centered on the influences of economics and politics on the part journalism plays in a democracy (Christians, Glasser, McQuail, Nordenstreng, & White, 2009).

Journalists’ Conceptions of Audience

Whether journalists pursue an audience-centered public service orientation or a market-centered orientation, they must consider the potential audience and opportunities to serve that group. With the limited direct interaction between journalists and their audiences, journalists develop alternative ways of understanding audience interests and needs, which may result in journalists falling back on the imagined audience – prioritizing assumptions and discursively co-constructed perceptions over concrete audience characteristics.

Gans (1980) found that editors at national news broadcasting organizations recognized several possible audiences and quickly dismissed the general “mass” audience perspective. Although editors recognized the fragmented state of audiences, they limited themselves to listening to feedback from small, select groups of individuals. These groups included their supervisors; a constructed audience of their family, friends, neighbors, and other social acquaintances; and a close audience of journalism colleagues who attempted to respond to the story from the perspective of a potential reader.

Sumpter (2000) found that when editors attempted to select stories for an unspecified mass audience, they negatively categorized the audience and how it would respond to the stories. However, if the audience were framed as nearer to the perspectives of the journalists themselves, the typifications were more favorable. Sumpter also found that as journalists climbed the organizational hierarchy as editors, they began to mimic the instinctive decision-making practices that appeared to guide the choices of the most senior editors. Journalists also used budget meetings as a forum for testing the reaction of the average unbiased reader to a proposed story and to discuss what content was most marketable. Given the social nature of the development of a conception of audience, focusing on how journalists, collectively within an organization, discursively construct a shared understanding of their audience is important. Additional research is needed, however, to address how these negotiations manifest in news organizations that might face even greater and more localized market influences.

Hagen (1999) found that journalists at a public service news organization attempted to imagine their audience as a collection of citizens looking to be educated and informed and interested in collective problems and issues. This approach led to a focus on enabling “the audience to perform their democratic rights and duties” (1999, p. 137). However, for commercial news organizations, the ratings or circulation of the news product is the most important indicator of what the audience wants from the product (Hagen, 1999). In this sense, the “audience becomes a product to sell to advertisers” (Hagen, 1999, p. 140), and the journalist’s mission is reduced from informing and educating to getting the public to watch and to continue watching.

Shoemaker and Reese (2013) see audiences as a commodity to be sold directly to advertisers by a commercial media entity. “To the extent that the desired target audience consumes the media products, content is then deemed attractive to audiences” (2013, p. 142). This means that the advertisers – through requests for a certain “audience” – can influence content choices and the ultimate conception of the audience for the journalist, which may limit the types of topics journalists address and the extent to which they fulfill their democratic function in a community.

Magazines connect with readers in distinctive ways from other types of media, often arising from the lack of “journalistic distance” between magazine editors and readers (Abrahamson, 2007, p. 669). With magazines, “They are often, indeed literally, the same people” (p. 669). In response, editors often design content specifically to reach these readers and incite them to “do something better or more enjoyably” (Abrahamson, 2007, p. 670). Indeed, magazine publishers spend much time and resources determining how to satisfy “the needs, desires, hopes, fears, and aspirations of ‘the reader’” (Holmes, 2007, p. 514). They do so by targeting a group of readers, creating content based on the interests of those readers, facilitating trust with readers, and responding to changes in readership and society (Holmes, 2007).

These reader communities can be understood in two ways. The first is the idea of an imagined community (Anderson, 1991). An imagined community refers to the means through which mass media not only inform or influence people in communities but also reflect producers’ conceptualizations of those communities. These conceptualizations suggest the ability of magazine producers to “construct meaning about the collective identity of the communities they serve” (Reader & Moist, 2008, p. 825), which reflects their assumptions about their audiences and what they desire to read. The second is a brand community, which suggests that readers congregate around a particular magazine because of its strong brand image, emphasis on reader interests, long institutional history, availability for public consumption, and competitive value (Davidson, McNeill, & Ferguson, 2007), with content production largely influenced by interest in maintaining a strong brand.

Editors might also appeal to a geographic location when considering readers. The Reiman Publications, a publisher of 13 magazines focused on cooking and crafts that relies heavily on reader-submitted content, have used rhetorical techniques to discursively construct an imagined community based on similar tastes and values, such as a focus on religion, “traditional” families, and a country aesthetic (Webb, 2006). Texas Monthly magazine, although aiming to present a multifaceted portrait of the state, constructed a Texan identity emphasizing white males, with non-whites and females portrayed in stereotypical roles (Sivek, 2008). According to interviews with Texas Monthly editors, “The need to attract a wealthy demographic […] led to a shift in editorial content toward positive stories that supported that audience’s lifestyle and attitudes” (p. 168). In constructing a community of readers, editors may focus less on shared interests, history, and culture and more on readers’ ability to consume, which could subvert these publications’ potential to fulfill their social responsibility and facilitate reader engagement.

