Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 9

Positive Solutions – Digital Storytelling for Social Awareness: Using Technology to Inspire


There is much research looking at the negative aspects of media. There are studies addressing social concerns about the impact of media on how people define themselves, success, society, government and many other areas.

There has long been concern that a steady diet of negative news has contributed towards public disillusionment. Seeing images on the news night after night could lend itself to a learned world view far more negative than the world is in reality.

If this is true and negative media creates feelings of disillusionment and despair, then it would make sense that positive media should do the opposite-this was worth a try. Through research considering Interactive Documentary, Constructive/Solutions Journalism and Social Media, this paper looks at this idea.


As media changes in the digital age, it is also important to look at story structure and how that is changing the ways in which stories are told.  The shift in audience metrics from “exposure” to “engagement” offers important opportunities for makers to think about different ways of communicating a message.  Different communication paths containing the message, or story, can be structured in what could be describe as “micro-narratives”—small narrative units that, like Legos, can be disaggregated and reconfigured in various ways (Uricchio,2015). This is where interactive documentary/storytelling come into play.

“If the growth of interactive documentary does anything, I think it will open our eyes to the hundreds of possibilities of telling stories in original ways, and re-defining what a story is, what an audience is, and what a maker is.” Gerry Flahive, National Film Board of Canada.

There are two journalism models considered for this research. Solutions journalism is a practice that looks at reporting on how people are doing better and adaptive responses that people can learn from.  Constructive journalism is described by Seán Dagan Wood as “a publication that shines a light on innovation, kindness, co-operation and the ways people are working to create solutions to the problems facing society.” Both of these styles use positivity to increase reader engagement.

This research examines the idea that creating positive solutions-based digital stories can enhance the narrative for social awareness. This research was done using an interactive web-based project entitled Each Others Shoulders. These techniques can be used in many aspects of journalism and storytelling.  Using digital and social media to enhance stories is becoming the norm.  Organizations such as community journalism, collaborative media, participatory journalism, democratic journalism, street journalism and social change organizations can all benefit from this research.

The Project

The Each Others Shoulders interactive is a site about women.  Women who have made the journey a little bit easier for others. It looks at the positive impact women have had on the world through the eyes of other women.  Users are asked to “share a story” of a woman who made a difference in their lives.  This can be someone they personally know or a historical or public figure who helped them be a better woman in some way.

Each Others Shoulders was initially set up on WordPress, a blog posting website This project began a few months prior to the first Women’s March on Washington, January 21, 2017. Although there was much negativity among women concerning the election of Donald Trump, this site dedicated to keeping the conversation positive.

As part of the project, open sourced, or approved existing video was re-edited to add to both the Inspirational Women and History sections of the project.

Figure 1: Each Others Shoulders website.


A project was created to allow participants to share stories that would make a positive impact on a social cause. Social awareness is defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning as, “the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures.”  Although social awareness was the main goal of this experiment, social change was looked at as a mark of success.  Social Change goes further in transforming a culture along with behaviors and social structure(Vago, 2004).

To best understand how to use digital media for social awareness the Ripple Strategies were used as a measurement. Ripple Strategies is a full-service communications agency that designs and implements media campaigns to accelerate positive social change (Ripple, 2018).

Ripple gives 3 suggestions to begin creating media for social change:

  • Establish Authority:
    • developing credible content- tell a good, true story
    • fostering credible relationships- credible, relevant experts and trusted
    • preparing credible responses- be proactive and to keep control of your messaging
  • Ignite Conversations and Change:
    • telling memorable stories
    • AIDA conversion funnel, which shows the progression a person makes from initially hearing about an issue to taking-action. The conversion funnel involves four sequential steps: Awareness, Interest, Desire, and Action (AIDA).
  • Measuring Impact
    • Online Analytics
    • Likes, Follows

Three areas of consideration were used for this project:

  • Interactive documentary
    • An interactive documentary, or multimedia documentary is a is considered non-fictional storytelling that not only uses video, audio, photographic, but also applies full complement of multimedia tools. These tools allow the user(watcher, listener, doer) to control or modify the journey as the go (Kim, 2014). This can happen in many ways; comment, like, share, add are all available in interactive documentary.
    • Using:
      • Unique and original footage
      • Aggregated footage from the Women’s March on Washington and organizations
      • Existing open-sourced media
      • Participatory media

For a project to be considered an Interactive Documentary for Social Change it must create social awareness, civic engagement and ultimately social change.

  • Constructive/Solutions Journalism
    • Solutions journalism is an approach to news reporting that focuses on the responses to social issues as well as the problems themselves. Solutions stories, anchored in credible evidence, explain how and why responses are working, or not working. Constructive journalism works alongside Solutions Journalism using positive, solutions-focused storytelling for community engagement. These types of journalism were created in response to the increase in negative, tabloidism and fake news in the new media.
  • Social Awareness through Social Media
    • Social awareness, can be defined as consciousness shared by different individuals within a society. We will look at using social media to create awareness of the problems within a society or a community.


