investigative reporting

Even if your paper is small, don’t hesitate to take on important projects

PORTLAND, Oregon – Small, rural newspapers can win open-records battles with state agencies and beat larger news outlets at covering big stories in their communities, says a journalist who spent most of his career at a metropolitan daily but has returned to the business of publishing a rural weekly.

Les Zaitz, publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon, made those and other points Thursday as he spoke to the annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in Portland and accepted the 2018 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Zaitz talked about how the Enterprise pursued the story of a former state hospital patient’s involvement in two murders and an assault in Malheur County shortly after his release. The newspaper discovered that the defendant had been released after convincing state officials he had faked mental illness for 20 years to avoid prison, and after mental-health experts warned he was a danger. The state Psychiatric Security Review Board sued Zaitz and the Enterprise to avoid complying with an order to turn over exhibits that the board had considered before authorizing the man’s release. Zaitz started a GoFundMe effort to pay legal fees, but then Gov. Kate Brown took the rare step of interceding in the case, ordering the lawsuit dropped and the records produced.

He said lessons from the episode include: “Even if you’re small, don’t back down from a fight like this. . . . Success in a fight like this depends a great deal on your institutional credibility; they knew that once I sank my teeth into their ankles I wouldn’t let go, because of their experience in prior instances” when he was a reporter at The Oregonian in Portland.

Probably the most important lesson, Zaitz said, is to “bring your community along as the fight heats up. Let them know that we’re not doing it for journalistic prizes. … tell the reader, we’re doing this for you’ this is information you deserve.” He said the news media have done “a terrible job as a profession of bringing our community along and explaining the profession,” but people are still thanking him for taking on the state.

“This fight, and the success and the propose of it, to me, was in the pursuit of the finest ideals of the profession, the pursuit of truth and justice,” he said. “We have to always never, never relent in the face of opposition from government. If we don’t stand up to the government, who will?”

Zaitz said the board’s new executive director is moving to again restrict access to such records, so “I don’t know what kind of brawl I’ve got ahead.”

He also didn’t know what he was in for when armed militants seized the office of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on a Christmas-week Saturday, when it was unoccupied, to protest the convictions of two ranchers for arson on federal land. (President Trump pardoned them this week.)

“I was on a glide path toward retirement at The Oregonian and the last thing I needed was another major assignment,” Zaitz said, but he lived in the area and was the natural point man.

The standoff lasted 41 days, and Zaitz led the coverage of it, but he said the experience has lessons for smaller newspapers like Harney County’s weekly Burns Times-Herald, the paper closest to the refuge, which “decided to stay our of the coverage for the most part” though Burns was “overwhelmed” by the influx of militia types, news media and law enforcement.
“Your access is one of your primary advantages” in covering a big story, Zaitz said. You’re known in your local communities; you are presumably trusted. … Even in the face of a major news event, where you are being swamped by out-of-towners, that is an asset you cannot overlook.”

To stay on top of the story, you must report it when news happens, Zaitz said: “You have to own the audience … online, driving information out. … We reacted to rumors; we would go online and knock those rumors down. … It just makes you indispensable to your audience.”

Think ahead, he advised: “Plan for a major news event. . . . It will pay huge dividends.” Ask questions such as, “What’s your battery supply? Where do you get water for your reporters in the field when the water is contaminated?”

Turning such challenges into opportunities is essential for local news media, Zaitz told the weekly editors, meeting at Lewis & Clark College: “In the current environment, what we do has become so important that our societies are turning to local news as, frankly, the only news that they can trust. That’s a major, major issue in this day and age. … they know you, they know your organizations, so you need to help build that trust, and build on that trust, to give … some refuge from the storm of fake news. People are feeling whiplashed, they are feeling misled.”

Zaitz said his experience as publisher of the Enterprise, where circulation has doubled to 1,500 since his family bought it in 2015 to keep it from closing, has affirmed his core belief “that readers wanted nothing more than solid, local information” about how their tax dollars are being used. He said he told a reporter not to spend three hours at a school-board meeting, but spend that much time finding out why the local high school’s graduation rate is declining.

“I don’t care if you’re small, you can still be good, and you can still be effective,” he said. “We can make a difference and turn this around if we all collectively step up our game.”

community issues Newswriting

Here’s some help in reporting on suicides

High-profile deaths always grab headlines. Suicides especially draw attention as witnessed by the deaths of renowned fashion designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain. The news was carried in big and small newspapers alike.

Yet, when suicide strikes in our own communities, many newspapers ignore the news. It’s time that all newsrooms have a thoughtful conversation on how to report suicide in a sensitive and forthright manner.

Even newspapers that reject the idea of reporting suicides accept that some circumstances demand an exception. Many newspapers adopt a policy to report suicides only if they involve public officials or if they occur in public settings. The rising incidence of suicides, unfortunately, demands a broader approach. Suicide is in no uncertain terms an epidemic.

A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that suicide rates have increased in all but one state during the past two decades with half of the states showing increases of more than 30 percent. Nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide in 2016 – more than twice the number of homicides – making it the 10th-leading cause of death and one of three that is increasing. Among people ages 15 to 34, suicide was the second-leading cause of death in 2016. The rise in suicides in the United States crosses lines of age, gender, race and ethnicity.

There is no single approach, no right or wrong way to report suicides. Here are some things to consider when establishing guidelines:

  • –When do suicides warrant front-page coverage?
  • –How much detail should be included? Should the cause of death be identified?
  • –Should suicide ever be reported as the cause of death in an obituary versus in a separate story?
  • –What steps can be taken to ensure timely reporting?
  • –Should certain words or phrases be avoided in the reports?
  • –Should suicide reports be accompanied with hotlines where others can turn for help?

As with the development of any news policy, it’s important to broaden the conversation beyond the newsroom. Identify and talk with those individuals who may have valuable perspectives. Health-care professionals should be near the top of your list. Talk as well with school counselors, mental health advocates, clergy, law enforcement personnel and medical response teams. Ask to speak at a meeting of grief support groups.

Many communities have formal grief response teams that go into schools when a classmate has died. Connect with them, too. And don’t forget that your co-workers may be among the best resources. They and their families are community members, too.

Newsrooms often become preoccupied with reporting a news event, then fall short on attention to follow-up stories. Suicides can present an excellent opportunity for stories that address the causes of suicide, namely depression.

These can be worthwhile and educational stories. But newspapers must consider the impact on victims’ families and friends. No matter how the stories are pursued and presented, personal tragedy is the springboard for the coverage. Follow-up stories, no matter how well intentioned, will put a family back in the spotlight.

Responsive and responsible newspapers can do a great deal to help communities work through tragedies, but coverage must be done with sensitivity. Don’t automatically reject the idea of approaching families of the deceased. During my tenure at Red Wing, we connected with one family whose son took his life four years after losing his brother in a car accident, never recovering from his loss. It resulted in a front-page story and a remarkable series of events that resulted in the insertion of curriculum in eighth-grade health class addressing depression and the signs of suicide.

The sensitivity of suicide almost makes the subject taboo in general conversation, and it brings a feeling of guilt or embarrassment to mention in an obituary. That is unfortunate, because suicide truly is an epidemic as the statistics underscore.

A first step to addressing suicide is to acknowledge and talk about suicide in our communities. Newspapers are in the perfect positon to start and guide that conversation.

Suicides are the kind of news that should be reported if community newspapers truly are to be the recorder of local events – a living history of our home towns. They are necessary if community newspapers are to remain relevant and represent themselves as the source of local information.



Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 7

Freedom of Information in Community Journalism

Katherine Fink

Studies of freedom of information (FOI) requests by journalists often focus on outcomes. However, the FOI request process is often more complicated than submitting a request and awaiting a decision; it may require numerous and delicate interactions with records officers. These interactions are particularly fraught for community journalists, for whom maintaining friendly relationships with sources is paramount. This study, based on FOI requests to 45 New York municipal clerks, finds additional interactions were required in more than three-quarters of municipalities that held relevant records. The reasons for those interactions were specific to the places in which requests were filed.

Journalists use freedom of information (FOI) requests to access government records that might otherwise be difficult to get. Records obtained through FOI requests can illuminate “how government decisions are made and the impact of these decisions” (Walby & Larsen, 2011, p. 31). Access to government data can allow journalists to spot trends, and unearth stories that might otherwise go unnoticed. Journalists have used FOI requests to break controversial stories about, for example, the United States government’s rejection of foreign aid after Hurricane Katrina; efforts by Chinese hackers to disrupt satellite networks; and General Motors’ delayed response to fatal accidents involving its ignition switches (News Media for Open Government, n.d.). At a time of increasing interest in computational journalism, government data appeal to journalists due to their abundance and potential for public impact (Coddington, 2015).

For community journalists, using FOI requests to obtain information from local governments is of particular interest. Indeed, most FOI requests by journalists are filed at the state or local, rather than national, level (Cuillier, 2011). This tendency is not surprising given that most journalism is locally based (Lauterer, 2006; Reader & Hatcher, 2012, xiv). Community journalists have used FOI requests to gather documents such as building permits, crime reports, liquor license applications, and restaurant inspections (Parasie & Dagiral, 2013). Examples of community journalism that has used FOI requests include investigations into fraudulent deed transfers, coverups of unsafe transportation systems, and exorbitant salary increases for public officials (Cuillier, 2017).

And yet, obtaining newsworthy information through FOI requests can be difficult. Journalists who have used FOI requests often complain that records officers take too long to respond. Timely responses are particularly important as news deadlines shorten (Barnhurst, 2011). Even when responses are timely, requests are frequently denied, or fulfilled only partially. Requesters who file appeals rarely succeed. The only other remedies available are lawsuits, which few journalists can afford to file. As a result, many journalists simply do not bother making FOI requests. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. journalists have little or no experience with them (Cuillier, 2011).

For community journalists, the FOI request process is particularly challenging. The tenets of community journalism emphasize the importance of being visible in the community (Terry, 2011), and maintaining friendly, informal relationships with potential sources (Byerly, 1961). Considering the difficulties FOI requesters have described in their interactions with records officers, and the formal nature of the process itself, filing requests could jeopardize the friendly, informal relationships community journalists work hard to build. However, relationships between journalists and records officers are not always antagonistic. How might community journalists negotiate the delicate FOI request process? This article aims to address this question by examining the responses of, and negotiations with, local records officers who denied FOI requests.

Literature Review

FOI laws emerged from the notion that people have a right to know “what their government is up to” (U.S. Department of Justice v. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 1989, quoting from Henry Steele Commager,New York Review of Books, Oct. 5, 1972, p. 7). The principles of FOI can be found in the writings of John Dewey, who argued that a democratic society depended on the free flow of information:

There can be no public without full publicity in respect to all consequences which concern it. Whatever obstructs and restricts publicity, limits and distorts public opinion and checks and distorts thinking on social affairs (1927, p. 167).

Laws that establish a right to know can help the public participate more fully in democratic societies by, among other things, help them communicate their wishes to elected representatives (Meiklejohn, 1948), hold officials accountable (Stiglitz, 1999), help agencies identify inefficiencies and reduce expenses (Larbi, 1999), and challenge tendencies within government to overclassify information (Fuchs, 2006). The concept of a right to know can be situated among a broader set of principles known as open government. Those principles include transparency, information sharing, collaboration, and citizen engagement (Wirtz & Birkmeyer, 2015). In addition to FOI, other laws associated with open government relate to open meetings, open data, and the reduction of paperwork and jargon (McDermott, 2010).

While a right to know is generally accepted as a democratic value, government transparency should have limits (Schudson, 2015). Opening government information to the public can have a “dark side” (Zuiderwijk & Janssen, 2014), including the potential misinterpretation of that information. Open government initiatives can also compete with other societal values, such as national security and the right to privacy (Raab, 1997). Transparency initiatives can also have practical limits. Many agencies struggle to respond in a timely fashion to an ever-growing number of FOI requests, potentially leading to less, rather than more, transparency (Rizzardi, 2014). Governments have tried to address these challenges in different ways. They may, for instance, apply “balancing tests” to assess whether the release of information would harm other societal interests (Halstuk & Chamberlin, 2006). Agencies may try to manage the flow of requests by charging fees for certain types of requests, especially those that are deemed commercial in nature or that are particularly time-consuming to fulfill.

Given the challenges involved in managing FOI requests, it is not surprising that relationships between records officers and requesters can be adversarial. Journalists have argued that records officers use inconsistent standards to determine whether documents should be released in full, redacted, or fully withheld (Brennan, 2013; Kwoka, 2011; Shepherd, Stevenson & Flinn, 2010). Some documents that are released are so heavily redacted that they become devoid of any useful information (Arizona Newspapers Association, 2016). Other conflicts arise when agencies fail to keep up with changes in FOI laws that require greater transparency (Bertot, McDermott, & Smith, 2012). Journalists have often accused records officers of charging excessive fees (Associated Press, 2015; Pruitt, 2015; Vaznis, 2016), and of purposely providing records in paper form or in non-machine-readable formats such as image files (Bush & Chamberlin, 2000; Fink & Anderson, 2015), because they are less useful.

For their part, records officers also have plenty of complaints about FOI requesters. Records officers are particularly bothered by “nuisance” or “vexsome” requesters, including those who are disgruntled, file numerous requests, request information at inconvenient times, use overly broad terms to describe what they want, and/or are perceived as having frivolous or malicious intent (Kimball, 2016). Records officers believe some requesters use FOI laws not to obtain information of public interest, but to satisfy idle curiosities, waste the government’s time, or punish officials they do not like (see e.g. Shaner, 2016).

Community Journalists

Community journalism is generally defined as reporting that focuses on a specific, rather than mass, audience (Byerly, 1961). By engaging specific audiences, community journalists can fill coverage gaps left by larger media organizations (Carpenter, Nah, & Chung, 2015). Unlike journalists who serve larger audiences, community journalists are expected to adhere to community norms as well as professional norms (Reader, 2012). That is, community journalists must report facts as well as be “friendly neighbors” (Byerly, 1961). They are also expected to be accessible and empathetic. Community norms call for approaching sources “with a good dose of humility, and not by casually tossing out phrases like ‘the people’s right to know,’ then pulling up the drawbridge, and retreating into the fortress of an office” (Cross, 2011, para. 4). By engaging directly with the audiences they serve, community journalists aim to understand the nuances of local issues and, as a result, build trust with sources and audiences (Bressers, Smethers, & Mwangi, 2015; Meadows, 2013).

The expectation that community journalists be “friendly neighbors,” however, may lead them to avoid stories that portray the people they cover in a negative light (Barney, 1996). When they do cover bad news, they are expected to balance the public’s right to know with “the community’s need to know” (Reader, 2012, p. 7). Publishing negative stories can thus take courage for a community journalist, who “does literally have to face his readers on the street” (Bagdikian, 1964, p. 110). Losing the trust of one’s audience can make the community journalist’s job difficult, given the relatively small pool of available sources (Ekdale, 2014).

Maintaining the trust of local officials is particularly important to community journalists, given the abundance of news that originates with government sources (Gans, 1979; Tuchman, 1978). Local governments often support the efforts of community journalists, believing that the health of their communities depends on the availability of information (Stonbely, Napoli, McCollough, & Renninger, 2015). However, information that is ostensibly public can still be controversial when reported by community journalists. One newspaper stopped publishing an annual list of government employee salary data after being told it was “not a nice thing to do” (Fink & Anderson, 2015, p. 473). Mugshots of people who have been arrested are also usually public information, but news organizations that compile them have been criticized (Lee, 2017). Given these controversies over public records, community journalists may be reluctant to make FOI requests, in the interest of maintaining cordial relationships with valuable sources.

Local Records Officers

Access to public records is “more about the people than the law” (Cuillier, 2010a, para. 2). That is, decisions over whether FOI requests will be fully granted, partially granted, or denied can vary widely among public records officers. Understanding why records officers privilege or penalize certain requests may help journalists improve their chances of getting the information they want. For community journalists, understanding the ways localrecords officers make decisions is particularly important, since “community” is often, although not always, defined by geographic boundaries (Christensen & Levinson, 2003; Robinson, 2014).

Decisions by records officers vary in part because FOI laws are complex and open to interpretation. In the U.S., the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is generally considered to guide access to public records at federal agencies; however, some offices, such as the White House, are excluded from FOIA, and separate laws pertain to the Legislative and Judicial branches of government. Federal guidance on FOIA also refers to more than 70 other statutes that may result in the withholding of requested records (U.S. Department of Justice, 2018). Each state also has its own law covering access to state and local records. Although state laws tend to be similar to FOIA, they may differ in several ways, such as required response times, the types of records that are exempt, and potential remedies for FOI violations (Fink, 2018).

The processing of FOI requests also differs at the national, state, and local level. At the local level, responding to FOI requests is among a myriad of duties that tend to fall on municipal clerks (Kimball, 2016). Other duties may include attending and recording the minutes of local government meetings, preparing budgets, collecting taxes, communicating with the public, and gathering and maintaining historical records.  Municipal clerks are often elected positions that are “neither wholly political nor wholly administrative” (Gordon, 2011, p. 172), serving a broad range of constituencies with competing interests and demands. Municipal clerks tend to work long and irregular hours and be undercompensated, and may have trouble separating their work and personal lives (Blackburn & Bruce, 1989).