The Roles and Functions of City Magazines

City magazines represent an “under-developed, under-researched” (Hynds, 1995b, p. 172) sector of the magazine industry in the United States (1995b). The predecessor to modern city magazines, Paradise of the Pacific (which became Honolulu magazine in 1966), was founded by King Kalakaua in 1888 under a royal charter (Riley & Selnow, 1991). However, San Diego magazine, founded in 1948, set the precedent for contemporary city magazines, aiming to serve as an alternative to other local media (Tebbel, 1969). Reflecting post-World War II population shifts, many similar magazines emerged. Readers sought out city magazines based on local pride, a desire for additional perspectives on cities, and for insights into where to spend their time and money (Hayes, 1981).

In catering to affluent audiences, city magazine content emphasized opportunities for shopping, dining, and entertainment (Riley & Selnow, 1989). By the late 1970s, lifestyle-oriented content dominated city magazines (Hynds, 1979). City magazines, however, showed potential to serve other functions. Comparing city magazines to other urban media, Burd (1969) suggested that they “seek to maintain a metropolitan image of the city, but crusade for as well as boost civic morale, and which appeal to a rather small, quality-minded elite who are influential in urban decision-making and move across political boundaries in the metropolis” (p. 319). Further, Burd suggested that articles in city magazines showed depth and perspectives that were often lacking in other media coverage of urban problems.

Recent incarnations of city magazines have negotiated among developing a community of readers, providing content those readers will enjoy, and maintaining the bottom line through issue sales and advertising. As a result, few city magazines “successfully mix serious reporting and commentary with guides to leisure-time fun” (Hynds, 1995b, p. 172). A textual analysis of five award-winning city magazines showed that they targeted an imagined community of affluent readers with information about how to enjoy their cities through consumption, and although information about more challenging topics appeared, representations ultimately constructed a homogenous, idealized version of cities with few suggestions for solutions (Jenkins, 2016a). Similarly, Burd (2008) argued that city magazines remain “largely civic boosters rather than critical journalism” (p. 213). Greenberg (2000) attributed this emphasis to the need for contemporary media, in response to shifts in local, national, and global economic bases, to brand their cities. In this vein, Greenberg called city magazines “urban lifestyle magazines” that “fuse the identity and consumption habits of their readers with the branded ‘lifestyle’ of a given metropolitan region” (2000, p. 231).

However, city magazines may serve an enhanced role among local media, particularly as daily newspapers decline (Burd, 2008). City magazine senior editors have said that their publications provide user-manual-like instructions for understanding and experiencing cities as well as in-depth packages on local topics using distinctive visual and textual presentations (Sivek, 2014). City magazine editors have also described a need to offer both public service reporting and “private-service” content, or stories that not only interest readers but also provide environments for selling advertising (Jenkins, 2016b). These negotiations represent the influence of market concerns on editors’ decision-making as well as their desire to balance the content they perceive will make a difference in their communities with the information they believe readers enjoy (Jenkins, 2016b).

By emphasizing lifestyle topics, however, some city magazines have become corporate commodities, replacing coverage of controversial subjects and in-depth reporting with an emphasis on advertising and entertainment (Greenberg, 2000). These magazines have also become increasingly standardized. Economic pressures at the local level may play a role, affecting news organizations’ ability to provide information about local government and communities and enable citizens to make informed decisions (Williams, 2006). Journalistic autonomy may be influenced by news organizations, sources, and the local power structure, with journalists in more homogenous communities facing enhanced pressure to ensure their accounts fit within dominant understandings and preferred meanings (Berkowitz & TerKeurst, 1999).

Although local proprietors once typically owned local newspapers, they are now increasingly owned by chains, which tend to emphasize profits over quality journalism (Williams, 2006). Local news organizations have also faced competition from other media organizations and the introduction of new technologies, which in some cases has resulted in staff layoffs, acquisitions of other types of mass communication, and increased reliance on public relations content (Murphy, 1998).

As a result, capitalism has become a taken-for-granted aspect of local news operations, which increasingly address individuals as “consumers of goods and services rather than voters and citizens” (Murphy, 1998, p. 90). Although studies have addressed the effects of these changes on newspapers, other local media are also affected, including city magazines, which likely face similar pressures to draw audiences and advertising while competing with other news organizations. Additionally, as newspapers continue to lose readership, circulation, and advertising revenues, other types of community news organizations may fill informational needs (Burd, 2008), with city magazines potentially providing alternative opinions on issues, suggesting solutions, and encouraging dialogue (Hynds, 1995b; Jenkins, 2016a).

Research Questions

To assess how journalists develop an understanding of audience and how that understanding relates to the role of the magazine in the community, the researchers focused on the following research questions:

RQ1: How do staff members at a city magazine discursively construct an imagined audience conception?

RQ2: How do staff members’ conceptions of an imagined audience shape the magazine’s perceived function in the community?


An ethnographic approach allows for exploring a city magazine staff as a culture-sharing and constructing group (Creswell, 2012). Immersion in an organization enables researchers to evaluate the day-to-day interactions of staff members and the “meaning of the behavior, the language, and the interactions” (Creswell, 2012, p. 90) they display. Understanding the culture of a particular city magazine, specifically the ideas and beliefs expressed by its staff members, can shed light on how they describe and consider their readers, how these considerations inform their decisions about content and programming, and ultimately, how they view their role in the city. This analysis, in turn, may help scholars better understand how other U.S. city magazine editors view their readers and publications as well as how media organizations balance serving readers, earning revenue, and fulfilling community roles.