The objectives are to use the tools of technology to; film and edit short, meaningful segments and aggregate already existing media, to create the story.  The story will shed positive light on the social cause. This media will be shared through a social media campaign and interaction through blogging, to create an audience and effect social awareness.

With so much emphasis on the negativity in media, specifically when attached to social causes (Black Lives Matter, Trump Election) this paper will examine if positive interactive media alone can make a difference in creating social awareness.

This research considers the impact that positive interactive media combined with interactive documentary can create an awareness in a social justice situation.  The objectives were to use the tools of technology to; film and edit short, meaningful segments and aggregate already existing media, to create the story.  The story shed positive light on the social cause. This media was shared through a social media campaign and interaction through blogging, to create an audience and effect social awareness.

Analytics were used to measure citizen engagement in the cause and interaction data will be collected to determine social awareness and change.

This research worked around the experiment, Each Others Shoulders, an online interactive website which looked at the positive impact women have had on the world and share that as a way of advancing the cause.

Literature Review

“Interactive media/documentary/storytelling combined with the use of interactive and social media tools create the stage, audience and actors that are needed to bring about social awareness, engagement and change. In theory, if this is done in a positive way it will create an audience and interaction that is positive as well” (Cardillo, 2018). Interactive media/documentary is considered non-fictional storytelling that not only uses video, audio, photographic, but also applies full complement of multimedia tools. These tools allow the user (watcher, listener, doer) to control or modify the journey as the go (Kim, 2014).

This project combined Interactive documentary with Solutions/Constructive Journalism and Social Media to share a story and find results.

  • The Interactive Documentary:
    • Interactive and Cross-media innovations have created a new model of communication that can go in many directions, where audiences can both consume and produce in the social activist setting (Whiteman, 2003).  By 2005, more possibilities grew for online participation. The introduction of peer-to-peer broadcasting, largely influenced by YouTube created ever-expanding possibilities for social networking and change. Sites like Facebook continue to add to social networking possibilities. Web 2.0 has created a truly unique opportunity to explore International communities (Miller, 2009).

New interactive tools allow the viewer to take on a collaborative role as creator. When the viewer is encouraged to add their voice to a project, it enhances the community and welcomes others to do the same. This type of interactivity allows the user to become intimately involved with the project and the social cause.

Documentary filmmakers have been producing commentaries concerning the world’s marginalized people and places in an effort to shed light on the problems and help create social movements to effect change for the future (Moyano, 2011).   New technologies are now in place that can elevate this light to a much greater audience, through the use of interactive storytelling and multi-media platforms.

  • Constructive/Solutiouns Journalism:
    • Journalism today is so focused on highlighting problems; it often misses opportunities to tell the many stories about how society is responding effectively to those problems. Looking at the positive, solution-based side of the story can bring about forward moving conversation and involvement.
  • Solutions Journalism:
    • “Journalism’s historical approach is to spotlight social problems in order to spur reform, exposing wrongdoing or generating awareness — or outrage — about injustice, neglect or hidden threats. This “watchdog” role is critical to the vitality of democratic society. But we believe it’s also insufficient, because it fails to capture and circulate some of the most essential information that society needs to understand and solve its problems” (Reeves, 2017,1).

Constructive Journalism is a method of journalism that includes rigorous, compelling reporting that includes positive and solution-focused elements in order to empower audiences and present a fuller picture of truth, while upholding journalism’s core functions and ethics. Constructive Journalism was founded in 2014 by Sean Wood and Danielle Batista in London(Constructive Journalism Project, n.d.).

These types of journalism/storytelling can, not only, engage and empower people as consumers of media but, more importantly, as actors in the solutions.

The University of Pennsylvania did a study where they looked at several hundred New York Times articles to determine the type of news media consumers/users choose to share.  The results were overwhelming in favor of positive news. The Times’ John Tierney, describing the research. “The more positive an article, the more likely it was to be shared” (Tierney, 2013).

  • Social Media for Social Awareness:

According to Dovey (2014), the content of the blog world, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Flickr are all real, journalistic, and expressive and this is what interactive storytelling encompasses. These social media outlets are living documentaries for those who create them. New tools for collaboration and sharing in social media platforms build a participatory culture that creates the formation of groups with common views and goals (Jenkins 2006).  (Social) media plays an important rold in molding society and spreading awareness in important events. It is the best tool for spearding social awareness(Dwivedi & Pandey, 2013).