Municipal clerks are also “street level bureaucrats” who enjoy a high degree of autonomy (Kimball, 2016; Lipsky, 2010). Thus, they tend to have wide discretion in how they respond to FOI requests. Municipal clerks report mostly positive interactions with FOI requesters, and say they support government transparency in general (Kimball, 2012, 2016). However, municipal clerks also believe FOI laws are widely open to interpretation (Kimball, 2003) and that releasing too little information is less risky than releasing too much. Indeed, few people whose FOI requests are partially or fully denied challenge those decisions—and winning appeals or lawsuits is difficult (Baker, 2015; Verkuil, 2002). Even when the government loses such cases, records officers who are found to have wrongly withheld information are rarely punished (Hull, 2004).

If municipal clerks believe FOI laws to be open to interpretation, what guides those interpretations? Studies of how municipal clerks perceive their work yield some clues. Municipal clerks see their primary responsibilities as clerical in nature. Keeping accurate, confidential records for the use of government employees is seen as more important than maintaining access to those records for the public (Kimball, 2012). Municipal clerks also prioritize protecting confidentiality (Davenport & Kwoka, 2010; Kimball, 2003). Few states require records officers to be trained in how to respond to FOI requests (Kimball, 2012), and those that do may not require it on a regular basis (Davenport & Kwoka, 2010). Kimball (2003) found that records officers based their decisions on whether to release information not only on their interpretation of public records laws, but also the degree to which they sympathized with requesters (such as crime victims) or felt accountable to their bosses or co-workers. They may also disfavor other types of requests, such as those from people deemed to be “nuisances” because of their behavior, as well as journalists and political activists (Roberts, 2002). Records officers may also limit access to information if they believe it will be used for marketing purposes (Phelps & Bunker, 2001). Local records officers may also withhold requested information if records management software makes retrieving the information difficult (Shepherd, Stevenson & Flinn, 2010).

The Role of Place

The variability of FOI laws and request processes highlight the need to consider the role of place in this research. Place is often underemphasized or ignored in journalism research, despite its importance in the practice of reporting and the ways news organizations claim authority (Usher, 2019). Places that impact journalism include not only geographic coverage areas, but also places where journalists interact and where reporting occurs.Place is “not merely a setting or a backdrop, but an agentic player in the game” (Gieryn, 2000, p. 466). Discounting the role of place can lead to misguided normative assumptions about the generalizability of journalism research. This has been noted in studies critiquing the predominance of studies based in the U.S. (Hanitzsch et al, 2011; Wasserman & de Beer, 2009). Even within the U.S., journalism research and practice has been criticized for focusing too heavily on coastal cities (McGill, 2016).

Studies of records officers have also suggested that places matter in the FOI request process. For instance, even as local records officers believe more public records should be available online, they also prefer requests to be made in person (Kimball, 2016). Records officers were more likely to respond quickly and more completely to FOI requests if they believed that their counterparts in neighboring counties had already responded (ben-Aaron et. al, 2017).

The importance of place to journalists and municipal clerks may explain why attempts to generalize FOI processes have been elusive. Attempts to rank FOI laws across geographies have yielded widely varying results (see, e.g., Access Info Europe and Centre for Law and Democracy, 2018; Center for Public Integrity, 2015; World Justice Project, 2015). Recommending best practices for requesters has also been a challenge. An analysis of 33,000 requests found “few features were consistently associated” (Dias, Kamal, & Bastien, 2017, para. 8) with successful requests. Some studies have found that FOI requests that used a formal or threatening tone had better response rates than those with a friendly or neutral tone (Cuillier & Davis, 2012; Grimmelikhuijsen, John, Meijer, & Worthy, 2018; Worthy, John, & Vannoni, 2017). Still, “smaller, more rural agencies tend to prefer a more friendly tone” (Cuillier & Davis, 2012), and experienced requesters have also suggested that it can help to “play nice” (Kambhampati, 2018).

Research Questions

These inconsistencies suggest that the places in which FOI requests and negotiations are made matter, because the people and processes involved are highly variable and complex, and because FOI outcomes often depend on the level of trust between individual records officers and requesters. But although prior research has suggested that the FOI request process is often more complex than simply filing a request and waiting for a response (Worthy, John, & Vannoni, 2017), those interactions have been little studied. Requesters and records officers may communicate several times about a single request, and those communications may be formal and informal. Either party may seek more information or clarifications. They may challenge each other’s interpretations of public records laws. The following case study thus examines not only the outcomes of FOI requests, but interactions that led to those outcomes.

The literature inspired the following research questions that may help shed light on how local records officers respond to FOI requests:

RQ1:How often are followup interactions required in order to complete requests?

RQ2:Why do records officers initiate followup interactions?

RQ3:How do followup interactions shape the outcomes of FOI requests?


In this study, requests for dog license records were sent to the 45 municipal governments in Westchester County, New York, which included cities, towns, and villages. Access to municipal records is determined by the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). FOIL, like FOIA, includes exemptions for several kinds of records, including those whose disclosure could jeopardize security and personal privacy. However, FOIL also differs from FOIA in several ways. Requests must be acknowledged within five business days, compared to FOIA’s 20 business days. FOIL also requires responses to be completed within 20 business days, unless agencies provide an explanation for the delay and specify a date by when responses will be completed. FOIL allows agencies to charge fees of any requester, while FOIA allows fees to be waived for journalists and educators. FOIL also contains an extra resource for requesters who wish to challenge denials. In addition to filing administrative appeals, requesters may also seek guidance from the Committee on Open Government (COOG). The committee does not have enforcement power, but issues advisory opinions to requesters and records officers.

Dog license records were chosen for this study because of their relevance to community journalism and because their availability under FOIL was suggested in legal opinions as well as by their use in news stories by New York media. Dog license records are typically held by local governments. Dogs themselves are popular topics of community journalism coverage, such as in controversies over leash laws and dog parks, notices about lost and found pets, and feel-good stories of heroism and loyalty that inspire interactions with readers (Turner, 2015). Dog license data has been used by community journalists to document local trends in the popularity of particular dog breeds and names (Caroll, 2013; Fair, 2019; Reader, 2013), and to research whether dogs that bite residents are up to date on their vaccinations (Dinan, 2018). In New York, the availability of dog licenses under FOIL has been established in several opinions by the state COOG. Municipalities had granted similar requests for the same information in the past (Freeman, 1996; Reader, 2013).

The FOIL request for this study sought “All dog licensing data, including but not limited to: dog name, breed, birth year, color, sex, sterilization, vaccinations, and resident’s location” (see Appendix). According to state law, dog license applications include, at minimum, the “sex, actual or approximate age, breed, color, and municipal identification number of the dog, and other identification marks, if any, and the name, address, telephone number, county and town, city or village of residence of the owner” (N.Y. Agriculture and Markets Law, Article 7 §109(c), 2013). Most dog owners in the state are required to license their pets, although only an estimated one in five actually do (Reader, 2013). New York’s law applies to all municipalities in the state, except New York City, which has its own law.

Westchester County was chosen for this study out of convenience. The researcher works in the county, and was available to retrieve records in person, when necessary. Most municipalities provided electronic records or sent paper records through the mail, but the researcher also visited three municipal offices to retrieve records. FOIL requests were sent online, either using a form provided by the municipality’s website or by emailing the local records officer, usually the municipality’s clerk. Requests were submitted to all municipalities between April 21 and May 5, 2015.

If municipalities did not acknowledge the request within the five business days as required by FOIL, the researcher attempted to contact the records officer again. The second contact was always via email. If the second contact yielded no response, the researcher attempted to reach the records officer by phone. Subsequent attempts to contact municipalities were based on whether records officers acknowledged the requests, and whether they offered estimates of when responses would be completed. Follow-up contacts were made by email or by phone based on the preferences of each records officer. When phone conversations took place, the researcher noted the dates and topics discussed.

Of the 45 municipalities contacted, 13 subsequently notified the researcher that they had an agreement with another municipality to keep dog license records on their behalf. Thus, responses from the remaining 32 records officers were considered for this study. When municipalities denied the requests partially or fully, the researcher did not pursue remedies such as appeals or lawsuits. After two months of attempts to access records, the researcher stopped trying to contact municipalities that had not completed responses.


RQ1: How often are followup interactions required in order to complete requests?

Followup interactions were required in 25 of 32 municipalities (78.125 percent) in order to complete the FOI request. In other words, only seven municipalities (21.875 percent) responded with decisions granting or denying the request (fully or partially) without additional communications between the researcher and records officers. Some interactions were initiated by the researcher, while others were initiated by records officers.

The researcher contacted 18 of 32 municipalities (56.25 percent) after they missed at least one deadline for responding to the FOI request. As mentioned in the Methods section, New York’s FOIL establishes two types of deadlines for records officers: one for acknowledging requests, and one for completing them. Ten municipalities (31.25 percent) missed the acknowledgment deadline; 13 (40.63 percent) missed the completion deadline. In some cases, the followup interactions alerted clerks to the very existence of the request. “We don’t check the website that way,” responded one clerk during a followup phone call about an online request that was awaiting an acknowledgment (personal communication, May 8, 2015).

Two municipalities (6.25 percent) never completed the request. That is, they did not provide records, nor did they issue formal denials—rather, they stopped responding to communications from the researcher. One non-responsive municipality had been contacted three times following the initial request; the other, seven.

Records officers initiated interactions with the researcher in 22 of 32 municipalities (68.75 percent). Reasons for those interactions will be described in the following section.

RQ2: Why do records officers initiate followup interactions?

Records officers contacted the researcher for a variety of reasons. If they had missed deadlines, some records officers responded with apologies or explanations for the delays. Other records officers notified the researcher of additional requirements for fulfilling the request. Some records officers responded with questions (the answers to which sometimes prompted notifications of additional requirements), and some records officers wanted to negotiate over which information would be released (which sometimes also involved additional requirements and questions).

Apologies and explanations. Almost all records officers who were contacted about missing deadlines apologized for being late to acknowledge or complete requests within the time mandated by state law. That was true even for the two municipalities that never completed responses. Records officers in both of those municipalities attributed their delays to having too much work or too few employees to handle it. Other records officers or their employees who apologized for delays said they had missed the original request, that the records officer had been on vacation, or that municipal attorneys were evaluating whether any information had to be redacted.

Notifications of additional requirements. Fifteen of the 32 municipalities (46.875 percent) responded that they needed fees or additional information from the researcher. Nine municipalities (28.125 percent) responded that they would charge fees for the records. FOIL allows records officers to charge up to $0.25 per page for photocopies of records, and may also charge for labor if requests take more than two hours to process. Records officers are not supposed to charge fees when records exist electronically and the requester asks for them in an electronic format. The researcher agreed to pay fees to five municipalities that charged under $50. For the four municipalities that charged higher fees, the researcher offered to visit their offices in order to inspect the records in person for free. Two municipalities accepted that offer; two others decided to provide the records electronically for free.

Seven municipalities (21.875 percent) required the researcher to submit a statement affirming that the data would not be used for commercial or fundraising purposes. Three municipalities additionally required that the statements be notarized. New York’s FOIL specifies that some information, such as lists of names and addresses, may be withheld “if such lists would be used for solicitation or fund-raising purposes”(N.Y. Public Officers Law,§89 2(b)(iii)).When clerks requested such statements, the researcher provided them.

Questions. Clerks in seven municipalities (21.875 percent) responded with questions, such as:

For what purpose?

Why do you need the information on the dogs that are licensed in Mount Pleasant?

Why does anybody need to know that?

Although New York’s FOIL specifies that requesters are not “required to provide a reason or indicate the intended use of the record” (New York Department of State, n.d.), some clerks still asked why the researcher wanted the information. Some clerks indicated they were asking in order to ensure the information would not be used for commercial or fund-raising purposes. When such questions arose, the researcher responded that the requests were for a university research project and journalism course.

Other questions from municipal clerks related to the “residents’ location” portion of the request:

What would you be using the owner’s addresses for?

I wanted to ask do you really need the resident’s location.

Several clerks said they were concerned about how residents of their communities would react if they knew their names and addresses were being released. Did the requester need the street address, or would a ZIP code suffice? When such questions arose, the researcher expressed a preference for street addresses. In some cases, the researcher provided context for the request by referring to projects by news organizations and others that had created searchable maps of popular dog names and breeds by neighborhood (Reader, 2013). “Yeah, some of those dog names are funny” (personal communication, May 4, 2015) responded one records officer, before releasing the records with residents’ full addresses included.

Negotiations.While some clerks asked questions about the resident’s location portion of the request, others took a harder line:

That information is an invasion of the person and not allowed. 

Please be aware that owner information is not subject to FOIL.

I don’t think you need the names or phone numbers.

After several clerks raised questions or concerns about the “resident’s location” data, the researcher requested an opinion from COOG Executive Director Robert Freeman, who confirmed that “the items that you requested are accessible, with the exception of a home phone number, and so long as you certify that the names and addresses will not be used for solicitation or fund-raising purposes” (personal communication, May 4, 2015). The researcher forwarded the opinion to clerks who had asked questions about the addresses or suggested they would be redacted.

The most contentious negotiations took place with the clerk of one municipality, Bedford, who also served as president of the Westchester Town and City Clerks Association. She called the researcher after she said several other clerks had contacted her about the request. “We deal with FOIL requests all the time, including from the newspapers, and I have never seen this kind of reaction,” she said (personal communication, May 7, 2015). She also noted that municipal clerks in New York were elected, not appointed, officials, and that it was her duty to “represent the people of my community” (personal communication, May 7, 2015). Finally, she said since the term “resident’s location” was open to interpretation, she would provide only ZIP codes. However, she said she would waive the $105 fee that she had planned to charge for the records.

Other negotiations occurred as a result of technological challenges the clerks faced. Some clerks were stymied by limits to the size of files they could attach to emails from their municipal accounts. Others responded that, although the information existed electronically, they were not sure how to export it from the software they used to a shareable file. Other clerks requested extra time because they wanted to redact residents’ addresses, but did not know how to do so within their software. The redaction problem was addressed several ways. Some clerks used markers or white-out to obscure each address manually, sometimes on hundreds of pages. One clerk printed out records and cut off the left side of each page. Another clerk asked the researcher to help with the redactions by cutting strips of paper and taping them over the left side of each page. The records officer then photocopied each page and gave the photocopies to the researcher.

Finally, some negotiations occurred with clerks who responded that the requested records did not exist.

We have reviewed the list of records you are requesting.  In order to supply this information, it would require us to create a record, as none exists with all of the information that you are requesting. Under FOIL, a government entity is not required to create a new record where none exists.

We do not have the ability to generate reports you would need to contact our software company.

The researcher responded to both of the above records officers by saying that she could inspect individual dog license applications. Records officers in both municipalities then responded by providing dog license reports in similar formats that most other municipalities had provided.

RQ3: How do followup interactions shape the outcomes of FOI requests?

When negotiations were involved, followup interactions often yielded better results for the requester. Three clerks who initially charged fees waived them after speaking with the researcher; two other clerks reduced their fees. Two clerks who initially claimed they could not create summary reports of their dog license data later did so.

Followup interactions did not always lead clerks to change their minds. As mentioned earlier, two clerks never completed a response to the FOI request, despite multiple interactions. Also, clerks who said that they would withhold the “resident’s location” portion of the data, or provide only general information such as ZIP codes, generally stuck to those decisions, even after receiving the opinion from the COOG.

In many municipalities, however, it is difficult to know the extent to which followup interactions made a difference. Did reminders about FOIL’s deadlines prompt action, or would the clerks have responded soon anyway? When clerks asked for the purpose of the request, did they find the answer reassuring, or concerning? It was not always clear.


This study in some ways resembles an FOI audit, in which identical requests are sent to multiple agencies across geographies or bureaucracies in order to compare their compliance. Unlike most FOI audits, however, this study also gathered a second type of data: interactions with records officers following submission of the requests.

This data is important, because, as this study suggests, followup interactions often occur. That means, regardless of how carefully FOI requesters choose their words, the decisions of records officers may hinge upon additional, and often impromptu, interactions. For community journalists, each interaction carries risk—because it suggests a tension between the requester and the records officer that needs to be resolved. Those tensions can jeopardize relationships between community journalists and municipal clerks, who are important news sources.

Requester-initiated interactions may include notifications when records officers miss deadlines. While some of the clerks contacted in this study may not have been bothered by the reminders, some likely were. After all, reminders of missed deadlines suggest that records officers are not complying with the law. But requesters may have to initiate interactions that are even more fraught: challenging the decisions of records officers who withhold information. In this study, challenges were made only informally, during negotiations with clerks. However, challenges couldhave been made in other municipalities whose clerks merely supplied incomplete information without explanation. The most common types of data that were missing were dogs’ birth years and sterilization information. Conversations with clerks later revealed that the software most of them used to manage dog license records did not keep these types of data, even though such information is required by state law to be submitted on dog license applications. In the end, only three of the 32 municipalities in this study (9.375 percent) provided all information requested.

Even when requesters do not initiate additional interactions, records officers may. They may notify requesters of additional requirements, ask questions, or attempt to negotiate the type or amount of information disclosed. Those interactions can also be delicate for community journalists to navigate, particularly if they believe that records officers are not adhering to, or misinterpreting, public records laws.