The ultimate goal of ethnography is to “generate understanding and knowledge by watching, interacting, asking questions,” and then “reflecting after the fact” (Tracy, 2013, p. 65). This process allows the researcher to travel up and down the ladder of abstraction through iterative observation and interpretation – and provides an opportunity to continually refocus on the important aspects of the group and the areas that need closer observation.

Creswell described ethnography as a process through which the researcher focuses on the “shared and learned patterns of values, behaviors, beliefs, and language of a culture-sharing group” (2013, p. 90). Hence, it becomes necessary to focus on behaviors, language use, and the interaction of individuals. This ethnography attempts to discover the underlying beliefs and values through the behaviors and language of the group. Through detailed analysis and rich description, this form of ethnography should lead to an in-depth understanding and valuable findings originating from the meanings of participants.

Site Description

Midwest Monthly is a company based in a Midwestern university town of about 113,000 residents. The company’s name has been changed to protect the identity of the organization. The company’s flagship product, a city magazine established in 2005 that at the time of observation reached more than 64,000 readers, billed itself as the definitive lifestyle guide within the city (Media Kit, 2014). The magazine appealed to an audience of well-educated, socially engaged, active, and affluent members of the community ($62,448 median income) (Media Kit, 2014). Each monthly issue of the magazine addressed a variety of topics, including homes, food and wine, fashion, and health, as well as features on local politics, business, and other issues (“Midwest Monthly”, 2014).

In addition to the magazine, Midwest Monthly produced a magazine for local business executives, a magazine aimed at members of the senior community, a magazine for local Christian men, a community guide, a wedding magazine, and special supplements focused on food and dining. The company also periodically created specialized publications for local organizations, such as hospitals and education institutions. Further, the company hosted a variety of events for its readers and others in the community, including cooking demonstrations, dinner parties, health fairs, and a “best of the city” celebration. Lastly, the company maintained a website with articles from its magazines, blogs, event listings, and contests. At the beginning of the observation period, the company had a small staff consisting of a publisher, editor-in-chief, creative director, copy editor, editorial assistant, photo editor, graphic designers, and marketing and sales staff members.

Shortly after the research period began, the publisher announced that the organization had lost one of its largest advertisers, thus creating the need to cut costs and change the corporate structure. As a result, one employee was terminated and another earned a significant promotion (to associate publisher). Although this change was not expected as part of the initial research interest, it soon became one of the key events around which many of the happenings at the organization were focused.
In 2017, after the publisher was elected to the local county commission, he sold Midwest Monthly. The publisher continued to work as a consultant for the magazine, and his wife continued as the associate publisher and editor for two of the magazine’s auxiliary publications.


The authors gathered data at Midwest Monthly over a three-month period in 2014. Data consisted of participant observation at the magazine; in-depth interviews; and analyses of documents, including magazine issues, editorial and marketing calendars, meeting agendas, and media kits. The authors attended staff meetings, special event committee meetings, and editorial meetings as well as observed daily tasks and attended the magazine’s “best of the city” event. The authors participated in 30 hours of observation and wrote about 70 pages of field notes.

Toward the end of the observation period, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with four members of the leadership, editorial, and design staffs. Interviews ranged from 45 minutes to one hour and addressed staff members’ assessments of the company’s mission, the company’s audience, the company’s overall function in the community, and potential changes in the company’s readership and local role over the next five years. Interviews are “guided question-answer conversations” that have “a specific structure and purpose” (Tracy, 2013, p. 131) and help the researcher understand and examine complex phenomena.

Much of the discursive construction of meaning and the shaping of the organizational mission took place in the office and during staff meetings. Therefore, the researchers conducted interviews with current full-time staff members. The researchers chose to interview only individuals with direct oversight of editorial content, or in the case of the publisher, oversight of those who made editorial decisions. Although others might write content, from an organizational perspective, the individuals who oversaw the content development had more influence on the broader editorial direction of the organization, how to meet editorial objectives, and how understandings of the audience might shape those decisions. All interview subjects were granted anonymity, and the media organization was also granted anonymity in order to encourage candor and earnest participation.

Research Stance

The researchers engaged in an observer-as-participant research stance. This lets the researcher be known to the participants without having to actively engage with those participants. The authors interacted with organization members through casual conversations but did not play an active role in the activities of the organization nor heavily influence the organization through their involvement. Many of the interviews were conducted using Tracy’s (2013) description of “deliberative naïveté.” By approaching the situation from a more objective perspective, the researchers allowed the interviewees to explain their experiences in their own words and from their preferred perspective, improving the confidence in the findings.

Data Analysis

The authors used a constant comparative approach to analyze the data from field notes, interviews, and documents. Constant comparison allows for simultaneous coding and analysis so as to develop theory in a more systematic way while remaining close to the data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The researchers coded each incident in the data, compared incidents to identify related concepts, and then sorted the concepts into categories. This constant comparison of incidents allowed the researchers to discern the “theoretical properties” (Glaser & Strauss 1967, p. 106) of the categories, informing continued coding.