The project, Each Others Shoulders is an interactive site about women. The format was set up in the style of Interactive Documentary and used Solutions/Constructive Journalism techniques as a basis.  Interactive Documentary uses short form(micro-documentary) clips to engage users to become involved with the cause.  Each Others Shoulders invited users to upload video, still photos and written stories to the site in order to engage the audience.  These additions also added to the story to make Each Others Shoulders a living document.  Constructive/Solutions Journalsim was used by applying positive techniques to the process and production in an effort to create productive and engaging coverage.

Users are asked to “share a story” of a woman who made a positive difference in their lives.  This can be someone they personally know or a historical or public figure who helped them be a better woman in some way.

The submission page states:

This is where Each Others Shoulders becomes an interactive, participatory, living documentary.

Please share a story about a woman who has influenced, inspired or changed you in some way.  This woman can be someone you personally know who is not “famous”(or known to the rest of us-yet), or she can be an historical or public woman who inspires you.

Please share a story, a photo, a video or audio recording…anything that allows us to know this woman better.  The more women we learn about the better we become.  We stand on each others shoulders.

In order to create a simple way to collect the Submit a Story information, was used to create a small website with the Grabimo application for story collection.  “Grabimo is an application that allows you to collect, manage, and publish stories in multimedia format: Video, Audio, Photo, and Text” (Grabimo, 2018).

Figure 2: Submission Page

When considering the Ripple Strategies and social media for social awareness, there were three areas in the project where social media made a difference in awareness.

Establishing authority: the site, along with the Facebook page, was able to create credible content while fostering credible relationships. Great care was taken in preparing credible responses to comments and posts at all times. As this project started with the beginning of plans for the Women’s March and was quickly picked up and carried by those organizers, on their social media, there was immediate establishing of authority.

Figure 3: Response Page of Site

Igniting conversations: This was challenging at first. Getting people involved to submit stories and comments was the most difficult part. Likes, follows and shares were the most common with comments building as the March drew near.  In the few weeks prior to the march, as women were preparing for their journey, the story and photo submissions began to upload. Also, during and soon after the march the site continued to get engagement. One issue that began to occur was that the “positive” nature of the conversation began to wane as the inauguration of Donald Trump coincided with the Women’s March.  As we continued to only put out positive media the comments began to become more negative.

Measuring impact: This was done through analytics. An early post about the Women’s March on Washington entitled, “Why I Will March: A Bi-Partisan Approach received over 1500 hits and 130 shares in less than two weeks, using only Facebook as a channel.  This remained consistent from late November until the end of January (the march was on January 21, 2017). The Women’s March organizers continued to share our posts and women continued to share their stories and photos.  We received many photos and news stories on how women were preparing for the march.  The march dominated the site.  We continued to upload positive stories about women who were making a difference in the world but the uploads continued to center around the march, with a few exceptions of women who uploaded stories of female heroes in their lives.

Figure 4: Post on Facebook

This project continued for a few months after the Women’s March on Washington and proceeded to create numbers in the analytics with user interested in the cause of women’s rights. In a matter of approximately four months’ time the site drew in 3634 views with 2743 visitors.

Figure 5: Analytics on WordPress

Facebook gave this project the biggest boost which funneled traffic to the Each Others Shoulders site.

Figure 6: Analytics on Facebook

On Twitter we used the hashtag: #eachothersshoulders. Twitter worked well for story aggregation in that we could see who was using the hashtag and contact that user to get permission for their story and ask if they wanted to share.

A digital mini-documentary narrative video was made and sent out through social media soon after the march in order to keep the conversation going. This surprisingly received little to know coverage.  Once the march was over, although we continued to reach out on social media the interest waned. One hypothesis is that it was over three minutes and that is too long for social media users to decide to click on and stay.  Also, the site had no immediate or long-term gratification.

Figure 8: Mini-documentary

Is Social Awareness enough?  Or does there need to be Social Change for success?


Deciding to delineate this paper as Positive Solutions- Digital Media Storytelling for Social Awareness rather than committing to Social Change opened up many questions for this researcher.  The thought process was to consider Positive Solutions Digital Media Storytelling in a way that it would begin a conversation that would help causes to make users more socially aware.  The problem lies in how this plays out in social media and what success looks like.

Considering the idea that visuals help us to learn and act, along with constructive/solutions journalism and interactive documentary, this paper looked at how we can create a social change environment by creating a positive campaign and asking for interaction.

For the most part the campaign stayed positive, with the only negativity coming from user comments about the election of Donald Trump.  The use of social media as a tool for social good has its strengths and challenges.  The strengths are that if the message is both timely, short and conveniently placed it will get large numbers.  But once the timeliness wares off there is little to no interaction, as there needs to be some kind of immediate gratification.  The creator would need to continually work to keep the campaign alive in order to have consistent interaction.