At the heart of these tensions are often competing viewpoints on the relationship between FOI and the best interests of the community. Journalists may see FOI as a tool to explore and make transparent a broad range of community information. While municipal clerks may support transparency as a general principle, they may not always believe complying with FOI laws to be in the best interests of their communities. Requesters who act in bad faith may anger community members. Requesters who file frivolous or complex requests force clerks to take time away from serving their communities in other ways.

These concerns were reflected in the questions and negotiations that emerged in this case study about the reasons for the researcher’s request. FOIL, like many other public records laws, specifies that requesters do not have to provide a reason. At the same time, FOIL also requires that requesters “reasonably describe” the records they want. COOG additionally offers that agencies should follow up with requesters “if the request is too vague to answer” (New York Department of State, n.d.). The more “reasonably” a requester can describe records, the more obvious the purpose for requesting them will be. Records officers in this study often asked the researcher her purpose for requesting the dog license records. The president of the Westchester Town and City Clerks Association said she often asked this question of requesters in order to make sure she was providing the information they actually wanted. Requesters, she explained, do not always understand how information is organized in municipal records—so knowing the purpose can help her locate records more efficiently and help the requester access them more quickly.

However, this may present a dilemma for community journalists. Disclosing a reason may be in their best interests, if it results in faster access to information and continued friendly relations with records officers. However, journalists who disclose their purposes may find records harder to access. If the records reflect poorly upon the government—or even if the perception is that they might—records officers may use their broad powers of interpretation to deny the requests. On the other hand, journalists whose purposes appear unserious risk being labeled “nuisance” requesters. While some records officers may be reassured to know that the records were requested for a lighter human-interest story, others might be frustrated that they had to spend time and effort to fulfill the request.

The Role of Place, Revisited

The expectation that community journalists should act as “friendly neighbors” to sources presents potential challenges in the FOI request process. However, their deep knowledge of their communities may also be a benefit, because they may already have a relationship with their municipal clerk and understand place-specific challenges that may arise when trying to access information through FOI requests.

As Usher (2019) and others have argued, place plays an important role in news production. Place is not only a physical location. Place can also be defined other ways, including “the ways in which journalists, audiences, and institutions interact with their environments,

build routines, and construct cultural meaning”(Usher, p. 91). In this study, place affected the responses of municipal clerks in several ways. First, clerks were wary of the researcher because of their lack of prior interactions with her. Place also played a role in the difficulties some clerks encountered with the software their municipalities had purchased to manage dog license records. At least 20 municipalities used the same program. The clerks had varying levels of familiarity and comfort with the software, which meant that complying with the FOI request was much more difficult and time-consuming for some of them, particularly those who decided to redact some of the data.

Some clerks also mentioned a public records controversy in Westchester County that was still fresh in their memories. In 2012, the Journal Newsnewspaper published a map that displayed the addresses of all gun license holders in the county. The map was based on records acquired through FOIL requests. A public backlash ensued—editors received death threats, and the newspaper later removed the map from its website. The controversy led state lawmakers to pass the SAFE Act, which allowed gun license holders to opt out of public databases. Clerks in Westchester County said the Journal Newsstory had made them more reluctant to release residents’ addresses.

Finally, some place-specific challenges were affected by state regulations. Unlike records officers at the state and federal level, municipal clerks in New York (and in many other states) are elected positions. Therefore, their job security depends on maintaining the support and trust of their residents. The particulars of FOIL also affect municipal clerks by establishing what information may be requested, how soon records officers must respond, and setting other requirements they must follow. Additionally, FOIL specifies that, although COOG may issue opinions in FOI disputes, those opinions are not enforceable.


This study examined the often complicated and delicate interactions that take place between FOI requesters and local records officers—in this case, municipal clerks. Understanding these interactions can be useful to community journalists who wish their FOI requests to be taken seriously without jeopardizing the friendly relationships they wish to maintain with government officials. By anticipating the types of interactions that might follow the submission of requests, as well as the place-specific reasons that records officers may hesitate to comply, community journalists may be able to mitigate concerns while still accessing the information they want.

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Appendix: FOIL Request

Under the New York Freedom of Information Law, N.Y. Pub. Off. Law sec. 84 et seq., I hereby request the following public records:

All dog licensing data in ____________, including but not limited to: dog name, breed, birth year, color, sex, sterilization, vaccinations, and resident’s location.

If there are any fees for searching or copying these records, please inform me if the cost will exceed $10.  However, I would also like to request a waiver of all fees in that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest and will contribute significantly to the public’s understanding of government operations and activities. This information is not being sought for commercial purposes.

In the interest of expediency, and to minimize the research and/or duplication burden on your staff, please send records electronically if possible.

The New York Freedom of Information Law requires a response time of five business days.  If access to the records I am requesting will take longer than this amount of time, please contact me with information about when I might expect copies or the ability to inspect the requested records.

If you deny any or all of this request, please cite each specific exemption you feel justifies the refusal to release the information and notify me of the appeal procedures available to me under the law.

Thank you for considering my request.

Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 7

Bringing the Community to Journalism: A Comparative Analysis of Hearken-driven and Traditional News at Four NPR Stations

Mark Poepsel and Jennifer Cox

Hearken is a news engagement organization providing tools to help publications better provide community journalism by soliciting story ideas from citizens and taking them along on the reporting process. Hearken promises different types of stories that engage the community and boost revenues. This study examined all 2017 Hearken content from four U.S. public radio stations and compared it with a matching number of traditional content produced by those stations for a sample of 406 stories. This study revealed significant differences in the types of content produced and number and types of sources used, with Hearken content geared more toward local news on lifestyle/living topics reported using a high frequency of non-official sources. The results of this study show Hearken is fulfilling its community journalism objectives by engaging with citizens and providing valuable information that produces audience engagement.

Contemporary journalism is plagued with issues – falling revenues, online competition, audiences who cannot distinguish real from fake news. As a result, many newsrooms have looked to community journalism practices to engage, serve, and create relationships with audiences in hopes of generating revenue and building loyalty (Monson, 2017). Hearken is a news engagement organization providing tools to help organizations better provide community journalism. The company, comprised primarily of former radio news reporters, promotes a community journalism format that includes polling local citizens about stories they would like to see covered and working to include the individuals who ask questions in the reporting process. The goal is to bridge the role of source and journalist by having citizens question sources and also contribute as quoted sources in the story (How to, 2018). Hearken provides consulting services in order to share best practices learned from its network of providers (Hearken, 2018). In other words, it is more than a polling and engagement tracking platform. Hearken is a community of practice. Additionally, the company offers tools “to collect valuable data, emails and insights,” enabling journalists and news managers to measure impacts and judge the financial value of the “Engagement Management System (EMS)” (Hearken, 2018).

Hearken grows steadily at a time when news organizations are looking to build and track audience engagement. Companies with social media advertising experience have come to expect detailed data feedback on their ad buys, and nonprofit news organizations want to know whom they are reaching and how well they are engaging their audience as proof of performance for supporters (Lesniak, 2017).None of this is to suggest that “news engagement” is new or that Hearken offers a panacea. At heart, it is a straightforward engagement platform backed by consistent consulting help, a routinized approach to reporting the story, and the community of practice (Hearken, 2018).

Hearken aims to provide content that is different from the traditional publication; content that engages audiences and provides them the news they want to know and will tune in to hear. Although this is the organization’s stated mission, no study has determined whether Hearken is succeeding in its efforts to produce community-based content that differs from its traditional counterparts. The purpose of this study is to determine whether the content created using the Hearken model is different from that produced through traditional reporting processes. Researchers examined all Hearken content published in 2017 from four public radio stations  located throughout the country – New Hampshire Public Radio, Chicago Public Radio, Milwaukee Public Radio, and Public Radio for Northern California. The content was compared with a sample of traditional content produced by those same stations to examine differences in story length, topic, geographic region, story type, and the use of sources.

Literature Review

“Engagement” is not a simple term to define in the scholarly sense. Community journalism scholars have been discussing versions of the concept for decades, long before it was a buzzword (Reader & Hatcher, 2012). Suffice it to say, niche newspapers in urban areas, small town newspapers, and local independent online news sites have a deep understanding about how to engage their audiences or they would not be able to survive (Reader & Hatcher, 2012). Lowrey (2012) notes that “neither big-city journalists nor many journalism scholars have tended to take community journalism seriously” (p. 87). One of the questions driving this research is whether Hearken is spreading community journalism practices in a tech-savvy and support-heavy kit. Hearken costs several thousand dollars per year to implement, and it partners with more than 100 newsrooms around the world. A $650,000 round of grant funding awarded in 2018 (shared with related startup GroundSource) from journalism foundations, including the Lenfest Institute and the Knight Foundation, has helped to spread the Hearken gospel farther faster as the funds subsidize licensing costs (Bilton, 2018).

Support for Hearken comes amid efforts to improve journalist-audience relations at a time when it can be argued global liberal democracies need it most (Bilton, 2018). Even skeptical scholars who doubt that an audience engagement platform can help “save democracy” by bringing community journalism practices to major metropolitan and national news organizations might well consider it a meaningful line of inquiry to examine what kind of journalistic outcomes this platform can lead to. Its premise, promised practices and popularity demand study. One needs not be a “true believer” in communitarian journalism to note that a successful journalism services startup in the 2010s warrants attention and that the news stories produced ought to be analyzed, perhaps scrutinized. A reasonable question for community journalism scholars to ask is how much of Hearken’s success might be attributed to its adherence to core concepts and practices identified in this area of journalism scholarship years ago. The best follow-up question might then be: “In what ways does Hearken innovate beyond the tried-and-true?”


Many journalism entrepreneurs attempt to enhance community engagement. Only one has created an audience engagement tool now used in more than 100 newsrooms (Simpson, 2018). Jennifer Brandel’s Hearken is a platform for creating, managing, and measuring engaging news stories. She developed a version of the platform when working for WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR affiliate, in 2012 (Tornoe, 2016). Brandel is now CEO of Hearken, LLC., which encapsulates consulting services, software access, installation and service, and the administration of a community of practice. Hearken has grown steadily since some of its early highlights wowed trade publications:

At KQED in San Francisco, Brandel says stories produced using Hearken’s platform performed on average 11 times better than stories produced by the station’s normal process (and [users spend] an average of 5.32 minutes engaged with those stories). At Detroit public radio station WDET, Brandel told Fast Company the first story produced by Hearken’s platform broke their site’s former page view record by more than double. And even though just two percent of the stories posted to WBEZ in 2014 were done through Hearken, Brandel says they made up nearly half of the top 50 stories of the year. (Tornoe, 2016)

Hearken defines what it provides newsrooms as follows: “Hearken partners receive expert training, consulting, our custom platform called the Engagement Management System (EMS), data reports and entry to our global community of best practices” (Hearken, 2018). Hearken is a community manager of community managers.

Déjà Vu for Communitarian Journalism?

The concept of engaging audience members in story selection is not new. Rosenberry and St. John (2009) documented more than a decade’s worth of efforts in the public journalism, or communitarian journalism, movement in the 1980s and 1990s to bring local communities into the story selection process either to submit their own content or to contribute story ideas. The following may sound familiar to community journalism scholars:

The world is a fractured place. Community is broken. Journalists are in transition, trying to find their way in dealing with a fragmented society, a diverse audience. Among the experiments journalists and news organizations are undertaking is a re-examination of the traditional ideal of maintaining distance between themselves and the communities they serve. (Hodges, 1996, p. 133)

Black (1996) presents a dozen essays on the communitarian journalism movement and related debate that can be summed up like this: Supporters of the communitarian or public journalism movement believe that social responsibility bordering on community advocacy can coexist in harmony with journalistic independence. Opponents vigorously do not:

Today, the communitarians sounding much like Rousseau, tell us that we need a more responsible media system, in which journalists, as members of the society, are willing to sacrifice their own freedom to the good of the whole…Increasingly, this rhetoric resembles what the old Soviet media managers meant when they talked of freedom of the press. (Merrill, 1996, p. 55)

But even Merrill (1989) recognized it was possible to be too strong an advocate for liberty to the detriment of journalistic responsibility. The question is not if there is a dynamic balance between freedom and responsibility in the journalistic field. The question is: When can a news organization be said to veer too far off in one direction or the other? Might the introduction of a community participation platform push a news organization into a position where it is beholden to its audience rather than responsible to it? Evidence of this might be seen in the sources journalists use in Hearken stories as opposed to “traditional” news pieces.

Journalists may not put up as much of a libertarian fight now as they did when organizations enjoyed strong profit margins. The wall between “church and state” in news organizations is weakening. Coddington (2015) calls it more of a “curtain” (p. 67). The push to enhance community engagement as a means to improve the bottom line by demonstrating good “audience metrics,” may serve as a force to encourage social responsibility journalism. Community engagement is no longer seen as something some newsrooms take seriously while other organizations use it for PR. Being better engaged is a financial necessity, as metrics examine not just what stories get clicks, but which types of news keep people sharing, commenting, and returning.

Trust and the Journalist’s Dialectic

The push with the communitarian journalism movement was to create trust and to reconnect with readers sick of detached, corporate media voices in order to improve the relationship between news organizations and their communities (Rosenberry & St. John, 2009). In its best practice, it was an effort to redefine the role of the news organization in the community to one where journalists opened up to learn what the community wanted to know about while still maintaining the responsibility that comes with journalistic authority. In scholarship the study of communitarian journalism was about conceptualizing a deep change where journalists shed some pretense and acknowledged their humanity—“the more accurate word or the actual human condition is neither dependence nor independence, but interdependence” (Hodges, 1996). This is a way of looking past the liberty versus social responsibility dialectic, which are both elements of the journalist’s agency. Instead, Hodges (1996) defined a sense of mutual dominion between audience members and journalists who allow themselves to be human.

It might seem like a bridge too far bring up the “human condition” in a   manuscript about tools and networks for community journalism, but community journalism scholars do not shy away from the concept. Lauterer (2003) writes:

At their best, community newspapers satisfy a basic human craving that most big dailies can’t touch, no matter how large their budgets—and that is the affirmation of the sense of community, a positive and intimate reflection of the sense of place, a stroke for our us-ness, our extended family-ness and our profound and interlocking connectedness, what Stanford’s Nadine Cruz calls “the big WE.” (p. 14)

Merrill (1996) blanches at the thought of swaying this far to the side of social responsibility, but community journalism scholars note, particularly when thinking of cyberspace communities, that it is interpersonal relationships not geography that make community (Reader & Hatcher, 2012, p. 95). Thus, the researchers looked for elements of humanity and interpersonal connectedness in Hearken story selection. It is important to note that the way Hearken works audience members submit ideas and vote on them, but in most cases journalists still have a say in which questions to select and how to frame the coverage. When multiple people ask the same question, the journalist selects whom to bring into the story. There can be layers of autonomy even in interpersonally connected, more “human” news collaborations.


For Lewis et al. (2014), human interdependence is essential to the nature of the “community” side of community journalism: “Community journalism is thus about connectedness and embeddedness. It articulates and emphasizes the ‘local’ in both geographic and virtual forms of belonging, using its rootedness within a particular community to sustain and encourage forms of ‘human connectivity’ within that environment” (Robinson, 2013, p. 232). An essential role of journalists is to connect people within a geographical or online community in meaningful ways. “Meaningful” is subjective, but for Lewis et al. (2014), the watchword is “reciprocity,” an exchange that is mutually beneficial (p. 229). Journalists are catalysts for meaning making in communities. Perhaps in an era of cable news propaganda the countervailing force is that of reciprocal, human-centered journalism defined not by two aspects of the journalist’s nature but by the mutual dominion of journalist and individual audience member.

The Principles of Community Journalism

On a more pragmatic level, there are core principles of community journalism that may be injected into news processes that should be examined in sourcing and content of Hearken stories as opposed to “traditional” news. Ninety-seven percent of newspapers in the U.S. can be classified as community newspapers, according to Lauterer (2006). Dozens of additional local online news sites dot the country as community journalism goes digital. “Beyond its pervasiveness, scholars are clear about what differentiates community journalism from other types—an intense focus on the local” (St. John III, Johnson, and Nah, 2014, p. 198).

Community newspapers have an historical advocacy bent (Lauterer, 2006; Reader and Hatcher, 2012). Thus, community journalism is geographically ubiquitous, especially if one considers that urban niche news outlets and suburban news websites continue to serve their niches. When this concept of geographical community melds with the interpersonal nature of online community, a host of niche interest sites and email newsletters qualify as community news. This study will look for narrowly-focused coverage, topics of interest that are geographically and culturally bound as they pertain to this brief look at major topic areas in community journalism.

Local NPR

It is particularly important that this study focus on local NPR news. As nonprofit organizations relying on donor support, they are and have been community-oriented for decades. Their reason for existence is to provide socially responsible journalism. The separation of financial concerns and news reporting, to reference the proverbial “church and state” again, breaks down somewhat when the local anchor/announcer is the same one running the pledge drive a few times each year. With relatively small staffs, radio stations in general have served community niches since the rise of popular television (Reader & Hatcher, 2012, p. 35-36).

All radio is community radio, and although not all NPR content is local, of course, the local coverage that one does find can be expected to focus on community if not to advocate the way other community news outlets might. Much community journalism research is newspaper and online news research.  By looking at the web archives of local NPR affiliates, the researchers intended to study reporting from news outlets that did not have so far to go, so to speak, to buy into such a community-oriented product. Should the content differ in NPR coverage between their regular reporting and Hearken stories, it might make the case that Hearken content is even more robustly community focused than one might first imagine.