First, the researchers individually engaged in open coding (Corbin & Strauss, 1990), assessing the data line by line to identify similarities and differences. This was followed by axial coding, in which categories were related to their subcategories and continually developed (Corbin & Strauss, 1990). After the initial and axial coding processes, the researchers discussed their findings and revised their codes before revisiting the data. This collaborative approach to coding helps to guard against bias, develop new insights, and enhance theoretical sensibility (Corbin & Strauss, 1990). Lastly, the researchers developed overall themes from the categories.


The first research question focused on how journalists discursively constructed a shared understanding of their audience to develop content and an editorial strategy that best served this imagined community.

Connecting Audience and Advertising

Midwest Monthly focused on prioritizing the needs of advertisers before considering how audience members might use the editorial product. The organization also created an imagined audience member to personify the characteristics they believed best fit their model reader. Staff members consistently spoke of their efforts to connect this imagined audience member, whom they called “Lucy,” to their advertisers through content and community events.

Maintaining advertiser relationships. The publisher suggested that the purpose of the organization was to bring the high-net-worth audience and advertisers together through content and events. For example, when discussing the role of special events the company sponsors, the publisher said, “Anybody that can spend $125 to come to a dinner, anybody who recognizes the value of a fine scotch or fine cigar or a gourmet meal, it’s a very small sliver, but it’s a high-net-worth individual that [an advertiser] wants to be in front of.” The organization appeared to perceive its audience primarily through the potential to serve the needs of advertisers, as no other approach was observed. This purpose represented an emphasis on monetizing audience members by connecting them with advertisers, seeing them less as engaged community members and more as potential consumers.

When asked about the organization’s role in the community, the editorial assistant described one aspect of this function as giving advertisers access to potential audience members. She further described this as “giving them [advertisers] some love.” This statement recurred throughout observations of the organization and came to represent situations in which an advertiser had been loyal to the organization, and in return the organization tried to lead more customers to its business. This “love” could be achieved through featuring the advertiser in editorial content, highlighting that business at a sponsored event, or including the business in an email newsletter article or social media post. The editorial assistant stressed the importance of Midwest Monthly staying connected to the community, especially to local advertisers, as a means of “cheerleading them” and lending them the company’s support. The publisher’s public presence as an active community member influenced this construction of “community,” as his involvement was seen as a key way to cultivate relationships that spur connections between audience members and advertisers.

Events represented another way for Midwest Monthly to connect the audience and advertisers to make money – from both selling access to the event to audience members and access to potential customers to the advertisers. The publisher said in an interview, “The events were basically trying to give our advertisers direct access to our readers versus trying to reach them with an ad. [ … ] It’s all about face-to-face interaction.” At the first staff meeting following an organization-sponsored health fair, the publisher congratulated the staff on a successful event that drew more than $10,000 in revenue from advertiser sponsorships. This success story represented the organization’s ability to bring a valuable audience directly to the corporate sponsor to the point where an advertiser was willing to pay for that access, therefore legitimizing the organization’s position as a connecter of the two groups.

When discussing the upcoming “best of the community” event, staff members looked for ways to make the event worth the time and money of both advertisers, by connecting them to affluent customers, and the audience, by providing access to popular local businesses and free goods from those businesses. The company’s graphic designer described this dual role as not only providing advertisers with access to the audience but also ensuring that the organization maintained a strong relationship with those businesses. This position seemed to support a business model built not only on conveying a positive image of the community but also promoting the interests of other businesses.

Prioritizing advertising. The most important aspect of Midwest Monthly’s business was clear: cultivating advertising relationships. Although the editorial department, which included only three full-time staff members, used freelance writers and unpaid interns to produce content cheaply, the sales department employed six full-time paid advertising sales representatives.

When leading weekly staff meetings, the publisher routinely began with a segment called “Good news,” in which he asked the staff to share positive news. Although staffers often saw this “good news” discussion as an invitation to talk about positive happenings in their personal lives or to celebrate great work at the organization, the publisher specifically sought out advertising sales representatives to describe how much revenue they generated in the past week. It became clear that, to the publisher, “good news” was a synonym for “advertising sales.” Ultimately, the only observed way that staffers perceived of their audience was in relation to their ability to serve their advertisers.

Imagining the community. To meet the organization’s advertising and editorial goals, members constructed the typical audience member. However, because of the organization’s many products and the multiple ways staff members catered to the typical audience member, this imagined understanding of the audience was constantly discursively reconstituted.

To personalize the intended audience member, staffers at Midwest Monthly created the character of “Lucy.” Lucy was invoked both in meetings and interviews with staff members. The associate publisher/editor-in-chief said Lucy is a middle-aged, married woman with two high-school-aged children. She works part time, is active in her community and church, is interested in fitness, and has a household income between $70,000 and $80,000 a year. The median household income of the community was $43,000 as compared to the national average of $53,000 (United States Census Bureau, 2014). The publisher suggested that Lucy represented not an idealized reader (the community’s most affluent) but a “midpoint.” He said, “[Lucy] is pretty close to the median age of [the community], but also – every household has a female head of household who controls 92% of the buying power.” He said the concept of Lucy informed both editorial decision-making and advertising strategies.