Also, there is strong evidence that users prefer to like and share more than comment.  And asking them to engage by adding content is difficult to achieve.  More research is needed in the area of how to keep consistent engagement for causes.  Although this site never asked for money, only time and effort, it was still difficult to get users to engage at that level.  If a set of procedures could be developed that would help to prolong engagement, this would benefit all social causes in the future.

When creating an Interactive Documentary for Social Change project there are three things that need to occur:

  • First the project must create social awareness, which this project did.
  • Next the project must create civic engagement, which this project also did, to some extent.
  • And the last piece to the puzzle is that the project needs to create social change.

Did change occur?

  • This is the piece of the puzzle that will be looked at in future work.
  • Does the cause campaign need to have a “finish” in order to be successful?
  • Is the project a success because it made people stop and get involved or did there need to be a greater outcome in order for success to be apparent?
  • What does change look like? 


There is much research looking at the negative aspects of media. This paper looked at what might happen using Interactive Documentary, Constructive/Solutions Journalism and Social media to tell a positive story. Each Others Shoulders was able to create social engagement for a short time.

These techniques can be used in many aspects of journalism and storytelling.  Using digital and social media to enhance stories is becoming the norm.  Organizations such as community journalism, collaborative media, participatory journalism, democratic journalism, street journalism and social change organizations can all benefit from this research.

Now more research needs to be done to find out how to keep the audience and create social change. There are so many amazing causes in this world that people can become involved with, we just have to find ways, other than like, share and comment to get people to act.


About the Author

Dr. Susan Cardillo, Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Journalism at the University of Hartford focuses her tenure work on Interactive/Micro Documentary for Social Awareness and Change. She is currently in post-production with Campus ReBoot, a crowd-sourced, interactive and collaborative documentary about College during Covid19. She can be reached at [email protected]

Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 9

Who/What/Where Is The Local “Us”?: The reciprocation between proximity, feelings of closeness and shared interests in relation with the local press.

While today’s press is undergoing change, intersecting regions, it is important not to overlook the readers – who is the local “us”? This paper investigates how readers generate the relational sense of an “us” in a locality by engaging with the press. The study offers a framework built around three key dynamic concepts: proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests – which readers form clusters around, thereby reinforcing the notion of an “us.” Furthermore, local journalists strengthen the notion of an “us” by addressing the readers as a single collective with common features.


In today’s changing media climate, newspapers are concerned with issues of increased transmediality, how to retain and increase circulation figures, sell advertising space, and keep distributing papers in their established areas. In this context, it is important not to overlook the readers. What do they engage with? Who comprises “us”1 in a locality?
This paper aims to identify the dynamics around who reads local newspapers and how the readers identify themselves, as well as who the journalists and editors are targeting their content at. This paper focuses on shared associations, intersubjectivity, and engagement in a local vicinity which – together with the local newspaper – may enable readers to perceive themselves as part of something bigger. By sharing their understandings and feelings about what is reported in the newspapers, readers can construct a sense of “us” in interrelation with their locality.

This paper investigates if and how this “us” is formed, what the dynamics and dimensions of this are, and the clusters that readers create around themselves and those who share common characteristics. Furthermore, this includes journalists’ and editors’ viewpoints of these factors.
This paper investigates how the readers share intersubjectivity, association, and engagement through their local press and, thereby, become part of a cluster with shared features, to create a common “us”. We assert that this identity formation in community settings is dynamic and variable along three dimensions: proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests – which each require some kind of mediation. These concepts will be explained further later on in this paper, but to summarize it. Proximity, in this context, solely focuses on the sense of geographic or physical nearness. While feelings of closeness focuses on the sense of relational or emotional nearness. Shared interests, focuses around issues or concerns between people who share a proximity or an affectional nearness.