Research Questions

RQ1: How do news storiesproduced using the Hearken model, which incorporates citizens into the news process, compare with those produced exclusively by newsroom journalists?

RQ2: How do the sourcesused in news stories produced using the Hearken model, which incorporates citizens into the news process, compare with those produced exclusively by newsroom journalists?


Hearken content aired on 38 U.S. radio stations in 2017, ranging from one to a high of 61 news stories. Four stations containing the highest frequency of Hearken stories during 2017 were selected for this study. New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR) aired 61 stories; Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ) aired 52 stories; Public Radio for Northern California (KQED) aired 48 stories; and Milwaukee Public Radio (WUWM) aired 42 stories. All of the stories generated by these stations were used in the study, totaling 203 items.

In order to compare Hearken content to regular news content from those organizations, the researchers created matching samples of regular news for each local affiliate. Here, “matching” means the same number of news stories from the same year, randomly selected, covering local or regional issues. Each station’s website has either a news archive page or a general local news show with its own archive. What gets posted to these archives are stories reported locally by the affiliate and the occasional wire story with a local angle. The researchers determined an archival page range for each station covering January 1, 2017, through December 31, 2017. They counted the total number of stories published to each station’s local news archive in 2017, and then divided that total by the number of news stories needed to match the number of Hearken stories from that particular station. The resulting number provided an ordinal for selection from the sample. For example, NHPR published about 2,400 news stories to its local archive in 2017 (six or seven stories per day). To create a sample of 61 stories, the researchers selected every 39th article, starting with a random story on the January 1, 2017, archival page. The researchers reviewed headlines and bylines to ensure they were analyzing local and regional content by local reporters or the local staff, e.g. stories that appear to be rewrites of wire copy credited to “WBEZ Staff.” Each article was assigned a number pertaining to this study. The final sample contained 203 Hearken items and 203 traditional news items.

Two coders – one of the authors and an undergraduate research assistant – were trained on the variables below using a codebook developed by the researchers. The coders conducted a pilot test using 40 items – about 10% – not included in the study. Coders worked together to get agreement and revised the codebook accordingly. A pre-test and a final reliability test were conducted using about 10% of the sample items selected at random. Simple agreement ranged from 81 to 100% for all variables. For individual variables, Krippendorff’s alpha was used to calculate agreement (Neuendorf, 2002). The coders divided the remainder of the sample evenly for final coding.

The unit of analysis for this study was the radio story. Coders listened to or read a transcript of each story. Variables were developed from previous content analysis research and adapted based on the needs of the study (Cox, 2012). Five key variables were included: geographic focus, item length, story topic, timeliness, and source type. Additional variables, including day of publication, organization name, and reporter gender, were also recorded. Comparisons between Hearken and regular news content were made using chi square for each variable.

Geographic focus. Each story was coded based on its primary area of focus. Options included local, state/regional, national, or international. For example, a story about two U.S. sports teams would be considered “national.” However, if one of those sports teams was based in the same state as the organization, it would be considered a state/regional story. If the sports team was based within the station’s listening area, it would be considered “local.” (Krippendorff’s alpha = .86).

Story topic. Topic was defined using common general news categories based on previous research (Cox, 2012), including disaster/accident/public safety, economy/business, education, entertainment, environment/science/technology, governance, health, law/crime, lifestyle/living, politics, religion, sports, and transportation. Descriptions and methods for identifying topics were adapted from a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (2013). (Krippendorff’s alpha = .83).

Timeliness. Items were divided into one of three categories to determine their timeliness: spot news, time peg, and evergreen. Spot news items included unexpected news events deserving immediate coverage, such as random acts of violence or sudden disasters (Shoemaker, 1996). Time peg items were those containing reactions to or previews of news events, such as press conferences or planned activities, or those timed to a specific date or event, such as stories about breast cancer awareness in October. Evergreen items were those without a specific time connection that are on any date, such as business profiles or informational pieces. (Krippendorff’s alpha = .89).

Source type. Coders counted the number of human sources used in each news item. Each source was identified as either an “official” or “non-official” source. Official sources are those with “power” and “authority.” (Bennett, 2013), including elected representatives, organization heads and spokespeople, and law enforcement officers. Non-official sources include those with less access to platforms for making their voices heard, including affected citizens, teachers, witnesses, victims, and suspects. (Krippendorff’s alpha = .83).


Hearken stories were posted most frequently on three days: Thursday (24.6%), Friday (33.5%), and Sunday (19.7%). These three publication days made up 77.8% of all Hearken postings. The traditional stories sampled were divided nearly equally during the Monday-Friday work week, ranging from 15.3% to 23.2%. Very few items in the sample were posted during the weekend (6.4%). More than half of the Hearken stories were published by women (54.7%) and 15.8% were published by men. Almost half of the traditional articles sampled (45.3%) were published by women, and 23.2% were published by men. Coders could not determine the gender of about one-third of both the Hearken (29.6%) and traditional (31.5%) articles.

Geographic Focus

The majority of stories in both Hearken (78.9%) and the traditional story sample (82.8%) were focused on local or state/regional issues. [See Table 1] However, there were significantly more local stories in Hearken content (42.4%) than in the traditional sample (16.3%), χ2(1, n= 406) = 33.39, p< .001. Conversely, the traditional sample contained significantly more state/regional stories (66.5%) than did Hearken (36.5%), χ2(1, n= 406) = 36.69, p< .001.

Table 1: Geographic Frequency by Content Provider

  Hearken Traditional χ2
Local 42.4% 16.3% 33.39***
Regional/state 36.5% 66.5% 36.69***
National 19.2% 14.3% 1.77
International 2.0% 3.0% .41

***p < .001

Story Length

Hearken stories were not widely distributed, as 70.9% ranged from 4:01-5 minutes, whereas stories in the traditional sample were more scattered across the spectrum. [See Table 2] Stories in the traditional sample were both significantly longer and shorter than Hearken stories. Only 0.5% of Hearken stories lasted 0-2 minutes, compared with 13.8% of traditional stories,χ2(1, n= 406) = 27.07, p< .001.  Nearly half of the stories in the traditional sample (46.8%) were longer than 5 minutes, compared with 8.4% of Hearken’s, χ2(1, n= 406) = 75.02, p< .001.

Table 2: Story Length Frequency by Content Provider

  Hearken Traditional χ2
0-1 minute 0.5% 9.9% 18.13***
1:01-2 minutes 0.0% 3.9% 8.16**
2:01-3 minutes 12.3% 12.3% 1.00
3:01-4 minutes 5.9% 9.4% 1.71
4:01-5 minutes 70.9% 11.8% 146.22***
> 5 minutes 8.4% 46.8% 75.02***

Note: Only audio times listed.

**p < .01, ***p < .001

Story Topic

More than one-third of Hearken’s stories (36.5%) were on lifestyle/living topics, while those in the traditional sample spanned a greater range. [See Table 3] The two content types differed significantly on four topics. Stories in the traditional sample contained higher frequencies of law/crime and political stories, making up 28.6% of all content compared with 11.3% of Hearken content, χ2(1, n= 406) = 18.89, p< .001. Conversely, lifestyle/living and transportation stories accounted for 45.8% of the Hearken content and 17.2% of the traditional sample, χ2(1, n= 406) = 38.38, p< .001. Both Hearken and traditional stories covered governance topics relatively frequently. Governance ranked most-frequent among traditional stories (21.2%) and second most-frequent in Hearken stories (14.3%). Other public affairs topics, including economy/business, disaster/accident/public safety, education, and health were featured more frequently in traditional stories, though the differences among the providers were not significant. Notably, neither entertainment nor sports topics were covered frequently in either case.

Table 3: Story Topic Frequency by Content Provider

  Hearken Traditional χ2
Disaster/accident/ public safety 2.5% 3.4% 0.56
Economy/business 4.4% 6.4% 0.77
Education 4.9% 6.9% 0.71
Entertainment 2.5% 2.0% 0.11
Environment/science/ technology 9.9% 8.4% 0.27
Governance 14.3% 21.2% 3.31
Health 3.4% 5.4% 0.93
Law/crime 4.4% 15.3% 13.42***
Lifestyle/living 36.5% 14.8% 25.03***
Politics 6.9% 13.3% 4.56*
Sports 1.0% 0.5% 0.34
Transportation 9.4% 2.5% 8.68**

*p<.05, **p < .01, ***p < .001

Story Type

The content in Hearken and the traditional sample revealed significant differences across all story types. About one-half of traditional stories focused on news items containing a time peg (50.7%) compared with 16.3% of Hearken stories, χ2(1, n= 406) = 54.18, p< .001. About one-third of traditional stories also contained spot news (36.5%), whereas Hearken stories rarely did (3.0%), χ2(1, n= 406) = 71.98, p< .001. Hearken stories primarily focused on evergreen items (80.8%) compared with 12.8% of traditional items, χ2(1, n= 406) = 188.40, p< .001.


Stories in the Hearken sample had a higher average number of sources per story at 2.97 compared with stories in the traditional sample, which averaged 1.81 sources per story. Hearken stories frequently used between 1-4 sources (71.4%), compared with 61.1% of stories in the traditional sample, χ2(1, n= 406) = 4.86, p< .05. [See Table 4] The traditional sample contained a significantly higher number of stories with no sources (30.5%) compared with Hearken stories (7.9), χ2(1, n= 406) = 33.58, p< .001.

Table 4: Sourcing Frequency by Content Provider

  Hearken Traditional χ2
0 sources 7.9% 30.5% 33.58***
1 source 23.6% 27.6% 0.83
2 sources 19.2% 12.8% 3.10
3 sources 14.8% 10.8% 1.41
4 sources 13.8% 9.9% 1.51
5 sources 7.4% 4.4% 1.60
6 sources 6.4% 0.5% 6.51*
7 sources 2.5% 2.71
8 sources 2.0% 0.5% 4.04
9 sources 1.0% 0.5% 0.37
10 or more sources 1.5% 1.5% 1.00

*p<.05, ***p < .001

Stories in the traditional vein contained more official sources; however, there were no significant differences revealed when compared with their Hearken counterparts. [See Table 5] Almost two-thirds of stories in the traditional sample did not contain non-official sources (62.6%) compared with 18.7% of Hearken stories, χ2(1, n= 406) = 80.87, p< .001. Hearken stories contained a higher frequency of non-official sources across the board, and 45.8% of those stories contained 1-2 sources, compared with 26.6% of those in the traditional sample, χ2(1, n= 406) = 16.22, p< .001. Stories in the traditional sample rarely used five or more sources. Notably, when Hearken used more than five sources, they were almost always primarily non-official sources.

Table 5: Official and Non-Official Sourcing Frequency by Content Provider

Number of sources Hearken official Traditional official χ2 Hearken non-official Traditional non-official χ2
0 sources 53.7% 47.8% 1.42 18.7% 62.6% 80.87***
1 sources 29.6% 25.1% 1.00 24.6% 18.7% 2.09
2 sources 9.4% 15.8% 3.79 21.2% 7.9% 14.46***
3 sources 4.4% 5.9% 0.45 14.3% 4.4% 11.61***
4 sources 2.5% 3.9% 0.72 10.3% 3.4% 7.52**
5 or more sources 0.5% 1.5% 1.01 10.8% 3.0% 9.82**

*p<.05, **p < .01, ***p < .001


The results of this study indicate Hearken is meeting its goals of aiding in the production of communitarian journalism. Journalism assists audiences in creating meaning, especially in community settings. However, Hearken’s content goes a step beyond toward reciprocity, encouraging audiences and journalists to assist each other in creating meaning and value. The story types frequented in articles using the Hearken model reflect community issues that affect peoples’ everyday lives, largely because the community is involved in the early reporting stages. Journalists use their gatekeeper role to designate events as “news” based on a number of factors, including their own individual influences, the media routine process, and extramedia and ideological influences (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996). Through this process, they can lose touch with issues affecting community members outside the newsroom. Hearken’s model, inviting community members to suggest story ideas and go along on the reporting process, appears to be pushing reporters outside of their traditional boundaries into new types of stories that garner engagement and make an impact. However, this process does not diminish journalistic autonomy as critics of communitarian journalism have suggested (Merrill, 1996). Reporters are still responsible for selecting story ideas, choosing their sources, and producing the story. In fact, reporting different types of stories than they traditionally have may even be improving journalists’ story-telling abilities, as Hearken article regularly used more sources for stories and more non-official sources they may not have connected with otherwise.

This study revealed significant differences in content selection, reporting, and presentation between stories produced using the Hearken model and those produced for the traditional radio news broadcasts. Stories in traditional publications focused more on spot news and time sensitive items affecting their region and state. Those stories frequently covered topics associated with those time pegs, including law/crime, political stories, and governance, that do not always impact people directly but have larger implications for society. Examples of these were revealed across the publications, such an article broadcast on WBEZ in Chicago, titled “Former Congressman Schock asks court to toss corruption case” (Tarm, 2017), and another from WUWM in Milwaukee titled “Trump administration’s DACA decision will affect Wisconsin students” (Morello, 2017).

Hearken stories provided a different look at communities, focusing more on evergreen content that affects listeners’ daily lives, including a large number of lifestyle/living topics. Coders noted trends emerging among Hearken stories, with many focusing on topics people are often curious about, such as food, local history, and geography. Participants in stories wanted to find ways to represent their communities, often asking versions of the question: “What makes our town unique?” One example of this is a Hearken story from NHPR on one local town, which simply asks “What does Northwood N.H. have to do with Thanksgiving?” (Gutierrez & Prescott, 2017). Transportation topics, such as traffic, public transit, and parking, were also popular among Hearken stories. This is not surprising, as these issues are major sources of stress and consume people’s time, especially those living in larger cities, such as ones included in the study (Texas A&M Transportation Institute, 2015). For example, a Hearken story from KQED in Northern California addresses whether it is legal to park on the street after a street sweeper has passed (Nelson, 2017), which could be helpful information for residents in that area.

Hearken stories appeared to have similar rhythm across publications. News stories in the traditional sample ranged across the spectrum in length, from short snippets lasting fewer than 1 minute to pieces airing well-beyond 5 minutes. However, the majority of Hearken stories across all publications fell into a very specific time range, with more than 70% lasting exactly 4:01-5 minutes. Coders noted a formulaic style in many Hearken pieces – a community member submits a question, a reporter visits appropriate sources to answer it, and, often, the reporter follows up with the question-asker to make sure he/she is satisfied with the answer.

Hearken represents itself as a platform for community journalism, and both the format of its stories and use of non-official sources lends credence to that claim. Story ideas always originate from community members. When possible, reporters include question-askers in the story, bringing them in as a non-official, quoted source and taking them along on the reporting process. However, listeners do not always want to get involved with the process, and, in those cases, their question is read and reported by the journalist, which explains why 18.7% of Hearken stories have no non-official sources. While Hearken stories did use official sources in answering questions, they also often used significantly more non-official sources in their reporting, widening the scope of journalism beyond legislators, officers, and organizational representatives. Their stories often included experts, who could represent information without agenda rather than speaking in an official capacity on behalf of an organization or issue. They also spoke to unofficial local leaders and people impacted by the news, again putting the focus on the community and its people rather than larger regional and state policies.

This community service style of reporting differs from traditional reporting, which is often reactionary (Gans, 1998). A majority of stories in the traditional sample (58.1%) had no sources or only one source, and they contained more spot news and time sensitive items. Coders noted many of these were stories cultivated from press releases or wire services, where little original reporting was conducted. These briefs typically had little to do with the community served by the radio station.

The content produced using Hearken’s community journalism approach revealed differences from traditional content that appear to be in line with the organization’s primary goal: “To meaningfully engage the public as a story develops from pitch through publication” by cultivating “deep audience engagement” (Hearken, 2018). Their work to get citizens involved in the journalism process aims at creating more community stories and fewer statehouse policy stories. The organization also tries to transform listeners from passive news recipients to active information seekers, getting them civically engaged, which can lead to community improvement (Adler & Goggin, 2005). These efforts reflect the qualities of community journalism, which Lauterer (2006) defined aspublications that serve and have an impact on their communities. This study revealed much of Hearken’s content aligns with producers’ desires to perform community journalism and get listeners civically engaged through their emphasis on local content aimed at addressing issues that are important to listeners in that area.

Hearken’s promotional pitch to newsroom partners extends beyond producing better citizens through community journalism. On its website, Hearken (2018) also promises high-performing content, valuable audience data, and new revenue streams. CEO Jennifer Brandel reported Hearken content on WBEZ comprised only 2% of the network’s total stories but accounted for about 50% of the top stories in 2017 (personal communication, December 15, 2017). Lauterer (2006) also argued community journalism is not just altruistic; it’s profitable, because it includes stories people care about and want to consume.

A deeper analysis of the popularity of Hearken’s stories compared with others is needed to determine whether the organization is meeting its goals promised to partners. Evergreen stories, such as many of those produced by Hearken, tend to have longer lifespans, attracting audiences long after the initial publication date (Kirkland, 2014). A longitudinal study could be used to track both the immediate popularity of articles, as well as their continued success over time.