Staff members used heuristic tools to help understand Lucy. The designer said he thought of his mother because she works part-time, is involved in her community, and attends church. The editorial assistant described her mother’s friends as her stand-ins for Lucy, but for some younger staffers and interns, defining Lucy was not so easy. The associate publisher/editor-in-chief admitted that younger staffers often struggled with speaking to Lucy as a reader and said the organization should improve staff training by focusing on how to serve Lucy. The associate publisher/editor-in-chief, however, referred to herself as a “former Lucy,” and the publisher said his wife and other women he knows could also be considered Lucy.

Beyond Lucy’s personal features, staffers attributed life purposes to her. The designer described Lucy as someone who is “always looking for ways to better improve (her) life.” This appeared to extend her personality to someone interested in self-fulfillment and betterment. One difficulty in defining Lucy was that staffers rarely received feedback from the audience. The editorial assistant said, “[the associate publisher/editor-in-chief] can tell me whether or not she thinks it’s appropriate for the magazine, but if I’m not finding out from the readers if they liked that story on saving up for your child’s college education, is it worth it or not?” There was an apparent disconnect between what staff members and readers considered quality editorial content. The editorial assistant, who moved to the community from a larger city and was in her 20s, would seemingly face challenges in producing content for the actual audience in the community when she did not hear from them.

Some staff members invoked their personal tastes while making decisions for the organization that seemed to contrast with Lucy’s interests. For example, in an editorial meeting, the editorial assistant and the associate publisher/editor-in-chief discussed an article on shopping. The associate publisher/editor-in-chief deferred to the editorial assistant, asking, “Is there anything you’re feeling love for?” The editorial assistant recommended a feature on sandals because she needed new sandals and the article would be informative to her as well. This response showed that personal interests and needs also affected editorial decision-making. Rather than lose sight of the consistent view of Lucy, the greater threat was that staffers would think of themselves instead.

What does Lucy want from Midwest Monthly? In one staff meeting, the publisher suggested that staffers discuss what Lucy wanted from the company’s products and services. This led to staffers discussing whether Lucy preferred content that informed her about her community or content that provided her with opportunities to become more engaged in her community. Lucy was invoked in many discussions about services and content the organization should provide. The graphic designer described Lucy as wanting content that made her feel good, that bettered her life, and that was useful and relevant. The publisher invoked Lucy in discussions of possible editorial topics for email newsletters, asking, “Does Lucy give a shit?” about a local coffee shop closing. The publisher appeared to think the coffee shop did not meet the needs of Lucy’s demographic, and profiling its closure was not worthwhile.

Who does Midwest Monthly want as Lucy? The publisher and other individuals clearly had specific preferences for who Lucy should be. These preferences included community members with sufficient disposable income to engage with advertisers. In a special events committee meeting, the publisher insisted that the price of the ticket to an upcoming cigar dinner be increased from $95 to $125 in order to “weed out the riffraff.” This comment showed that the publisher wanted to cater to a high-income audience because of its potential to satisfy advertisers seeking to reach that demographic. The publisher also said that when meeting with some advertisers, he described Lucy and suggested that they picture her when considering their audience. He said of Lucy, “It’s not only about us to have a more clear focus, more succinct focus, but for our advertisers to have someone to market to.” Thus, Lucy served as a heuristic for multiple types of decision-making in the organization.

The organization recognized other plausible audiences. The editorial assistant described Lucy as the target but said many other types of community members actually read the content or engaged with the organization at its events. Because of this reality, Midwest Monthly hosted events catering to alternative audiences. For a summer barbecue event, the publisher encouraged staffers to consider Lucy’s husband as the target audience. However, the graphic designer admitted that Lucy would probably have to tell her husband about the event because her husband would not have heard about it on his own. The publisher even described the timing of the event as an opportunity to encourage Lucy to buy her husband a ticket for Father’s Day. This suggestion showed that although Lucy’s husband was the target audience, the marketing for the event was geared toward Lucy.

The actual reader. Despite efforts the company made to cater content and events to a specific clientele by using a particular voice and championing certain issues and interests, the ultimate audience was those who actually engaged with the organization. Although the organization did not make a consistent effort to understand these individuals, attending the “best of the community” event suggested that the actual audience likely differed from “Lucy.” The event was scheduled to take place on a Thursday at 5 p.m. to allow attendees to come straight from work.

Although “Lucy” was likely present at the event depending on how each staff member conceived of her, the attendees were diverse in age and gender. Although the organization admitted to making little effort to reach the under-35 audience, plenty of young professionals attended. A considerable number of men attended the event – not only those who came with their wives, who may have been “Lucy.” Finally, the event noticeably lacked racial diversity. The issue of race was not addressed in the construction of Lucy, but a stock photograph used in the office to represent Lucy depicted a white woman. The organization appeared to approach the event as an attempt to reach a large crowd that would inevitably include “Lucy” without solely focusing on her.