The context: RegPress and Sweden

This paper was produced by the RegPress project team, which investigated what the regional means in a global media culture, in the context of southern Sweden. With the main research question: “What is the role and value of regional media in a global media age?”
RegPress was a cooperative project between Linnaeus University, Sweden; Newcastle University, UK; FOJO2 (Sweden’s leading media development center for professional journalists); and the Barometern Foundation.3
Sweden has some of the highest newspaper readerships in the world, along with state subsidies for the media.4 There are healthy regional and local de-centralized papers. Today, though, local newspapers are facing several new challenges, such as increasing print, broadcast and online media transmediality, declining circulation figures, and difficulties selling advertising space. However, in later years it has proven difficult to provide a complete measure of circulation since some of the largest newspapers have left the common measurement system.
According to Media Landscapes – Expert analyses of the state of media5 there are about 55 percent who read a subscribed morning paper on an average day in Sweden, but this does not show the general household coverage.
The information which follows below in this section is gathered from the TS Media6 website, Kantar Sifo 7 website and the Nordicom website.8
RegPress’s research area comprised the counties of Kalmar (population 237,027), Kronoberg (190,916), and Blekinge (155,733), and the west coast region around Borås (108,083).9 These areas have been well-served by the press for a long period of time dating back to 1841;10 along with a dominant and successful media group that has experienced a low decline of circulation and in some cases even a rise in readership numbers. In these areas, there are about 84 newspapers, including daily press, free newspapers, and newspapers which exist solely on the web. In each area, one paper dominates (circulation-wise), and commonly a secondary paper holds a prominent position. All of the newspapers below have a high subscription level (90 % or above) seen to those who buy the paper.
The main newspapers and their household coverage are:
– Barometern Oskarshamns-Tidningen (54%, 2019)
– Smålandsposten (54%, 2019)
– Blekinge Läns Tidning (50%, 2019)
– Borås Tidning (43.9%, 2016; last updated information)

Each newspaper has a strong local attachment, focusing particularly on its immediate vicinity (nearby towns and cities). Our desk research11 revealed that the local newspapers cover a range of topics, including urban development, events, healthcare, sport, and culture, complemented with broader domestic and international news.
Figures from the SOM Institute show that the subscription rates nationally are in decline, in the 1990s, 81% of the respondents had a daily newspaper subscription, 2014 it was 57 percent, and today 55 %. However, most people in this region still use printed newspapers as their main source of news.13
When it comes to the area’s homogeneity and socioeconomics, there are more similarities than differences. All of the areas have close to half/half male/female population, the greatest variation was 49% to 51%. Kalmar County and Blekinge County have a somewhat older population than the other areas, while the area around Borås has the youngest population.
In regards to secondary education, the areas had a slightly higher percentage (48%) than the national average (47%).
Secondary education:
– Kalmar County (51%)
– Blekinge County (48%)
– Kronoberg County (48%)
– The west coast region around Borås (45%)

However, in regards of post-secondary education, it was slightly lower than the national average (40%). Whilst here it differed between 32% (Kalmar County) to 39% (The Borås area).
Professions, political affiliations, and wages, were all similar in these areas.

Conceptualizing the reader

This paper seeks to understand how geographically-situated newspapers connect with readers in specific localities. Through this, there has also been an increased sense of community in relation to how geographically-situated newspapers connect with readers in specific localities (Hess, 2013). This investigates if and how shared associations and intersubjectivities are formed within the locales and regions covered by local newspapers.
There are efforts today by the press to explore local imagined societies and community traditions to receive and reinforce coherence from the readers (Wenzel, 2019).

It has been established that local media use individual as well as community factors when it comes to constructing the news, which can lead to community participation and solidarity within the community (Paek et al.). Which increases the likelihood of a sense of community with common ties between the readers, a perception of a shared community. Discussions have however been made during later years if this is reinforced by addressing the readers as part of an “us” or a “me.” There have been tendencies which show a shift from “we” to “me” in the construction of journalism (Conboy & Steel, 2010). As people are most concerned with aspects close to themselves.
The conceptual framework we devised to investigate this derives from three aspects:

  • Proximity, the sense of geographic or physical nearness,
  • Feelings of closeness, the sense of relational or emotional nearness,
  • Shared interests, around issues, or concerns where there is an affectional nearness.

These dimensions are interrelated with the notions of community, the local, and local journalism; which are all valuable in order to conceptualize and analyze our data. These concepts are discussed below.

Senses of community

The notion of interpreted senses of an relational and abstract “us” with familiar features has commonly been investigated through the lens of the word “community.” However, the notion of community is difficult to conceptualize, because it lacks any specific analytical characteristics (Hess, 2013).

Scholars and industry are yet to agree on a universal definition to describe small commercial newspapers and they are most commonly referred to as “community media”, “country newspapers”, “rural/regional” or the “local” press (Hess, 2013).

The terms “communities” and “local communities” have frequently been used when discussing journalism in local settings. In more recent research, however, these terms have proven problematic for describing the complexity of a local setting (Hess & Waller, 2013), and the ways that people engage with each other and the media. Hess & Waller (2013) assert that “community” is a layman’s term which lacks analytical clarity. Nonetheless, the concept of community has been preeminent in discussions around newspapers.
Issues around the theoretical concept of “community” have mainly been discussed in terms of newspapers’ online ventures and globalization trends (Hess & Waller, 2017). Hess (2013) offers the term “geo-social” as an alternative to “community,” as it derives from a “sense of place,” geography, space and flows. In understanding our data, we acknowledge the importance of a relational sense of place as well as an actual geographic space, which emerges through the dynamic dimensions of proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests. Each of these concepts is discussed in the findings and discussion sections of this paper. The areas we have chosen to look at are served by newspapers which focus on smaller towns and regions, where community newspapers provide connotations of familiarity, shared interests, and collectivity, as well as special interest groups, common values, and links to certain geographic areas (Hess & Waller, 2013).