Both Hearken and traditional stories frequently published items on governance topics. The coders noted anecdotal differences in tone among the stories. Those in traditional publications focused more on broader governance issues, including city, state, and national lawmakers and policies. Hearken stories often reflected questions about how government works and both its daily and historical impacts on the community. Future qualitative research could analyze these stories and provide a more nuanced look at the differences between Hearken and traditional items. Similarly, greater examination into source types – beyond “official” and “non-official” – could provide insight into the different processes used in traditional versus Hearken reporting.

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Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 7

Weekly Newspapering: How Small-Town News Workers Decide What is News

Christina C. Smith

U.S. print newspapers are more than two decades into the emergent media era, and they continue to struggle with circulation and advertising revenue declines. However, print weekly newspapers across the United States have consistently remained viable to their communities. Drawing on newsroom observations and interviews with journalists, this study opens the door for more contemporary understanding of one of media’s most understudied topics by examining how news gets produced in small, rural U.S. communities – a news segment that has largely been sheltered from the declines experienced by their larger brethren. This study, which applies the theoretical frameworks of community journalism and sociology of news to the production of three small, rural U.S. weekly newspapers and their journalists, details how news produced in small communities is influenced by internal and external constraints. Simply put, small-town news is a social phenomenon. At a time in which community newspapers, including the weekly print press, remain the go-to media choice for local news – indicating high levels of trust from readers – and the larger daily newspapers continue to face accusations of intentionally producing misinformation as well as deal with continuous annual declines in circulation and advertising revenues, this researcher posits that maybe other types of journalisms can draw upon, and benefit from, the practices, strategies, and norms employed in small-town weekly newspapering production.

U.S. print newspapers are more than two decades into the emergent media era, and they continue to struggle. In its study on U.S. newspapers that was reported in June 2018, the Pew Research Center found newspaper circulations and advertising revenue have continued to decline for most of the industry.

But despite the ongoing turmoil that characterizes the contemporary U.S. print newspaper industry, print community newspapers across the United States have consistently remained viable and relatively stable (Knolle, 2016; Gallagher, 2017 Radcliffe & Ali, 2017; Still Kicking, 2018) in the digital age. Additional non-academic investigation has suggested the news community newspapers produce still matters and is significant to people in the communities they serve (Dalton, 2017; Masters, 2017). Most recently, community newspapers received recognition for their viability when Art Cullen, co-owner of the Iowa weekly newspaper The Storm Lake Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing in which he challenged the corporate agricultural industry (Pulitzer, 2017).

In general, community newspapers in the United States continually remain an under-investigated segment of the media industry (Lowrey et al., 2008; Hatcher & Reader, 2012; Radcliffe & Ali, 2017). The above descriptive findings show print community newspapers are still important, even in a technologically transformed media era. Yet despite the importance of community newspapers as highlighted above, few contemporary scholars have provided theoretical and conceptual insight into how news gets produced by weekly newspapers in small, rural communities in the United States.

Under the community journalism and sociology of news theoretical frameworks, and drawing on newsroom observations and interviews with rural journalists, this study aims to examine the key practices, strategies, and norms of news production for news workers at three small-town weekly newspapers. Ultimately, the purpose of this study is to serve as a contemporary exemplar for how external and internal influences affect how news gets produced in small, rural U.S. communities.

Contextual Framework

Community Journalism

The term ‘community journalism’ was coined in 1961 by Kenneth Byerly, a former newspaper editor (Lauterer, 2006). The concept is a bit ambiguous, and is often considered the work of weekly newspapers, small dailies, and sometimes the alternative press (Byerly, 1961). But Hatcher and Reader (2012) have contended that community journalism extends beyond geography and circulation sizes, arguing that community journalism also includes the press that helps connect people who share similar interests and cultures.

In the United States, print journalism began with pamphlets, most of which were religious and political in nature, distributed during the colonial era. However, as settlers began to head west, so too did printers and writers. The frontier press was born out of necessity for small towns in the West (Karolevitz, 1985). This type of newspaper was different than the newspapers produced in larger cities like New York and Philadelphia. The function of the frontier press was primarily boosterism – promotion of the small town. Western newspapers would print multiple-page broadsheets that promoted their towns to attract new residents. The content of this type of news was local, showing that the town was vibrant, but the ads were specific to the metropolitan cities back East where the newspapers were distributed. Eventually, as settlers and modes of transportation moved west, the need for the frontier press diminished. However, the small-town newspaper’s purpose of boosterism never died.

According to Karolevitz (1985), it was in the late 1860s that a distinction was established between two types of newspapers – weeklies and those serving larger audiences. Owners and publishers of weekly newspapers established The Weekly Newspaper Association, quickly followed by the formation of The National Press Association by the owners of large daily newspapers. The creation of these two news organizations created a division between types of journalism (Karolevitz, 1985) that have grown wider over the past 155 years.

The scholarly literature on community journalism, specifically the small-town weekly newspaper, is limited compared to scholarship that focuses on larger daily newspapers. Foundational understanding of community journalism falls upon the works of Byerly (1961), Kennedy (1974), Lauterer (2006), and most recently, Reader and Hatcher (2011). Over the years, scholarly literature on community newspapers has emerged and provided conceptual understanding of community newspapers and their functions within their communities, including creating a sense of social cohesion for local people (Janowitz, 1952; Yomamoto, 2011), helping a person integrate into a community (Ball-Rokeach, Kim, & Mattei, 2001), and to serve as a communication system among community members (Edelstein and Larsen, 1960).

In their research on the role of the local press, Stamm (1985) and Robinson (2013) found that the newspaper creates a sense of connectedness to a community. Stamm also has suggested a person’s community civic involvement is influenced by his or her use of local media. Furthermore, Anderson (1991) has contended newspapers help create a sense of community for people simply by knowing everyone is reading about the same thing. Wotanis (2012) showed in her study on a newspaper moving its newsroom out of town that the weekly newspaper creates not only a sense of community, but it creates a sense of place for the audience.

Several scholars also have argued local community newspapers’ simply hold different functions than their larger brethren in big cities (Schramm & Ludwig, 1951; Olien, Donohue, & Tichenor, 1968; Emke, 2001). Normative theory posits that a newspaper’s primary function is to serve as a watchdog for the public in a democratic society (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2001; Bender, Davenport, Drager & Fedler, 2016), and it does this by adhering to rules such as remaining free of conflicts of interests with sources and organizational economic needs (Wasserman, 2010), as well as being objective and independent (Ward, 2010).

But research on the role of the local newspaper has shown that community newspapers are different, primarily serving as advertising platforms for local businesses and providers of information about the local people, places, and events (Abbott & Niebauer, 2000; Emke, 2001). Abbott and Niebauer also have suggested local newspapers tend to mirror their communities rather than criticize them. Furthermore, Emke (2001), has suggested the primary role of the community newspaper is to create a sense of unity. But there are scholars who have contended the functions of the local press extend beyond advertising and unifying. Hindman and Beam (2014) have argued that another role of the local press – which is often neglected due to resource constraints, but vital to civic engagement in communities – is to provide conflict-oriented public affairs information. Donohue, Tichenor, and Olien (1980) have also theorized another function of the community newspaper, and that is it serves as a “guard dog” when community members disrupt the community balance.

Despite being an ambiguous term at times, scholars have routinely recognized that the ultimate difference between community newspapers and larger daily newspapers is the nearness they have with their audiences. Byerly, Robinson (2013), and Hatcher (2014) have argued that community journalism is about its connectedness with the audiences it serves. Lauterer has even coined community journalism as the “personal approach” because of the nearness the journalists and news organizations have with their communities.

In trying to solve the problems faced by larger daily newspapers in the digital age, scholars have suggested that larger newspapers turn to the journalistic practices of community papers. Altschull (1996) argued that larger newspapers are undergoing a crisis of conscience and can learn from the community journalism’s approach. Terry (2011) has argued that it is because community journalists do not embrace long-standing journalistic norms such remaining objective and detached that they have remained viable to their communities in the emergent media era. Meyrowitz (1995) dubbed the concept “local journalistic logic” in his research on the community press. Simply put, Meyrowitz contended that community journalists are close enough to their audiences that they know what readers want and are not afraid of seeking local leaders’ and readers’ input on news coverage – an argument recently supported by Kirch (2016) in his study on community newspapers and their willingness to cover third-party candidates more than other media segments. Terry has also gone so far as to suggest the community journalism approach is the future of journalism: To survive, he says, larger media must learn to be fully engaged – living, working and actively participating in the community they serve.

However, other scholars have argued the small-town newspapering approach to journalism does operate within constraints, notably those is community structure. Scholars have paid particular attention to the effects of community pluralism – the degree to which a community is diverse in demographics, ideas, and beliefs – on news content and news production (Berkowitz & TerKeurst, 1999; Donohue, Olien, & Tichenor, 1997; Hindman, 1996). It might be argued that journalists working in a small and relatively homogeneous community are more influenced by its structure than are their counterparts at larger newspapers both because individual community journalists produce a greater volume of local content and because they are themselves local residents (Howe, 2009). Both factors ultimately might influence what does and does not get reported and published.

In general, community newspapers, specifically small, weekly newspapers, are an understudied field of the media industry, and scholars have argued they deserve more study (Emke, 2001; Lowrey, Brozana, & Mackay, 2008; Hatcher & Reader, 2012; Radcliff & Ali, 2017). At a time in which descriptive data show, and are highlighted above, local community newspapers are remaining important to the communities they serve despite a chaotic media landscape, and this researcher contends it is crucial to contemporarily theorize the practices, strategies, and norms employed by these media in order to further understand the news produced in small, rural communities – a segment of the media industry that seems to be surviving, some cases thriving, in the digital era.

Sociology of News

In an attempt to understand community newspapers and their news, this research draws from the sociology of news interpretive lens, which assumes that news is socially constructed (Roshco, 1975) – meaning external and internal forces influence news and how it gets presented. This approach, which began to emerge in journalism studies in the 1970s with the work of trained sociologists with an interest in news, focuses on how news is constrained by journalistic routines (Tuchman, 1978/1997; Fishman, 1980), relationships with sources (Sigal, 1973; Gans, 1979; Berkowitz, 2009; Schudson,1989; Berkowitz and Beach, 1993), expectations of the news profession (Breed, 1955; Ryfe, 2012), organizational bureaucracies (Epstein, 1973), and newsroom interactions (Tunstall, 1971).

While the pool of scholarship aimed at understanding news and news production is rather large, this research is heavily guided by Shoemaker and Reese’s (2014) “Hierarchy of Influences” model in order to understand the forces that shape small-town weekly newspaper news content. Shoemaker and Reese have contended that news is influenced on four levels — personal views and roles of journalists, newsroom routines, media organizations, external pressures, and media ideology.

While this researcher recognizes Shoemaker and Reese’s (2014) levels of analysis of external pressures, media ideology, and individual, the researcher believes examining these levels is out of the scope of this particular research. Instead, this researcher has chosen to focus primarily on the levels of analysis of organization and routines in Shoemaker and Reese’s model in order to better understand the factors that might affect small-town news content and the decision-making of news workers.

The Organization as Level of Analysis. The organization as a level of analysis, according to Shoemaker and Reese (2014), stresses that media content is produced in an organizational and bureaucratic setting. In order to understand how news is made, Schudson (1989) has argued that it is important to understand the social environment – the bureaucratic process of the news organization – in which it is produced. This level of analysis focuses primarily on the effects of ownership, economics, advertising, and organizational policies on news production.

Research has shown that the economic goals and requirements – maintaining audiences, building advertising revenues, following government restrictions, and staying within financial budgets – of a media organization affect news content (Epstein, 1973; Tunstall, 1971; Eliasoph, 1997; Bagdikian, 2004; Soley and Craig, 1992; Craig, 2004; Eckman and Lindlof, 2003). Type of media ownership has also been found to have an effect on news content (Roach, 1979; Lacy, 1991; Dunaway, 2008; Shoemaker and Reese, 2014).

Another influence explored within the organizational level of analysis is organizational policy. Sociologist Warren Breed (1955), in his classic study on news making, revealed that publishers and media organizations enforce rules, or policies as he calls them, of journalism. The rules, according to Breed, are learned through a socialization process, including watching what other journalists do or do not do.

Routines as Levels of Analysis. Under Shoemaker and Reese’s (2014) model, routines as a level of analysis explore how news workers do their jobs. A considerable amount of scholarship has revealed the routine practices of journalists and media organizations (Tuchman, 1978/1997). In his ethnographic study of reporters, Fishman (1980) revealed that “the beat” provides guidance for journalists so that they know where to go and whom to see. Relying on sources is also a routine practice for journalists. Research has shown that the relationship between source and journalist is central to the production of media content (Sigal, 1973; Berkowitz, 2009; Schudson, 1989; Berkowitz and Beach, 1993).

Research Questions

While the literature detailed above on community journalism and sociology of news is far from exhaustive, the researcher feels the works are useful to readers as they explore the research presented in this study, which is intended to serve as a contemporary exemplar for understanding the production of news for small-town weekly newspaper news workers. Specifically, this research aims to answer the following research questions:

RQ1: What are the key practices, strategies, and norms of news production for news workers at small-town weekly newspapers?

RQ2: How do the levels of influences outlined in the literature affect these news   production practices, strategies, and norms for news workers at small-town weekly newspapers?


This study, under the community journalism and sociology of news conceptual frameworks, and through the analysis of newsroom observations and interviews with news workers, aims to understand how external and internal influences affect how journalists do their jobs. For this study, the researcher observed the newsrooms and interviewed the news workers of three weekly newspapers in rural communities in southeast Iowa between December 2014 and January 2015. All staff members – a total of 19 – were interviewed because newspapers in small towns have few staff and often the editorial and the advertising departments overlap – meaning duties may be interchangeable. To protect their confidentiality, as well as the identity of the newspapers, pseudonyms, which are detailed in Appendix A, have been assigned to each news worker and newspaper.

To understand news decisions that people make in weekly newspaper newsrooms, the researcher used ethnographic methods that enable discovery of the perspectives of research subjects. Singer (2009) has argued that interviews and observations provide insight into the human element of news making. For this study, the researcher defined small-town weekly newspaper as a newspaper with a circulation of less than 5,000 published once a week in a town of fewer than 3,500 residents. The researcher selected as field research sites three small-town weekly newspapers to observe news production strategies and to interview news workers. These particular newspapers were selected as part of a larger research project, and they were accessible to the researcher on a daily basis.

All three newspapers have a different organizational structure, which created the potential for comparative analysis. For each newspaper site, the researcher observed two news cycles, equating to a total of six weeks of newsroom observations. In addition to observing the sites, the researcher conducted in-depth interviews with publishers, editors, reporters, photographers, and advertising representatives in order to understand news production in the community. Interviews were digitally recorded, and the researcher adhered to local Institutional Review Board guidelines.

The interview data and observation field notes were analyzed through the use of textual analysis, an inductive process of reading and re-reading and conducting line-by-line coding that is considered appropriate for qualitative data analysis (Strauss andCorbin, 1990). Guided by the community journalism and sociology of news literature, and as anticipated, thematic categories and patterns emerged from the data and provided meaningful insight about news workers and their news-making strategies.


As previous research has shown (White, 1949; Gans, 1979; Ericson, Baranek, & Chan, 1987; Heider, 2000), news workers’ news production practices, strategies, and norms are a social construction. Interviews with and observations of weekly news workers in this study indicated that news in small towns is also a social construction, and it is constrained by organizational structure and routine practices of journalists. These constraints affect how news workers decide what is news, whom they use as sources, how many stories they write, the rhythm of the work day and week, how many pages are in the upcoming week’s edition, what and how many special sections are produced each year, and the overall morale of the newsroom.

Organizational structure – Ownership

Previous literature (Roach, 1979; Lacy, 1991; Dunaway, 2008; Shoemaker and Reese, 2014) has contended that different types of ownership might have different end goals. This study encompassed newsroom observation and interviews with news workers at two independently owned newspapers (The Times and The Herald) and a corporately owned newspaper (The Bugle). The findings reveal that ownership structure does influence the production practices, strategies, and norms for news workers at small-town weekly newspapers.

News workers said it is important for the newspaper to have local ownership or at least some form of local management. The local connection, they said, helps build support for the newspaper in the community. “I wished it still was locally owned. Everyone knew (previous owner), and that made everyone want to support him,” said Carrie at The Bugle. “I think it brought readership in because he was local and everyone knew him. I think we would still have a printing press. More people would be employed, but times have changed.”

Susan at The Times said local ownership builds trust between the newspaper and its readers. “They trust (owner) because he grew up here. He’s a local boy. He’s full of integrity, and he’s fiercely loyal to his employees,” she said. And for Randel, news editor at The Herald, the goals of a locally owned weekly newspaper are different from the goals of newspapers owned by larger corporations. “Weeklies are surviving because they are focused and they focus on their communities. The larger media, it’s about greed,” he said.

The findings indicate ownership structure also plays a significant role in how the news workers perceive the company’s interest in the community. For the news workers at The Times and The Herald, having a local owner means the paper will produce relevant news content for its audience. Their perceptions are supported through the interviews with the local owners, who talked about their readers as friends and neighbors. These local owners said they feel they are as much a part of the community as they are recorders of what happens in the community. And it is that connectedness to their communities that seems to motivate them, according to the findings, which supports previous arguments made by Kennedy (1974) and Robinson (2013). One of the co-owners of The Herald said the readers are what have kept her holding on to the paper for more than a decade. She said she thought about selling the paper years ago because of personal reasons, but decided not to sell because she said the community needed the local paper. “We’ve had some pretty trying years … but the community heard and told us not to sell. The community becomes your family, and I felt like if I left, I’d be hurting my family,” she said.