The Function of Midwest Monthly

The second research question asked how staff members’ perceptions of their audience shaped how they discussed the magazine’s community function. Midwest Monthly’s perceived roles emerged through observations of the way the company differentiated its offerings to serve readers, the use of events to engage with audience members, approaches to content in the company’s print and online products, and discussions of the company’s overall identity and how it related to readers’ interests and needs.

Reaching readers. Although the company and the flagship publication shared the same name, Midwest Monthly offered a variety of products aimed at specific audiences, including a magazine for readers age 50-plus, a business magazine, and a Christian magazine. The company also produced several custom products, including a community guide; a restaurant guide; and online newsletters focused on food, wine, events, weddings, and other topics. Staff members clearly prioritized the flagship magazine over these products, but this focus could change in light of the magazine’s newfound emphasis on visitor’s-guide-like content, which was viewed as highly marketable to readers.

Events were another area of emphasis for the company, serving as a means to reach the average reader (Lucy) as well as the ideal reader (the community’s most affluent residents). Events focused on Lucy included a wine and chocolate event that featured “boutique-y things women are into,” according to one advertising representative, while events aimed at idealized readers included cooking classes and the $125-per-plate cigar dinner. Even events aimed toward Lucy did not always emphasize what she could afford. The publisher mentioned an “inspiration house” furnished by advertisers from which readers could draw ideas but not replicate entirely.

The associate publisher/editor-in-chief said the company’s events emphasized the magazine as an “experience”: “That is really not just words on a page anymore. You’ve got to back that up with events and all sorts of digital. You are a tangible thing.” The designer said the events allowed people to interact with the company’s brand and “really put our company above just a magazine, which is important. [ … ] They want extravagant things. Just something out of the ordinary.” The editorial assistant said events made parts of the magazine “real” for readers by taking “people right from the pages and puts them in front of the readers.” In this way, staff members saw the magazine’s function as offering readers access to important people in the community and making the magazine content “real” for readers while at the same time offering them an escape into a luxurious lifestyle.

Organizational identity. Discussions about content often indicated an overall identity negotiation at Midwest Monthly, as staff members seemed to have differing opinions about the types of content the magazine should emphasize. According to the editorial assistant, “We’re a lifestyle magazine. We’re supposed to make people happy. It’s the shopping, the eating, drinking, enjoying the culture and the arts, sort of the things that get you up and get you excited to go out and enjoy your town.” Thus, she said content did not suggest how to change readers’ lifestyle but offered a choice. For the associate publisher/editor-in-chief, this approach constituted “refrigerator journalism” that “invites people to take action, to learn something, to do something.” The publisher said the magazine should publish more articles that prompt readers to ask, “How can I take action?” Examples of “action” included buying kale at the farmers’ market and then using a magazine recipe to prepare it or reading an article on adventure sports and kayaking at a nearby river.

However, during a meeting in which staff members discussed what made the company distinctive among other local media (what they called their “uniques”), questions arose regarding Midwest Monthly’s mission. Staff members agreed that Midwest Monthly represented an authorized source for the best ways to enjoy the community. The publisher compared this role to a “community catalyst,” in that the magazine provided opportunities to engage with the community through cooking classes and events. Another editor, however, understood “catalyst” as offering town hall meetings through which readers could come together to discuss community change. This led to a debate about whether the magazine should focus on issue-oriented content or address only positive aspects of the community. Ultimately, the publisher asked, “Is it our job to do that?” and “Who are we going to be?”

In an interview, the associate publisher/editor-in-chief described examples when the magazine tackled “really gritty issues,” such as a drug problem in a local high school. She said these stories “made you feel like you’re impacting beyond giving someone a recipe or a date for an event. This changed some lives.” However, because of the magazine’s economic status and her new role as associate publisher, she said she had to focus on positive content that would increase subscriber numbers and make people feel good about the magazine and the community. The graphic designer agreed, saying, “We want to provide information about the community, but we also want to sell magazines. I think there’s a balance there in doing a public service and also making [Lucy] feel good.”

Differentiation from the competition. As part of this identity negotiation, the company aimed to distance itself from other publications in the community. The staff members discussed the authoritative voice of the magazine, in that the magazine’s selections of the best places to eat, shop, and spend leisure time have more legitimacy than those of other local media. This sense of entitlement was also evident in the company’s business decisions, serving as a way to cope with financial difficulties. For example, upon announcing that the magazine had lost its major advertiser to another publication, the publisher said that magazine offered more pages and a lower price to the advertiser, which might affect its long-term viability. The publisher saw this as a benefit, as he desired to eliminate that publication as competition. Although some news organizations may see competition as a way to drive enhanced reporting, the publisher clearly aimed to maintain a monopoly on his desirable readership and their preferred content.


Through observation of Midwest Monthly, the researchers explored how staff members discursively created an imagined audience and how their conceptions of this imagined audience shaped the magazine’s perceived function in the community. The findings led to greater understandings of the ways the organization constructed its audience as a commodified product to sell to advertisers, how the organization developed a coherent pseudo-understanding of who that audience is, and how staff members created events and content to monetize that audience.