Based on the notions of constructed communities, there are other aspects to consider as well, particularly from a sociological perspective, where the concept still is prominent (Goe & Noonan, 2007). This is relevant in order to understand shared associations and how the sense of a mutual “us” is created in local proximity.
The idea of community has been around for a long time and is derived from developments of society structures, where secluded rural localities of homogenous social groups developed into urban societies, alongside the issues that affected them as a group interacting in that context (Tichenor et al., 1980). Most areas are not isolated in that way today, because of the changes brought about by globalization, technology, and infrastructure developments.
Nevertheless, certain issues still affect people living in close proximity to each other. One key aspect that enhances a sense of community is the physical environment which enables and/or enhances opportunities for interaction, such as walkable streets (French et al., 2014). However, local newspapers could also be perceived as tangible factors that are shared and discussed by people who live in close proximity to each other.

One thing that has not changed since the days of relatively secluded communities is the fact that everybody is constantly interpreting the world around us. This is something we all do on a daily basis, constructing and reconstructing our impressions. Through these subjective practices, people create intersubjective interplays and, thus, a shared world (Berger, 1991).
Intersubjectivity develops through continuous interactions so that, through interrelation with society, the perceived reality is formed and reinforced through social processes and institutions (Berger & Luckmann, 1991). Journalism and local newspapers can be seen as one such institution (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009) that helps to form a proximity-based intersubjectivity.

It is the journalists’ stories that construct and maintain our shared realities. Because of this, news can become a singularly important form of social glue; our consumption of stories about current events large and small binds us
together in an “imagined community” of co-readers (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009).

Therefore, earlier research has concluded that the world we all perceive and share an intersubjectivity of is, in fact, constructed through our interactions with each other (in close surroundings) and our interrelations with wider society, which are reinforced through institutions such as the local news media. However, in order to understand how local newspapers connect with people at a regional level, it is important to examine how the readers perceive this connection – for example, which issues they share an affinity with. This is conceptualized through the dimensions of proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests, to further investigate how the sense of connection is enacted within a local setting.
From a sociological perspective, the concept of community is twofold – including both a common physical and geographic area – for instance, the area where people live or work – and the characteristics of the social relationships people form with each other (Geo & Noonan, 2007). In addition, it has been recognized that community is based on a specific place, with Tönnies and Harris (2001) asserting that community centers around a geographic area and the people who live there, in close proximity to each other (Tönnies & Harries, 2001). Both of these matters are discussed in this paper. Firstly, our study takes place in a specific geographic area, where many of the people we interviewed lived and worked within that same area. Secondly, the relationships they form with others – as mentioned above, their constructed reality – is formed through their interrelations with others and society, including the media.

In 1955 Hillery (1955) pinpointed three key aspects that had been identified through previous research into community, defining it as a group of people who:
– engage in social interactions,
– have ties to a geographic area,
– have ties to each other (like lifestyle, culture, work, beliefs, interests, or more loose ties).

This overview shows that there has been continuous discussion among sociologists about what the concept means and entails. However, “community” can be summed up as a geographic space, a social network, and a type of relationship (Day, 2006). We are aware that a sense of space cannot solely be centered on a geographic space.
Flows within the digital world must also be taken into consideration when discussing community (Hess & Waller, 2013) since many people engage in the digital sphere as well as the non-digital aspects of life. For instance, individuals who no longer live in the geographic proximity that a local newspaper covers may still feel a connection to that place, so engage with the news through a digital platform (Robinson, 2015). This is something we will investigate further in our findings and discussion, particularly in regard to the conceptual dimension “feelings of closeness.”

Senses of the “local” and local journalism

This paper aims to contribute to the debate about geographically-situated newspapers and the relationship between those who read it and the area it is circulated in. It is therefore crucial to understand what comprises a sense of the “local.” Since journalists in the local proximity is not just watchers of the community, but a part of it (Batsell, 2015).
It has been argued that “local”, as in local media, is another ambiguous and problematic term, like “community”; because vast amounts of local media today are only really local in name, being actually based at a central point somewhere outside the immediate area (Hess & Waller, 2017). However, in this paper, local newspapers are identified as news providers that serve a specific geographic area (not nationally) and exist in that locality, are regularly circulated, and contain news and information which meets the definitions used in Key concepts in journalism studies (Franklin, 2005).