The observations and interviews at The Bugle indicated that the change in ownership in 2001 and a consolidation process in 2009 impacted the news workers’ perceptions of their jobs. The news workers said they and their newspaper face constant uncertainty. Since ownership changed at the newspaper, the staff has been reduced dramatically – from 40 to six. In the fall of 2014, the owner eliminated the pagination and layout design duties for the staff at The Bugle and transferred those duties to a central design studio in a different city. The news workers said they were told the transfer of duties was to help free up their time so that they could produce more local content. That, they said, had not been the case.

On Mondays, the local news workers at The Bugle, instead of writing stories, have had to watch the page layout process unfold on their computer screens in real time. They have to watch, they said, because the designers are technically talented but do not have an understanding of what is news to the local community. “Some weeks we’ve had really good-looking pages, but other times we would have liked them to be different,” said Derrick at The Bugle. “We watch to make sure the names are spelled correctly, which is one of our keys here.” Sandra at The Bugle explained that small details are important to small communities. For example, she said she was frustrated that not all of the obituary photos on the Family News pages were the same size. In small towns, she said, different sized photos have negative implications for how the community feels about the newspaper’s desire to be fair to all community members.

The changes, the news workers at The Bugle said, have affected their relationships with the owner and management. “There’s no social cohesion here right now. We all just come in and do our jobs and go home. There’s no camaraderie,” said Carrie of The Bugle. Sandra at The Bugle added:

The morale, it sucks. We’re losing our employees. . . . It’s not good. And the public knows because we don’t have the staff, we don’t have the coverage we’ve had in the past. Last month, subscriptions and payments began to be processed out of the area and people now send their checks to some place out of the state. It’s not a happy place to be right now.

Sandra at The Bugle said it became apparent to her the external outside management does not seem to understand the workflow of the weekly newspaper when they sent the entire staff to another city to learn the new computer system the week before Christmas – a time when there is limited staff and hours to produce the newspaper. “That was planned by someone who doesn’t understand weekly newspapers, I’m guessing,” she said.


“How many pages are we going to have this week?” asked Randel at The Herald during a weekly editorial meeting. “It depends on the ads,” responded Kristen.

This interaction was the repeated opening line for the two weekly newspaper-planning meetings observed by the researcher at The Herald. While the other two newspapers did not have the same vocal exchange, the observations from this study suggested that the number of pages typically is determined by the volume of advertising and legal notices, thus affecting the space available for news each week.

The findings reveal that advertising and editorial content go hand-in-hand in weekly newspapering. The number of ads dictates page numbers for each edition, but the editorial content has implications for advertising. This was evident when Ellen at The Bugle talked about how the newspaper’s coverage of certain topics can and does offend some community members, particularly business owners, which leads to those community members choosing to not advertise with the newspaper. “Editorial content affects everything. There’s a lot of sensitivity in a small town, and it all comes back to advertising. When we had the official embezzle money, we have to tell that story, but then there is the other group like her family and friends. It’s a fine line between advertising and editorial content that can get pretty tough,” she said.

Weekly publishers were divided on the extent to which advertising revenue in small communities supports weekly newspapers. “Advertising is still good, but not as good as it used to be. Legals are still strong. Classifieds are still healthy in a county seat town. Craigslist hasn’t killed us,” said Dan at The Times. But Kristen at The Herald had a different opinion. “Advertising in a small community with a small business base, it’s not enough advertising to keep this business going. The big businesses have all cut way back on print advertising, so we are having to find unique ways to get that money,” she said. Advertising, Ellen at The Bugle said, is a challenge because small towns aren’t growing. “It’s tough. Businesses aren’t starting up all the time here. We might get one to two businesses a year, but in (a larger city), there’s a new one every day.”

Most of the news workers at The Times and The Herald contribute to finding and getting advertisements – for them, it is not an issue of following the long-standing journalistic norms of not blurring editorial and business needs and avoiding having conflicts of interests with sources or organizational economic needs, it is simply part of their job as community journalists. While producing the winter sports preview tab, James at The Times was not only in charge of writing the news stories and taking the photographs, he was also in charge of the advertisements for the entire special section.

At The Herald, it is not uncommon to hear the news workers talk about asking sources to buy advertisements while interviewing them for stories, especially stories created for special sections. Kristen at The Herald said the practice is good business sense because the journalist who knows a business owner is in the best position to ask for advertising support.

These results suggest that although advertising in smaller communities seems to be getting tougher, news workers believed small towns want to support their local newspapers. “They want the paper to continue, and they know that for that to happen they have to do business with us,” said Ellen at The Bugle, adding, “We really need to cut back on special sections. We did have a couple of years ago one (special section) every week. (Owner) doesn’t understand. They fill special section with canned copy. We can’t do that here. It has to be local copy for it to sell.” The special sections, which are considered moneymakers for all three weekly newspapers, do take their toll on news content, said Sandra at The Bugle. “Special sections are important. They make money, but it’s additional work for the writers,” she said.

Organizational policy

Each of these three small-town weekly newspapers have organizational policies and rules. Analysis of the data yielded three consistent themes related to organizational policies and rules. The first is deadlines. Weekly newspapers are published once a week. And while deadlines are important for most media, they are vital to small-town weeklies because these news outlets get one shot a week at producing a print product. At the newspapers in this study, the news workers all depend on each other to adhere to the deadlines because there is no one else in the newsroom who can report on the story and write about it. Furthermore, there is little hyperlocal wire copy to fall back on when there are news holes.

The second consistent policy is about not taking unnecessary time off from work. When one news worker at a small-town paper is absent from work, it can create an enormous amount of chaos and work for the other news workers. News workers at The Times joked about missing work on page layout days. “No one can die on Tuesdays,” said Leya. Weekly newspapers also have an unwritten rule when it comes to taking time off – news workers must do their work before they leave for the time off. As Ellen at The Bugle prepared to be absent from the job for six weeks for a medical procedure, she detailed the work she had done in preparation for her absence: “I planned ahead. I looked at last year’s papers and called the customers to tell them I was going to be gone and did as much ahead stuff as possible,” she said.

Finally, the third consistent policy is that news workers at small-town newspapers must know how to manage time well without being micromanaged. The weekly newspaper journalists said they have learned how to do their jobs without hands-on editing and instruction from a line of editors and/or the publisher. The publishers and staffers said none of the news workers are micromanaged. For Dan, the publisher of The Times, micromanaging is “counterproductive.” “We have the right people, so I just let them do it,” he said.

The Herald is the only newspaper of the three weeklies that holds regular editorial meetings. However, the meetings seem to be less about managing and more about planning. The publisher of The Herald does not give instructions of how to do stories or what sources to talk to. Nor does she critique staffers’ work. Instead, meetings seem to be an opportunity to discuss what is happening in the community and to build camaraderie.


The newsgathering practices, strategies, and norms of news production for news workers in small-town weekly newspapers are highly routinized. Routine practices of news workers, according to the literature, enable journalists to deal with the unexpected (Tuchman, 1978, 1997). The findings in this study suggest journalistic routines might be even more influential on weekly newspaper journalists than for journalists in bigger cities because small-town weekly newspapers do not have the resources that larger daily newspapers often have, including a diverse readership and source pool, staff members, advertising opportunities, and money. Therefore, having set routines for each weekly newspaper news worker, and everyone knowing those routines, is vital to the production of the news in small towns.

Observations and interviews with news workers reveal a predictable rhythm of the journalists’ typical news week. The observations and interviews also reveal the similarity of the workdays and workweeks for the news workers, despite working and living in entirely different communities.  The following is a typical observed workweek routine for most of the news workers at the three different newspapers:

  • Monday: Finishing writing stories for the week’s paper and attending possible night city council meeting.
  • Tuesday: Layout day, which means placing ads and content on the pages.
  • Wednesday: Paper is published; catching up on stories from the previous week; writing Monday’s meeting story if need be; and attending possible night meeting.
  • Thursday: Trying to spend time out of the office; conducting interviews; working on features; possibly attending government meeting in the evening.
  • Friday: Preparing for the weekend and working on news stories.
  • Weekend: Attending community events if necessary for content, particularly for photos, in following week’s newspaper.

Many of the news stories published in small-town weekly newspapers also are predictable. For example, all of the newspapers annually featured, or have featured in the past, special sections and/or special pages – commonly referred to as “tabs.” Examples of topics include women in business; agricultural updates; salutes to local volunteers, doctors, farmers, cheer and dance squads; sports previews; a summer youth baseball page; home improvements; and fair results. These “tabs” tend to be published about the same time every year.

The findings show that these special sections, when built with completely local content, are a revenue source for the weekly newspapers. The local content is vital to attract local advertisers, said Ellen at The Bugle. “(Owner) doesn’t understand. They fill special section with canned copy. Oh lord, that doesn’t fly here.” Randel at The Herald talked during the 2015 yearly editorial planning meeting about how important the Little League summer tab is to the community. “It sells newspapers,” he reminded the rest of the staff.

The findings also suggest beat reporting is crucial to the production of news in small towns. As mentioned previously, staff resources are limited, so beat reporting becomes a guide for journalists in where to go and whom to see. The news workers for the three newspapers in this study all cover specific beats, particularly government beats. It is through these designated beats that the journalists, as Tuchman (1978) contended, know where to be, when to be there, and whom to talk to for specific information.

Tuchman (1978) also has contended that journalists typify news stories to help them understand how to gather news information for their stories. The findings of this study suggest Tuchman’s notion of typifications are useful to the production of news in small towns for news workers primarily because they are pressed for time. For instance, small-town news workers realize there are different kinds of news stories and they generally typify government and crime stories, as well as sports stories. By knowing what kind of stories they are working on – typifying – the news workers know what steps to take to complete their work. For example, the news workers all thought government and major crime stories need to be placed on the front pages of the newspaper and need to be written in time for the next edition if possible because they considered these stories “hard news.”

On the other hand, the news workers deemed “soft news” as not as urgent and were not in a rush to finish those stories or get them in the newspaper. By typifying news stories, the news workers also understood how to report on the stories. They knew to call ahead of meetings to find out what was expected to take place at the meeting and they knew whom to call the morning after the meeting for clarification and verification.

Time and Staffing

The findings suggest that routine news and news gathering practices, strategies, and norms are vital to the weekly newspaper for two main reasons that go hand-in-hand: limited staffs and limited time. The Times has six staff members, including four reporters; The Herald has six staff members, including three reporters and The Bugle has six staff members, including three editors who double as reporters.The Times andThe Bugle have a full-time sports editor. The Herald, on the hand, relies on all three of its local reporters to cover the sporting events. News workers said they feared the communities would not be adequately served if they lost staff members because staffs are already stretched very thinly, even too thinly.

But the findings also reveal that the small staffs try to do the best they can with the resources they have. The news workers for this study repeatedly said they work between 40 and 60 hours a week. To get the news, Derrick at The Bugle said the staff makes adjustments. “If we can’t make meetings, we will leave a tape recorder. And sometime we just have to make phone calls after the fact. It’s not ideal, but it’s a necessity with our staff and making the best use of our time,” he said. And for James at The Times, being busy is just part of being a community journalist; he described a night of covering sports in which he traveled back and forth between two communities to get photos from four different games.

The once-a-week publishing day can also be a constraint on newsgathering practices for weekly newspaper journalists. For example, the staffs in the three communities attend nightly meetings on Monday nights. While they recognized the journalistic news value of timeliness, they noted that it is very difficult to turn a story around before publication day on Tuesday or Wednesday because by the time the meetings are over, the content deadline has passed. While balancing their duties as reporters, most of them also are responsible for page layouts and proofing of the pages. In addition, most events in small communities that create visuals for the paper occur on weekends. In addition to issues of timeliness, this creates workload issues for staffers, who also are responsible for handling the photos, including cropping them and writing captions.

But the findings also indicate that the small-town news workers understand the importance of often working long days Mondays through Fridays and attending weekend events in the community. They feel it is important to report on news in the community. And while they openly talked about missing being home with families, they also said doing those things are just part of the job.

Loyalty to the newspaper

As it turns out, most small-town newspaper news workers in this study are not drive-by journalists, meaning they are not at the newspaper to simply collect clips for their journalistic portfolios. In fact, most of the news workers interviewed for this study are veteran employees at their newspapers. For instance, Dan at The Times has been working in the weekly newspaper industry since 1977. Jane atThe Times has been a reporter in the same community for 34 years. At The Herald, Elizabeth has been a journalist for weeklies since the 1970s, and Kristen has been working at the same newspaper for 19 years. And at The Bugle, Brian has been covering sports on and off in the community for 40 years, while Sandra has been in her position for 27 years. The other news workers ranged in employment from three to 10 years at the newspaper, and they all said they expected to continue to work for the paper for years to come or until they retire or leave the newspaper industry entirely.

The reasons why so many of the news workers have stayed at their newspapers vary, but the majority of the news workers attributed their longevity to being passionate about their communities. For all of the news workers, the communities they work in are the communities they call home. For the staff at The Times and The Herald, the commonality between members was their shared sense of loyalty toward their publishers, as well as the family-like environment in the work place. Also, most of the news workers said they enjoyed the flexibility of the job, including being able to take their car into the auto body shop on a Wednesday morning or being able to take their spouses and/or grandchildren to events that they are covering over the weekend.

Community Structure and Audience

The findings reveal that place, geography, and community structure also affect news practices, strategies, and norms of news workers in small-town weekly newspapers. Most of the literature on local media considers communities as places with physical geographical locations with distinct boundaries (Ball-Rokeach et al., 2001; Stamm, 1985; Byerly, 1961; Janowitz, 1952). But for Harley (1989), communities are more than just geographical locations depicted as points on a map. They also are social constructions (Massey, 1994; Anderson, 2006; Morley, 2009) made up of different languages, religions, politics, economics, and people.

News work at weekly newspapers is influenced by audiences. The three communities in this study have older populations, which local news workers say drives the decision to maintain a strong print product and not deliver the news strictly through the Internet or go digital first. “Not a lot of our citizens have computers in their homes, especially the elderly,” said Jane at The Times. Another news worker said community infrastructure, including access to the Internet, in rural areas is not reliable and is another influence on digital media opportunities for weekly newspapers.

The communities in this study also seemed to have a lot of native residents and long- term residents, which is significant because the residents know each other. They consider each other neighbors even if they do not live immediately next door. “There’s a connectedness to each other,” said Leya at The Times. And former community members are considered friends and neighbors even if they haven’t lived in the physical community for decades, said Sandra at The Bugle.

The findings suggest this sense of connectedness to the place and the people drives news topics that become what the staff of The Herald call “normal stuff” for weekly newspapers, including the societal news such as birth announcements, wedding announcements, obituaries, club news, church news, and crime blotters. “I consider what we do here as writing for the scrapbook, writing for the grandmas. It means something to people,” said James at The Times. Jane at The Times said news in the community is “whatever interests our readers.” News workers seem to understand that the “normal stuff” might not make the news in larger communities. “We are a small town, a small community. And in some cities it’s occasionally laughable news, but that doesn’t make it less important to our readers,” said Sandra at The Bugle.

The audience, the community, also dictates what does not go into the weekly newspaper. For instance, all three newspapers in this study will not run a story about suicide or even mention suicide as the cause of death in an obit. News workers at The Herald said they usually will cover crime-related events, but in one instance a story was not written because the news workers did not think it was in the best interest of the entire community. “There was a young man who was a drug leader in the community. We didn’t cover the arrest because it was so personal. There were so many connections,” said Kristen at The Herald. “We didn’t really know how to cover it because do you cover it? There might have been a story there, but we didn’t cover it because it was being taken care of. We chose not to go after it because they were so well known in the community, and it would have split the community.”


Under the community journalism and sociology of news theoretical frameworks, specifically drawing from Shoemaker and Reese’s (2014) “Hierarchy of Influences” model, this research explored how external and internal influences – as outlined previously – shape the news and news production in small towns. This study aimed to understand how small-town weekly newspaper news workers do their jobs.

In addressing RQ1, the data indicate the practices, strategies, and norms of news production for the news workers at the small-town weekly newspapers within this study are consistent and inconsistent with traditional journalistic practices and standards that are traditionally taught in journalism schools across the United States and followed by larger daily newspapers. These long-standing traditional journalistic practices and rules include: the press should be a watchdog for the public (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001); journalists should have a clear understanding of journalistic news values such as impact and timeliness (Lanson andStephens, 2007); journalists should be objective (Ward, 2010); and journalists should avoid conflicts of interest with sources and economic needs of the news organization (Wasserman, 2010). The interviews with and the observations of news workers revealed small-town news workers recognize the traditional journalistic norms of understanding of journalistic news values, the importance of writing a factual news story, as well as the reporter not being present in the storytelling.

However, the data also reveal several of the practices, strategies, and norms of news production for small-town news workers do not follow traditional journalistic rules and standards, which supports previous arguments made by Reader (2006) and Lauterer (2006). For example, the reporters’ role in selling advertisements is inconsistent with the traditional journalistic norm of maintaining a separation between editorial and advertising needs. Also, when considering what is news, the small-town news workers often chose not to write certain stories, particularly crime and death stories, because the news could potentially negatively affect the community. This practice is inconsistent with traditional journalistic norms such as being objective and being a watch dog for the public. Another practice, strategy, and norm for news workers that is inconsistent with long-standing traditional journalistic norms is being actively a part of the community, particularly belonging to civic groups and organizations and serving on their governing boards. According to traditional journalistic norms, this active engagement between news worker and community violates the rule that reporters should be free of conflict of interest with sources, which is necessary in order for reporters and news organizations to adequately serve as watchdogs for the public.