Midwest Monthly aimed to create and develop a positive image of the local community while helping to build relationships between consumers and local businesses; however, this function supported an understanding of the organization as a market-oriented journalism institution rather than one interested in serving the public’s interest. At the same time, this model fit into the traditional understanding of audience among magazine journalists, who favor a niche market focus, in contrast to the traditional understanding of newspaper journalists, who emphasize a mass audience. This emphasis ultimately led to a city magazine focused on encouraging consumption and promotion among a particular demographic rather than addressing the broader community through news-oriented content.

Public service versus market orientation

Although Midwest Monthly may not represent the type of large corporate media conglomerate that Schiller (1989) warned about, it participated in a commodification of content and cultural production that can cause organization members to narrow their perspective to the point of legitimizing views that support only a narrow slice of the “propertied class” (p. 40). At Midwest Monthly, the publisher advanced viewpoints catered to a highly specific demographic or social class. Schiller referred to this dominance of a specific viewpoint as an ideology of the corporate, often a capitalist ideology, driving media. It was clear through observation that the publisher not only presented a specific ideology, but he also espoused a capitalist ideology valuing success in the private sector, and his content-production company played a vital role in the local marketplace. This ideology was evident not only in his unapologetic preference for championing the interests of local businesses, preferably advertisers, but also in his response to the loss of a local advertiser to another publication. Rather than seeing the other publication as a quality competitor, he preferred to see that company go out of business.

Midwest Monthly met all the qualities of a company shifting toward a more market-oriented journalistic institution. The company had increased the commodification of culture and news product, placed more emphasis on a marketplace orientation as opposed to serving the public interest, placed greater corporate pressure on employees, and decreased the amount of normative journalistic responsibility (McChesney, 2013; McManus, 1994; Baker, 2002). Ultimately, Midwest Monthly placed such a heavy focus on monetization that financial rationales permeated almost all decision-making at the company at the expense of possible public-service opportunities. This emphasis reflects the shifts occurring among other local news organizations, which, in the face of intramedia and technological competition, have resorted to commodified content (Murphy, 1998; Williams, 2006).

Journalists’ conception of audience

Newspapers and television news stations typically construct an audience based on a small, select group of individuals, including their supervisors, friends, neighbors, family members, and journalism colleagues (Gans, 1980). This heuristic is used in order to come closer to meeting the needs of as much of the audience as possible without speaking to anyone (Gans, 1980). For a corporate news organization like Midwest Monthly, the interest lies in cultivating a large, devoted audience that can be sold to advertisers without alienating a base of readers (Hagen, 1999). Although Midwest Monthly did not often attempt to speak to a mass audience, the imagined audience was used when a staff member invoked a friend or family member whom they believed adequately represented Lucy.

The practice of using people close to the journalist to aid in constructing the imagined audience member means that Midwest Monthly’s typification of the audience was likely more positive or active than if the staff members used an unspecified passive mass audience to build a typification (Sumpter, 2000). Typifications that are based on a mass audience are typically more negative than those based on individuals close to the journalist (Sumpter, 2000). At Midwest Monthly, Lucy was rarely ever spoken of derisively. This positive tone may result from staff members’ tendency to consider Lucy within their own experiences and perspectives.

As staff members received more power and authority in the organization, they appeared to mimic the “instinctive decision-making practices” of the most senior staff members (Sumpter, 2000). When the editor-in-chief was promoted to the position of associate publisher/editor-in-chief, she began to speak with a more positive tone about meeting the financial needs of the organization through practices that blurred the lines between editorial and advertising. However, she spoke negatively of those practices at the beginning of the observation period.

The means through which staff members at Midwest Monthly constructed their audience mirrored the practices of magazines overall. The staff members, as Holmes (2007) suggested, aimed to target particular readers and create content based on their perceived wants and needs. Staff members used Lucy as a heuristic for gauging audience interest but did not regularly engage with the audience directly to determine whether these perceptions rang true. Indeed, in some cases, they actively eschewed reader interaction. This prevented the staff members from responding to changes in readership and the community. Rather, the staff members remained focused on Lucy and how to meet her needs, neglecting other members of the community.

Imagined communities

The magazine staff members constructed a narrow imagined community (Anderson, 1983) of readers whose lives they sought to improve through content focused largely on lifestyle interests, such as dining, shopping, and events. Among other media, imagined communities reflect producers’ conceptualizations and their ability to construct meaning about the identity of their readers (Reader & Moist, 2008). This is also the case at Midwest Monthly, where characterizations of readers guided staff members’ day-to-day decision-making, whether in terms of content, event planning, or advertising. In the case of Midwest Monthly, while the associate publisher/editor-in-chief characterized herself as a former “Lucy” and the publisher suggested that Lucy resembled women he knew, other staff members relied on suppositions or comparisons to determine what Lucy might want. As a result, beyond gender, age, socioeconomic status, family size, and other basic characteristics, a deeper understanding of Lucy – and the magazines’ readership overall – remained unclear. Further, the use of “Lucy” in organizational decision-making could be construed as a tool to privilege the organization’s leaders, namely its publisher and associate publisher, as they both clearly connected themselves to Lucy, while other staff members interviewed relied on assumptions as a result of their age and perhaps social class.