Local media has been identified as a tool to emphasize the connection between people, and as a platform to express matters of importance for the population of an area (Hess &Waller, 2017; Franklin, 2005; Lauterer, 2006). The local news media try to attract the people who live within a specific area, by providing them with news which is relevant to that group. People who live in small towns and rural areas depend on their local paper to connect with each other and the locality (Lauterer, 2006). To create this sense of community – both from a sociological and a media perspective, as discussed above – the newspapers attempt to target their content at a specific group and, through that practice, assist in shaping and creating a sense of “us-ness,” a shared intersubjectivity, associations, and engagement, within the local vicinity.

The local and regional press play a dual role in their localities. Firstly, they are actors in the life of the local area. Secondly, they co-create a sense of the local and regional. Local and regional press is an under-researched area (Hanusch, 2015), so this study makes an important contribution to the knowledge of local media and its relation to the public, the public’s relation to local media, and through this, to each other.

We argue that the conceptual dimensions we introduced at the beginning of this paper – proximity, feelings of closeness and shared interests – are dynamic and change during the course of reporting news. Different readers are interested in different kinds of news.

Earlier research has established that journalism has a role to play in communities (here defined as people who live in close proximity to each other and share (at least partly) interests and values) (Goe & Noonan, 2007). This consists of informing the public, reporting citizens and their representatives about matters of public interest, and leading advocacy and debate (Bartzen Culver, 2014). Local press is rooted within the lived experience of those who live close by in the locality, which helps in constructing their realities (Howley, 2005). Readers who feel a connection to news stories or a part of the locality that the stories affect believe that the news affects them and has meaning for them (Hartley, 2009).
Hatcher and Haavik (2015) found that Norwegian local journalists’ news values depended on their relationships with the community and their place as members of the community. This concurs with research conducted in the mid-1900s (Janowitz, 1951), which proclaimed that press in a community setting acts as a system that aims to maintain a consensus based on common values.

“Proximity” is a key term in this paper. This includes news and events which are geographically close to the readers and so are seen as important and valuable for both readers and journalists. Moreover, proximity can be perceived in an emotional sense as well (Hess & Waller, 2013).

Research has shown (Hatcher and Haavik, 2015; Yamamoto, 2011; Hartley, 2009) that people who read a local newspaper feel a connection to the locality, so local newspapers are one important way to engage with the community. In this paper, we argue that there is a connection between attachment, involvement, and participation in a community, and reading the local newspaper. There is a sense of social coherence in the area that is covered by a newspaper and is defined by that. The locality shares common values, which support social networks and help to form a collective identity (Yamamoto, 2011). This brings us back to our study’s key research questions – who comprises “us” in the local setting? How is the sense of “us-ness” formed?


This research applies a mixed methods research design, which offers a complementary pluralistic strategy (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004). The data is based upon empirical data obtained from 65 semi-structured interviews intersecting these three regions in South East and South West Sweden, involving 9,413 survey respondents, 8 focus groups, and 9 elite/expert interviews (with journalists and editors), during 2016.

This study mainly used snowball sampling when it comes to the semi-structured interviews (across our regions), since this enabled us to gain more respondents through the potential sample members (Everitt, 2002). The survey14 covered all three regions (with some additional respondents living outside them) and was distributed by Linnaeus University and Gota Media.15 The content of the survey was designed upon the information gathered by the qualitative interviews with readers. The survey consisted of an online questionnaire which asked newspaper readers about their media use, as well as their socioeconomic circumstances, to ensure a diversity of respondents. The survey provides descriptive statistics (Ostle, 2012) in our empirical data.
This paper discusses data from reader interviews, surveys and interviews with journalists and editors, not from the focus groups.


General trends. The data confirmed that most respondents read their local newspapers (about 96 percent), while only 43% read the national news; showing that the proximity matters in their choice of news outlets. Through the practice of reading a paper, the reader forms mutual, dynamic patterns of association, gaining a sense of connectedness, and shared understandings. These patterns of association and engagement vary in accordance with the factors of proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests. Readers create relational and dynamic clusters of perceived importance around these, some of which are shared with others living in close proximity. This kind of intersubjectivity is also important from the journalists’ point of view, which is why this section of our paper includes journalists’ responses.

The most important of our three theoretical concepts is proximity – firstly the immediate area around an individual, their hometown or city, followed by the municipality, and then the county. The local society can also be considered an active participant, not just an area division, because it impacts on the local setting.

Proximity. The issues that matter most to readers are those that happen the closest. “Closest” here can be specific to an area or to an issue. For some readers, the closest proximity means their immediate circle, such as their neighborhood. For other readers, proximity is a wider concept which branches out to places where they work or have some other relationship to – for instance, their children’s school, or the store where they buy their groceries.