Another key finding of this study is that external and internal influences – as detailed above in this paper – affect news production and news workers at small-town weekly newspapers, which addresses RQ2. Specifically, news production and news workers at weekly newspapers are influenced by the organizational and bureaucratic setting; routine practices of news workers and their news organizations. Because of these constraints, the key practices, strategies, and norms of news production for news workers are routinized and predictable.

While there are routine workweeks for the weekly newspaper news workers, the observations and interviews for this study also revealed the news workers in this study are aware the constraints influence how they do their jobs. Are they true believers of journalism in their communities? Yes, they believe that their roles as journalists and the functions of the newspaper are to be information sources and historians. But they also seem to be realists.

The news workers in this study recognize their smaller staffs mean they hold a wider range of responsibilities than their counterparts at larger daily newspapers. They understand that advertising revenue is getting hard to find, which means they must contribute to asking sources about advertising in the paper, which again is inconsistent with long-standing traditional journalistic norms. They also realize their community’s structure – specifically their shrinking communities – plays a significant role in the struggle to generate advertising revenue and maintain circulations. Also, they know the ownership structure of the newspaper is influential to how they do their jobs.

All of this is revealed in their open discussions with each other and with this researcher of how they wished they could do more but they don’t have the time, they don’t have the staff, the pages in the current week’s newspaper are dependent on how many ads are purchased, news is more dependent on proximity of the topic than timeliness, the special sections that are produced are because they generate revenue and yet the advertising is dependent on the amount of local news copy.

And while the news workers do not seem to like the fact that their resources are limited, they continuously seem to adapt and adjust. For these news workers, the willingness to adapt and adjust to their working environments is not about doing journalism the “socially accepted journalistic” way – the type of journalism that simply adheres to the long-standing journalistic norms mentioned above – it’s about survival, trust, and remaining a part of the local community. Because many of them said no one else is going to report what is happening on the mainstreets of small towns, the votes taken by local governing boards, the youths participating in the Babe Ruth summer baseball tournaments or the 50th wedding anniversaries – all of the things they attributed to informing community members about each other and their community as a whole and ultimately creating a sense of community, a sense of place. Or in the words of one news worker, “We’re not on the larger media’s radar.”


The most prominent strength of this study is that it provides contemporary theoretical and conceptual insight into community journalism, specifically the small-town weekly print newspaper. Furthermore, this research clearly shows through an examination of production how small-town news is a social phenomenon. It details, through observations and interviews, how news produced in small communities in Iowa is influenced by internal and external constraints such as the newspaper’s ownership structure and the routines held by the news workers.

However, this study was narrowly focused on Iowa weekly newspapers and further limited by the fact that data were obtained from just three papers. It therefore is difficult to generalize the ideas and arguments presented in this study. That said, the purpose here was never to generalize to the entire weekly newspaper industry, but rather to begin to further understand the production of news by one of the media’s most understudied topics, which coincidentally contemporary descriptive data have shown (Knolle, 2016; Gallagher, 2017; Radcliffe & Ali, 2017) remains viable and stable in the chaotic media landscape. Furthermore, the insights provided through this study lay the groundwork for additional scholarly exploration of this particular approach to news, which this study shows is often different than the approach adopted by most larger daily newspapers.

At a time in which community newspapers, including the weekly press, remain the go-to media choice for local news – indicating high levels of trust from readers – and the larger daily newspapers continue to face accusations of intentionally producing misinformation as well as deal with continuous annual declines in circulation and advertising revenue, this researcher posits that maybe other types of journalisms can draw upon, and benefit from, the practices, strategies, and norms of the small-town weekly newspaper journalism approach.

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The following information provides insight into the news workers’ roles within their newspapers.

The Times

Dan – Owner

Jane – Editor

James – Sports editor

Molly – News writer

Susan – Writes societal news/obituaries

Leya – Advertising representative

The Herald

Kristen – Co-owner

Elizabeth – Managing editor and co-owner

Randel – News editor

Lisa – Page designer

Vanessa – Page designer

Angela – Advertising representative

The Bugle

Derrick – Managing editor

Brian – Sports editor

Sandra – Family news editor

Steven – Newspaper group managing editor

Carrie – Handles subscriptions and circulation

Mandy – Oversees legal notices/classifieds

Ellen – Advertising representative

Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 7

Building Community Through Dialogue at NPR Member Stations

Joseph W. Kasko

This research is composed of 20 in-depth, qualitative interviews with managers at NPR member stations to examine how they are attempting to build community through the use of dialogue. The stations came from various market sizes and from different regions across the United States. The managers reported they are using many types of dialogue, including face-to-face, formal written and electronic communication, to engage their listeners. The findings suggest the stations are working to build a presence in the community through personal relationships, regular contact with listeners and by inviting regular feedback. This research can provide an example to media outlets and other nonprofits for community building through the use of dialogue.

The radio industry has experienced a great number of changes in recent years. Traditional radio audiences have waned, as new audio platforms have provided listeners with a variety of competing options. However, one area of traditional radio that appears to be thriving is public radio, with news programming at the center of its success. It has been observed that most news organizations in the U.S. have seen declines in audience, but public radio, especially NPR has seen substantial growth. The network is one of the few segments of broadcasting that saw audience growth during the 2000s. NPR, the largest of the U.S. public radio providers, had a reported weekly audience of 30.1 million in 2017 and the network distributes programming and newscasts to 991 member stations nationwide and to satellite radio (Pew, 2018). NPR’s two news-based flagship programs, All Things Consideredand Morning Edition, each have a weekly audience of over 14 million people (NPR, 2018). The network also has a large digital audience that draws 41 million unique visitors monthly to its website and has a monthly podcast audience of over 20 million (NPR, 2018). That makes NPR one of the strongest and most listened to news outlets in the country.

Over its 43-year history, NPR has evolved from mostly government funded to mostly community supported, through individual donations and business support (Bailey, 2004; McCauley, 2005). The birth of the modern public radio system can be traced to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which established and provided federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (McCauley, 2005). The newly created CPB included a mandate to develop public radio (Mitchell, 2005), which led to the creation of National Public Radio in March 1970 (Douglas, 2004). Over time public radio managers recognized the need to become less reliant on government funding and they began to seek out new and more reliable sources of revenue. As a result, public stations would turn to listeners and businesses in their community for support (Bailey, 2004; McCauley, 2005). Therefore, the presence of community is important when studying public broadcasting.

NPR reports member stations, on average, receive 39 percent of their budget from individual contributions and 17 percent from businesses (NPR, 2013) and at some stations the percentage of community support is even higher. This demonstrates that the majority of financial support at stations comes from people and organizations within the community. However, little research has been conducted on this topic. Only a handful of studies (Stavitsky, 1994; Bareiss, 1998; McCauley, 2002; Reader, 2007) have examined the relationship between NPR and community. This work attempts to build on that early work and explore the important role community plays at member stations.

A review of public relations literature (Day, Dong & Robins, 2001; Kent & Taylor, 2002; Kruckeberg & Starck, 1988; Pickering & King, 1995; Stein, 2006) reveals the importance of dialogue with stakeholders in community building. Therefore, this study attempts to examine what member stations are doing to build community through the use of dialogue. This work consists of qualitative interviews with managers at NPR stations to determine what tools and strategies they are using to communicate with their listeners. The major research questions for this work included: Do stations see dialogue as a tool for building community? What efforts are the stations making, through the use of dialogue, to build a sense of community? Are stations engaged in a continuous conversation with their listeners?The findings from this study may provide important information to public radio managers interested in improving their community outreach and strengthening their efforts to engage their audience. It may also provide practical examples for other media organizations and nonprofits interested in community building among their stakeholders through the use of dialogue.

Literature Review


Community is often defined as a group of individuals living and working in harmony with one another, which is typically applied to those living in close proximity to one another. In recent years, however, scholars have recognized that a sense of community may develop regardless of geography (Stein, 2006). Heller (1989) proposed that communities could be “relational” and not bound by location. Therefore, communities can be composed of members who interact with others of shared values.Kruckeberg and Starck (2004) argue that new forms of communication and transportation have destroyed the geographic sense of community that may have existed earlier.

Prior work by Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) identified a number of elements of community that can be applied to NPR listeners. For example, they state an individual participates in the life of the community and regulates their behavior to help achieve the common goals of the community. They also argue a community can develop particular cultural characteristics. Additionally, Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) identified three core components of community. The first is conscious of kind, which refers to the connection that members feel towards each other and the difference they feel from nonmembers. The second is the presence of shared rituals and traditions, which set norms and values within the community. Finally, their third component of community is a sense of moral responsibility, which is felt as a sense of obligation to the community (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001).

Some scholars have argued that public radio listeners and supporters can be examined using Anderson’s (1983) concept of the “imagined community,” which suggests that large groups of people with similar interests can view themselves as part of distinct communities (Reader, 2007). Anderson’s original concept dealt with spatial characteristics shared by groups of people that he argued fueled nationalism. However, the imagined community has since been applied to many different disciplines, including public broadcasting. Anderson (1983) says that communities are frames of reference that are distinguished by the way they are imagined. Bareiss (1998) writes that communities have members who interact regularly and consist of insiders who have common interests, values and allegiances. He argues that the social characteristics of the community are not natural, but are imagined because they are the result of historical trends and negotiation. Pearson (1993) states community is created by shared meanings, which individuals find in the social codes in their environment. This implies that community is created in the minds of members based on perceived similarities with other members.

Reader (2007) argued that NPR produces segments to encourage listeners to feel as if they are part of a community. He believed that radio producers create an imagined community that reflects their own values. Stavitsky (1994, 1995) suggested that a changing conception of localism in public radio has deemphasized the traditional geographic notions of community. He argued that listening to public radio produced a social conception in which community is defined in terms of shared interests, tastes and values. Additionally, Douglas (2004) writes that public radio listeners share a kindred spirit that helps them relate to other listeners and makes them feel like they are a part of a community. Bareiss (1998) argued that public radio can create imagined communities, because local radio is a place-based medium. Therefore, he concluded that programing tastes and local interests can define a community of public radio listeners.


A number of researchers (Daft & Lengel, 1984; Day, Dong & Robins, 2001; Kent & Taylor, 2002; Kruckeberg & Starck, 1988; Pickering & King, 1995; Stein, 2006; Willis, 2012) have recognized that communication is one of the most important tools an organization can use to build a sense of community. Kruckeberg and Starck (1988) theorize communication can be used to develop and improve community. Pickering and King (1995) note communication is crucial when members are separated geographically. They argue tools, such as newsletters, conferences and other media are needed to foster a sense of community. Kent and Taylor (2002) write that community building requires a commitment to conversations and relationships and that the communication must be genuine and authentic. Additionally, Stein (2006) states, “there is a definite relationship between communication and the process of community building” (p. 256).

The recognition of the important role of communication in community building has lead to the development of a dialogic theory of communication. Day, Dong and Robins (2001) argue dialogic communication can help organizations build community relations and engage in philanthropy. They also warn that contrived dialogue will be of no use to the organization and deceptive communication will ultimately harm the organization’s relationship with its public. Kent and Taylor (2002) suggest the community should be considered and consulted on all matters that affect them. They argue that dialogue with the public will lead to positive outcomes for the organization.

There are a number of ways that organizations, specifically public radio stations, can communicate with their community. Information Richness Theory suggests that the medium used for communication can influence the effectiveness of the message. Daft and Lengel (1984) argued different types of communication tools and media have varying degrees of importance or richness. The theory ranked five types of media based on their level of effectiveness from richest to leanest: (1) face-to-face, (2) telephone, (3) personal written (letters), (4) formal written (flyers) and (5) computer output. This ranking of richness is likely outdated in today’s digital world. For example, Stein (2006) noted only a handful of studies have addressed the theory since the mid-1990s. However, information richness highlights the importance of dialogue and face-to-face communication. Willis (2012) also noted the important role face-to-face communication plays in community engagement and building trust.


This study used purposive sampling to select managers at 20 public radio stations for telephone interviews. The in-depth, semi-structured interviews were intended to determine what techniques stations are using to communicate with their listeners in an effort to build a sense of community. It also hoped to learn how stations are using dialogue to engage their listeners.


To gain a diverse sample, stations were separated by region and market size. Stations from the West, Southwest, Midwest, Northeast and Southeast regions (see appendix 1) were included in the sample. A station was defined as “large” if it was located in a designated radio market (DMA) between 1-50, according to Arbitron’s spring 2013 rankings. A station was defined as “medium” if it was located in market 51-100 and a “small” station came from market 101 or higher. Only stations that carried NPR programming, including the network’s two flagship programs (Morning Editionand All Things Considered), were included. This ensured the stations included in the sample were closely associated with NPR and likely had a strong news audience.

Starting with Arbitron’s list of market rankings, DMAs with NPR stations were identified using a Google search. The author then visited the websites of a number of public radio stations to identify and compile a list of managers. Only top leaders at the station, including those who held the title of station manager or general manager, were included. Thus, a total of 57 managers were contacted by letter, email or phone to invite their participation, which resulted in a response rate of 35 percent. Formal letters were initially sent to 30 managers, which where followed up with emails and phone calls. After a number of weeks an additional nine managers were contacted by email and phone. This process was repeated until the target of 20 responses was achieved.

Sample Characteristics

Managers from 20 different states were included in the sample. The majority of those interviewed held the title general manager, however some other titles included station manager, director, president or CEO. The subjects were overwhelmingly male (16), compared to female (4) and they held their position for an average of 7.76 years. The longest tenure was 25 years and the shortest was one year. The sample (see appendix 2) included six stations from the West, four each from the Southwest and Midwest, and three each from the Northeast and Southeast. It also included six “large” market stations, nine “medium” market stations and five “small” market stations.

Interview Procedures

The interviews were conducted by telephone from March to August of 2013. Each interview began with a description of the study and the subjects were offered anonymity in exchange for participating. The interviews consisted of a set of semi-structured questions that were followed by appropriate probing questions (Berger, 2013; Jankowski & Jensen, 2002; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The interviews were audio taped and transcribed to ensure accuracy and they ranged in length from 14 to 73 minutes. The mean length was 28 minutes. The Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the author’s university approved this method.

Instrument Development

The interview protocols consisted of four main topics with a total of 17 items. The questions were influenced by previous literature on dialogue and community building (Daft & Lengel, 1984; Day, Dong & Robins, 2001; Kent & Taylor, 2002; Kruckeberg & Starck, 1988; Pickering & King, 1995; Stein, 2006; Willis, 2012). Some of the questions included: What efforts do you make to build a sense of community with your audience? Not including your air signal, how do you communicate with your audience? What kinds of opportunities are there for listeners to communicate with the station? How do you feel about listener feedback?The interview instrument was pilot-tested with a manager at a small station in the Midwest before it was employed.

Qualitative Data Coding and Analysis

The audio recording of each interview was transcribed into Microsoft Word and coded for common themes. The transcripts were read multiple times by the researcher until themes, or topics that were frequently discussed, emerged. The interview protocols helped to guide the development of the codebook. The initial codebook was used to review a few transcripts, which allowed the codebook and definitions to be modified and refined before they were finalized. All of the transcripts were then examined using the final version of the codebook and each transcript was read thoroughly by the author.


There were four main themes that emerged from the data, which included: (1) an active station presence in the community, (2) the development of personal relationships, (3) regular contact through multiple channels and (4) two-way conversations. There were also a number of sub-topics that arose within each main theme. All of these emergent themes are discussed below because they provide insight on how public radio stations are using dialogue to build a sense of community.

Station Presence in the Community

Every manager in the sample reported that representatives from their station have some type of personal, face-to-face contact with their listeners, most often through some type of station-sponsored event. Many managers also stated they felt events were an important tool the station is using to build a sense of community with their audience. Some of the most cited events included concerts, live broadcasts, open houses, community forums, lectures or events with NPR talent. Some of the events are open to the public and some are intended only for donors, according to a number of managers. “I think generally, it’s an opportunity for people to get out, go somewhere and be engaged,” said a manager from a medium sized station in the Southwest.

The majority of stations reported that members of their staff are making appearances in the community. A few managers said they expect their employees to play a role in communicating with the audience face-to-face. “It’s written into their job description to interact with the public and to have a station presence at public events, concerts and things like that,” said one GM from a small station in the Southeast. “Staff members on a pretty regular basis are being emcees or hosting…for various events around town.” One manager from a medium station in the Southeast reported many members of her staff are active in the arts community and serve as volunteers for other nonprofits. “They’re ambassadors for the station wherever they go and whatever they do,” she said. “We’re all faces to the community. We’re all ambassadors to the community,” added a GM from a small station in the Southwest.

A number of managers said they hosted listeners at their station in some capacity, including open houses and tours. One manager from a medium station in the West reported tours were offered at his station on a quarterly basis. “Our goal is for everybody who listens and is interested to come down to the station and look at what we’re doing with limited resources,” he said. “We invite our donors to come in and meet with me and our director of content to talk to us about what we have on-air,” said a manager from a large station in the Northeast. “When we have these events at the station…we just laugh and feed people,” said a manager from a large station in the West. “The staff and program volunteers from the station are here and we’re just hanging out and talking to people.”