Magazine staff members also focused on creating a “brand community,” which emerges around a product because of its strong brand image, focus on reader interests, institutional history, availability for public consumption, and attempts to outpace competitors (Davidson et al., 2007). Through its emphasis on defining company “uniques,” Midwest Monthly aimed to differentiate itself from other local media. Staff members focused on the company’s multi-platform focus, authoritative voice, and integrity. These attributes clearly indicated imagined readers, whom staff members assumed would value the opportunity to engage with the company through different products while turning to the company as an expert source for how to enhance their lives.

This emphasis has been present in other city magazines prioritizing “private-service” content suggesting ways for readers to experience cities through consumption (Jenkins, 2016b). Catering to a particular demographic might also subvert the company’s potential to build an imagined community based on realistic understandings of a geographic location. Texas Monthly magazine emphasized “positive stories that supported that audience’s lifestyle and attitudes” (Sivek, 2008, p. 168), rather than attempting to critique Texan identity. Likewise, rather than addressing problems in the community, Midwest Monthly relied on content that avoided challenging how readers might understand their community, resulting in a sanitized, hegemonic depiction of city life avoiding more challenging attributes or calls to action (Jenkins, 2016a).

City magazine functions

The tension evident among staff members who disagreed whether Midwest Monthly should provide news and issue-oriented content or lifestyle content reflects a longstanding negotiation among city magazines. City magazines historically aimed to serve as “survival manuals” (Riley & Selnow, 1989, p. 3) for affluent readers through identifying where they could spend their substantial leisure time and money (Hayes, 1981). Through emphasizing positive aspects of communities, city magazines show potential to enhance civic morale and appeal to an elite readership influential in urban decision-making (Burd, 1969). However, magazines’ agenda-setting potential is largely dependent on moving beyond boosterism to offering critical journalism (Burd, 2008). Midwest Monthly has attempted to address these types of topics. With recent financial setbacks, however, staff members seemed to conclude that a more positive emphasis would be necessary for maintaining readership and revenues. This decision supports Greenberg’s (2000) contention that city magazines emphasize a branded, consumer-driven lifestyle and are more corporate commodities than geographic artifacts. It also reflects Berkowitz and TerKeurst’s (1999) finding that journalists working in more homogenous communities may experience enhanced pressure to appease dominant local social groups. Even so, city magazine editors have expressed a desire for their publications to provide in-depth reporting and use both coverage and commentary to galvanize readers to think differently or take action in communities (Jenkins, 2016b; Sivek, 2014), suggesting that if economic restraints were lessened or removed, city magazines might take on more significant journalistic roles in their communities.

The researchers focused heavily on meetings at the organization and attended only one community event during the term of the participant observation. Although the researchers became familiar with staff members and the structure of weekly meetings, there were few opportunities to observe the staffers outside of a meeting context. The research was also related to only one city and regional magazine. However, Midwest Monthly is a member of the City and Regional Magazine Association and follows standards set by the association, meaning that some findings may be applicable to other member publications. Finally, Midwest Monthly covers one of the smallest communities served by a city and regional magazine, making it an ideal case for understanding the company’s relationship with the community but less ideal for understanding relationships between larger communities and their city and regional magazines. Future research should consider not only the perspectives of staff members at geographically focused magazines but also their audiences to understand where their perceptions of the role and value of these publications converge and diverge. Studies should also address the production and content of publications like these in other countries and media systems. Finally, other types of local media, like city magazines, may play enhanced roles in their communities in light of the financial challenges facing local newspapers and are, therefore, worthy of evaluation, including alternative media, hyperlocal media, and collaboratively and community-created media, among others.

At Midwest Monthly, staff members have adopted an understanding of the media prioritizing both media products and audiences as commodities. Although the company creates publications that feature journalistic content, emphasizing how readers can better live, work, and play in their communities, the ultimate goal is to leverage the buying power of the public for the benefit of local businesses, particularly those with whom the company has relationships, and the company’s own financial viability. Thus, as staff members considered their notion of “the reader,” they emphasized someone who enjoys living in her community but seeks out the media for ideas about how to enhance her lifestyle through dining, shopping, travel, and other enhancements.

This study illuminates the tactics one local news organization used to respond to a significant financial challenge and demonstrated how these strategies affected not only journalistic roles and content but also the organization’s conception of its audience and community role. Although staff members, particularly those in editorial roles, expressed a desire to positively impact readers’ lives and encourage them to engage in their community, the topics through which they could pursue these goals were largely limited by economic considerations, potentially limiting their ability to fill informational needs, present alternative viewpoints, and spur dialogue. Therein lies the negotiation that this organization and likely other local media face in balancing the normative journalistic need to address their readers as citizens and to maximize their value as consumers.

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  • Williams, G. (2006). Profits before product? Ownership and economics of the local press. In B. Franklin (Ed.) Local journalism and local media: Making the local news (2nd ed.) (83-92). Routledge.

* Researchers changed the name of the studied magazine and other identifying information in order to protect the identity of the organization.

About the Authors

Dr. J. David Wolfgang is an assistant professor of journalism at Colorado State University.

Dr. Joy Jenkins is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.