A few managers reported they felt that their stations were serving as community centers. “We are constantly bringing people into our studios and our performance studios and having community events, discussions, musical events, (and) performances,” said a manager from a medium station in the Southeast. “We’re constantly having events here and people know where the station is and they like to come here for events.” One GM from a medium station in the West reported his station built a remote studio in a building where a number of listeners created a community center. “We are trying to be visible in the community and support these efforts that these folks have made,” he said.

Personal Relationships

Nearly every manager reported they have some type of personal relationship with listeners who served as volunteers for the station. Some stations said they relied on volunteers more heavily than others and some of their duties included answering phones, stuffing envelopes, conducting office work, helping with membership and development, assisting with events and hosting programs. A number of managers stated they work with as many as hundreds of volunteers a year and others said the number was much smaller. One GM from a small station in the West said they use volunteers on-air during pledge campaigns. “We have members of the community come on and do pitch breaks with us…giving testimonials,” he said. About half of the stations reported that volunteers were hosting programs, including music and public affairs shows. One manager from a medium station in the Southwest reported people from underserved groups in the community are hosting specialty shows. “We invite them in to make the programming,” he said.

A number of managers stressed the importance of having personal contact with listeners over the telephone. “Usually when people call, often I can recognize their voice,” said the GM of a small station in the Southwest. Many managers said volunteers are often fielding phone calls, especially during pledge campaigns. This highlights that listeners, on behalf of the station, are having dialogue with other listeners. One GM from a small station in the Southeast shared a story about an attempt to use an out-of-state call center during a pledge campaign, rather than allowing listeners to speak directly with volunteers at the station. “It was a disaster. People hated and it didn’t work,” he said. “Just two days into the drive we went back to having (volunteers) through the station, because I think it killed a lot of the locality of our fund drive.” This illustrates how important personal interaction with station staff or other listeners can be for many members of the audience.

Half of the stations reported they are cultivating personal relationships with listeners through handwritten correspondence, including cards, notes and letters. “Donors above $500 receive a personal note from somebody in development thanking them and donors above that level will receive a letter from myself thanking them,” said the GM of a large station in the Midwest. Additionally, a number of stations said some of their thank you letters to donors were “hand-signed,” rather than hand-written. Again, most of these materials were sent to listeners who made large contributions.

A few managers reported they write notes in response to listener complaints. “I like writing the responses to people and I like having those moments when I can really tie someone physically to the station,” said a manger from a medium station in the West. One GM from a medium station in the Northeast said it was important to take the time to respond to listeners with a personal letter. “That is really powerful because it just sends a message to the person that I really do know who you are and I do really care about what’s going on here,” he said.

One manager from a medium station in the Southeast shared a story about sending a get-well card to a long-time listener who was the victim of an assault during a home invasion. She said the card was signed by most of the station staff. “We got a card for him, because he considers us a part of his family,” she said. “A lot of relationships we have are very personal. Now we don’t know a lot of our listeners…but we know a lot of our members and our volunteers, and they know us.”

One interesting topic that arose, which highlighted the strength of personal relationships, came from a few managers who reported they have received feedback from listeners who didn’t or couldn’t attend station events, but said they simply enjoyed hearing about them. “It’s just amazing to me, some of the calls I get and conversations I have with people who we are their companion and they just love hearing where we’re going,” said the GM of a medium station in the Northeast. Another manager, from a small station in the Southwest, said he felt talking about station and community events on the air helped to bring people closer together because it let listeners know what other people in their community were doing. It’s almost as if listeners feel like their getting updates about their friends, who are other listeners, despite the fact they have never met.

Additionally, a manager from a medium station in the Southeast said they recently sent out wall calendars, which featured photos of the staff and provided an inside look at the station, to people who have supported the station for 15 years or longer. “It’s just unbelievable that so many (people) have been with us for so long and have really helped us not only survive, but thrive and prosper,” she said. “It was amazing because it wasn’t a premium or a thank you gift or anything. It was just a little letter.” She said they have since received a number of thank you notes from listeners who really appreciated the gesture, because they said they feel like they know the staff personally.

Regular Contact Through Multiple Channels

Nearly every manager reported they have regular interactions with listeners via telephone. Many managers said phone conversations with listeners were frequently held during pledge campaigns. Most stations reported they often receive feedback from members of the audience over the phone and a number of managers stressed the importance of taking calls from listeners. “All of my managers and I spend quite a bit of time just talking to people on the phone. Responding to ideas, suggestions, criticism, whatever, so it’s a big part of what they do and I think that’s really healthy,” said the manager of a medium station in the Southeast. “I’ve had a couple of situations where I’ve called people who have called and (complained) for one reason or another and if I can get their phone number, I call them,” said a GM from a medium station in the Northeast.

Roughly a third of the managers said representatives from their station were making calls to listeners and donors to say thank you or respond to complaints. Most said staff members or volunteers were making calls to thank mostly high-end donors, although the dollar amount that triggered the call often varied. “Major donors of multi-thousands of dollars will receive a call from one of our board members, thanking them for their contribution,” said one GM from a large station in the Midwest. A few others reported they made calls to high-end donors to personally invite them to station events. “We will sometimes invite them to special events if we have someone coming into town,” said the manager of a large station in the Northeast. “So we try to reach out to them and make them a part of the activities that we’re doing,” she said. Additionally, a manager from a small station in the Midwest said board members would occasionally call to thank new donors.

Nearly every station in the sample reported sending some type of formal written correspondence to their listeners. Some of the most cited examples included thank you letters, tax documents, membership renewal reminders and newsletters. A number of station managers said they believed direct mailings were a good way to encourage future support. The majority of the stations said they send their newsletters on a quarterly basis, but a few stated they send them out monthly. One GM from a medium station in the Midwest said he met with a consultant who felt newsletters served little purpose. “It’s better to just…do them when you’ve got something really important going on,” he said. “I really don’t want our mail communication to turn into junk mail, because it’s so effective. So we try not to abuse the power that we have with mail.” A couple of stations also reported they published a monthly magazine that is sent to their supporters.

Every station reported they are using some type of electronic communication to correspond with their audience. Three-fourths of the managers stated their station is emailing listeners an electronic newsletter or e-blast on a consistent basis. Some of the stations reported they email their members daily and others said they did so weekly or monthly. A manager at a large station in the Southwest said “email and electronic communication is probably the most prevalent” way they are communicating with their audience. “Digital and online is probably one of the areas where we feel we’ll be able to get more and more traction,” said the GM of a large station in the Southeast.

Nearly every station reported they were using social media to connect with their listeners. Facebook and Twitter were by far the most cited tools used, but a few managers also said were using sites such as Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, Flickr, Pinterest and YouTube. A few stations said members of their staff were maintaining multiple Facebook and Twitter pages, especially for news content. “Each of our reporters have Twitter accounts and they are tweeting out and they are also working with our digital content,” said a GM from a large station in the Northeast. “We have four or five relatively younger folks who are actively involved in social media and we are training all of our content people to be involved,” said the manager of small station in the West. “We tweet everything, especially news stuff as it’s happening,” said a GM from a medium station in the West. “We just put a bunch of stuff out everywhere, all the time.” A number of stations also said their music hosts were often maintaining their own social media accounts and sharing information.

Many managers expressed concern that they weren’t doing as much online as they would like or using social media as effectively as they could. “I would say we’re kind of increasing our activity, but we’re not at the level of having a strategy about it. We’re not doing a horrible job, but I don’t think we’re really strategic about it yet,” said a manager from a large station in the West. “I think part of what we still need to be working on is improving (with Facebook), because there are so many different ways you can actually be communicating with your audience now. You should probably be trying to reach them in all the methods you possibly can,” said a manager from a small station in the Midwest. “We don’t have a coherent digital strategy in terms of social media. I think there’s a real opportunity to engage the community in an online space, but we just don’t have the resources for it,” said a GM from a medium station in the Southwest.

Two-way Conversations

The data revealed a number of examples that illustrate that stations are engaged in a continuous conversation with their listeners. All of the stations reported they receive listener feedback on a regular basis through multiple channels, including phone calls, letters, emails, web and social media postings and face-to-face comments. Many managers said they receive a lot of feedback during fund drives. “That’s the time of year when people are listening and responding to your requests for support and they call in to say ‘we love what you do and we are willing to put our money behind our love,’” said one GM from a small station in the West, in reference to comments during a pledge drive. “I’d say it’s one of the times that we get the most feedback on what we’re doing. It’s also a really interesting time for us to chat with listeners and folks who are involved with the station,” said the manager of a large station in the Southeast.

Most of the managers stated they have a high opinion of listener feedback. Many of the stations also reported that they often seek out comments and encourage listeners to respond. As a result, a number of managers said they felt their stations are in a continuous conversation with listeners. “We need to know what they’re thinking about us. We need to know that they know about us and we need to know what they want from us,” said a GM from a large station in the Northeast. “We love (feedback), the more the better. When people call up and have a serious concern or a serious question, we love to talk to them,” said the GM of a medium station in the Midwest. “I love (feedback). Good, bad or indifferent. For me it’s connecting the dots and it’s an opportunity to create relationships. With a lot of radio stations you can’t create a relationship,” said a GM from a medium station in the Southwest. “I think that it’s the dialogue that gets created when somebody feels compelled enough to take time out of their day to call and either show appreciation or complain about something that they have heard on the radio station,” said a manager from a small station in the West. “I like the fact that people are listening and thinking about what we’re doing. I like the constructive criticism, as well as the pats on the back,” said one manager from a medium station in the Southeast.

A number of managers reported that audience feedback led to changes with programming or content. “We use listener feedback to select topics that we’ll discuss on our talk show,” said one GM from a large station in the Northeast. “We had a huge Facebook discussion that led to us bringing in a few shows,” said a manager from a small station in the Southeast. A few other managers said listener dialogue helped to dictate news coverage. “We listen to them to find out what they think are the critical issues that we should be covering and discussing,” said the manager of a medium station in the Southeast.

A few managers expressed that feedback was important, but it couldn’t be the only factor when making decisions. “(Feedback) goes into the mix of deciding what we should set as our priorities, but it is only one element. It’s not something by and of itself that should or can dictate any of the direction the station takes, in terms of programming or initiatives,” said the GM of a large station in the Midwest. “It can’t be the only decision tool that we use. Community feedback is a really important way to make sure that donors and supporters have a positive experience with the organization,” said a manager from a medium station in the Northeast. “I get one listener’s feedback and then I think ‘oh my gosh, I’ve got to change this because someone said it, but then you’ve got to step back and go ‘okay, it’s important, but one is not a majority,’” said one manager from a medium station in the Midwest. These examples illustrate how closely stations are listening to their audience.


NPR is one of the strongest news outlets in the U.S. with a weekly audience of 30.1 million (Pew, 2018) and a monthly digital audience of 41 million (NPR, 2018). A study of the history of the network reveals that NPR and its member stations have evolved into a mostly community supported entity (Bailey, 2004; McCauley, 2005). However, very little research has been dedicated to the relationship between public radio listening and community. This study aimed to learn what public radio stations are doing to build community through the use of dialogue. Prior research has demonstrated that dialogue is one of the most effective tools an organization can use to foster a sense of community (Kruckeberg & Starck, 1988; Pickering & King, 1995; Day, Dong & Robins, 2001; Kent & Taylor; 2002; Stein, 2006). These findings suggest stations are using a number of different tactics and channels to engage in dialogue with their audience.

For example, every manager in the sample reported their station has a presence in their community, which included some type of face-to-face contact, mostly through station sponsored functions. Information Richness Theory suggests that face-to-face communication can produce some of the most effective messages (Daft & Lengel, 1984). These findings suggest that many stations and their representatives are engaged in regular, in-person contact with their listeners. Nearly every manager reported their station regularly hosts events, such as concerts or community forums. They also said members of their staff are taking active roles in their community.

A few managers said they had face-to-face contact with listeners by hosting open houses or offering station tours. A few other managers reported their station served as a community center, which was open to the public for various types of events. These findings suggest that many stations are attempting to create an open and welcoming atmosphere. Some managers expressed that these tactics can help to make listeners feel like they are part of the station. These tactics are likely to strengthen the bond between the listener and the station and aid in building a sense of community.

Nearly every manager stated they make efforts to build personal relationships with listeners. Some of those relationships are with listeners who work for the station as volunteers. Heller (1989) notes that communities are made up of members who interact with people who share their values. Therefore, volunteers would likely share the values of the station, its mission and message if they are willing to work on its behalf. Volunteers and staff would likely also share similar beliefs, so this could strengthen the bond between listeners and the station.

Many managers also said members of their staff are maintaining personal contact with listeners over the phone and through hand-written notes. Some of the calls and notes were in response to complaints, but others included thank you notes or get-well wishes. This is an example of Muniz and O’Guinn’s (2001) concept of conscious of kind, which refers to the connection that members of a community feel towards each other. Members of a community have a desire to stay connected to other members. The desire to say thank you or respond to complaints, which was reported by the managers, highlights the efforts stations are making to cultivate and maintain personal relationships with their members.

One interesting theme that arose from the data suggests there is a connection between listeners, even though they may have never met. A few managers reported they heard from listeners who said they enjoy hearing about station events and the activities of other listeners even though they didn’t plan to participate. They told the managers they simply liked hearing about the things members of the station community are involved in. Heller (1989) noted that community can be “relational” and Pearson (1993) suggested that community is created in the mind of the member. Therefore, it’s likely that some listeners are interested in staying connected with other listeners by hearing news of their activities. This suggests a bond between listeners that is strengthened through dialogue.

The interviews reveal that stations are engaged in regular contact with their listeners through multiple channels. Many managers reported they stay connected with their audience through the use of formal-written materials, such as newsletters. Pickering and King (1995) noted that newsletters, and other tools, could foster a sense of community if members are separated geographically. The data also highlights that stations are very active with new media, including email and social networks, to communicate with listeners. A number of managers also expressed their concern that they weren’t doing as much as they could to communicate with their audience through social media. However, many managers said they felt these tactics helped them to engage and stay connected with their listeners. These tools are also likely to strengthen the ties the listener feels to the station.

The managers also stated they are listening to audience feedback on a regular basis, which suggests stations are engaged in a continuous conversation with listeners. Prior research has highlighted that dialogue should be continuous and genuine to be effective (Day, Dong & Robins, 2001; Kent & Taylor, 2002).  Many managers said they get the most feedback from listeners during fund drives. Therefore, these findings suggest that dialogue may have played a role in securing community support.

The interviews reveal the managers have a high opinion of audience feedback and they often seek out comments and encourage listeners to respond. A number of managers expressed that listening to feedback creates an opportunity to build relationships with listeners, which is supported by the literature (Day, Dong & Robins, 2001; Kent & Taylor, 2002; Stein, 2006). A number of managers said that dialogue with listeners lead to changes at the station, which further highlights its importance. The fact that stations are listening to audience feedback and responding could aid in creating a sense of community. Listeners are likely to feel a stronger bond with the station if they know their comments and concerns are taken seriously and viewed as important. These findings suggest that the dialogue between stations and listeners is two-way and continuous.

Now perhaps some might ask are the tactics used for community engagement outlined in this research offering anything new? Older radio listeners likely will recall a time when it was commonplace for a disc jockey to attend an event or spend time with a listener on the telephone. However, times have changed and in today’s digital world of corporate radio where conglomerates (such as iHeartMedia or Entercom) own hundreds of stations, there seems to be far less emphasis on community engagement. Often these stations are operated from central locations, in an effort to cut costs and maximize profits, far from the communities where the broadcast signal is heard. As a result, it is difficult to imagine commercial stations investing much time or effort in building personal relationships with their listeners. Thus, these tactics appear to be unique to public radio, which may explain why NPR stations have been more successful in drawing and maintaining an audience in recent years. For example, maintaining regular personal contact, creating a welcoming atmosphere, listening to feedback or engaging in continuous conversations, seems to be rare in broadcasting. Therefore, employing these tactics, especially through the use of dialogue, may be a way for stations to remain relevant in today’s digital media landscape.

Finally, there are a few limitations to this study. For example, it used a small (20) and purposive sample, so these findings are not representative of the general population. Therefore, the views of these station managers cannot be generalized to all public radio managers. However, this method is typical with this type of qualitative work (Berger, 2013; Jankowski & Jensen, 2002; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Furthermore, the author was able to identify and recruit a diverse national sample of managers from various market sizes and geographic regions.

Despite the limitations, this study provides a lot of information on the tactics and strategies public radio stations are using to engage in dialogue with their listeners. These findings also suggest these tools are helping to foster a sense of community. However, future research is needed to examine how listeners feel about these tactics. A survey of listeners could attempt to measure how effective the stations have been in their efforts. For example, some important questions could include: (1) Does attending an event or interacting through social media make listeners feel more connected to the station? (2) Are listeners who feel more connected more likely to give? (3) Do people feel they are part of a community of listeners? These are just a few examples, but these questions demonstrate the need for more information. This present study is just the first step.

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Appendix 1 – Geographic Region Map

Appendix 2 – Sample Characteristics

Region# of Stations
Market Size# of Stations