With the local news, I feel I am a part of the local community; they talk about issues that are relevant for me (RP1:16 Man, over 60, post-secondary education). The newspaper is an important tool for finding out what is happening in the local proximity, according to 78% of our survey respondents, while 45% believed that the local paper helped them feel part of the local “community” – at least sometimes. Only about 4 percent of respondents never felt that the local paper helped them feel part of local society. The local press acts as a social glue which holds areas together by reporting current events which the reader perceives to be important – according to both the literature (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009) and our respondents.
The readers perceive, define and talk about themselves as members of a group, and a sense of shared realities is vital for this. This varies in accordance with issues and areas. People living in close proximity to each other perceive a shared intersubjectivity, which is constructed and reinforced through interacting with each other, but also through interacting with institutions (Wahl-Jorgensen & Hanitzsch, 2009), such as the local newspaper.

It is fairly typical for the local newspapers to follow local politicians and decision making in the city, mixed with family news, organizations’ news, and trivial things that are happening. And all of it is the glue between people and creates a collective “yes that’s right, it was in the newspaper.” So, I think the local newspapers have a social function, it’s only local news media that can do it… But also as a social glue, a reinforced feeling of “us,” especially where I live among the people in my neighborhood, but also where I work (RP2: Woman, 41-60, masters-level education).

The Swedish word “närområde,” meaning “immediate area” was used frequently and prominently by interviewees discussing close proximities. As Goe and Noonan (2007) assert, physical and geographic spaces are still extremely important for forming a sense of community. People who live and work in a certain locality want to know what is happening in the immediate area because it matters to them and affects them. It has high relevance for them, as individuals and as a group; through shared associations and interactions with members of the locality, they become members of a collective. Some participants used the word “gemenskap,” or “community” to describe this attribute, as well as mentioning their collective engagement.
People within a locality engage in social interactions and share ties to the local proximity and each other, through mutual interests and values (Hillery, 1955).

Local newspapers are really important to me. I want to keep track of what is happening in my immediate area, in politics, culture, and everything else that is important for a society. With the help of newspapers, we bind together to form a whole and not as fragmented, all of us who live in […] are affected by what is happening here and, with the newspapers’ help, we are woven together and merge into a larger collective than those you would otherwise be close to – your neighbors and your colleagues. With the newspapers, we become part of a greater whole (RP3: Woman, 26-40, bachelors-level education).

The “närhetsfaktorn” or “closeness factor” was also prevalent when discussing proximity, being defined as the dynamic relationship between the closeness of something and its importance. It was notable that individuals did not consider everything in close proximity to be relevant to them, but this dynamic enables people to form a cluster around what does – or does not – matter. The “closeness factor” also provides a tool for readers to navigate through all the material in a newspaper and offers a pathway into shared associations in the immediate vicinity.

…they report the news so that it will be interesting for me as a reader, mainly with the proximity factor that I mentioned earlier… It might be good to start reading the newspaper to get into the community, I had not really thought about that before… (RP4: Woman, 18-25, bachelors-level education).

Everything that happens locally is very interesting, of course. Everything that happens in […] is very interesting to me because I live here. Even trivial news is interesting. If a garden shed burns down somewhere, I want to know. I would not care if it happened in Halland [other part of Sweden] (RP5: Man, 26-40, post-secondary education).

Journalists described proximity as both a geographically-demarcated area and a connection between people living near to each other. Existing shared associations are enhanced by tangible factors such as a newspaper’s geographic orientation and ambition to reinforce intersubjectivity, which creates group feelings of “us-ness,” or senses of community, as French et al. (2014) observe. Thus, understandings of what is local can be formed through a symbiotic relationship between local journalists and their readers (Lauterer, 2006).

Well, local community is a group of people geographically, but above all sociological demarcated, therefore that you somehow feel that you have a community that interacts together. I think that’s a bit more important than the geographical; the geographical can be divided in any way (RP6: Editor).

As mentioned above, local media has traditionally been identified as a tool to emphasize the connections between people and a place, through its tendency to publish things of importance for the locality (Hess & Waller, 2017; Franklin, 2005; Lauterer, 2006). Local journalists and editors live and work in close proximity to their readers, while people depend on the local paper to connect with the area and each other, and to gain information that interests and affects them (Lauterer, 2006). Journalists discussed their interactions with local society as both relevant and unavoidable, since they depend on this connection with others to do their job. Furthermore, they talked about these exchanges as being essential for gaining ideas from, and initiating discussions in, the locality.

As a journalist, I think I’d rather not write about things that concern the area nearest to where I live. I think that’s too close to me, so it can be difficult for me to be objective, like when it’s as close as my children’s schools, or nursery. Therefore, I would rather not cover that. I think it’s better as a journalist to monitor other areas of the slightly wider local community, like issues at large in the region. But I would prefer not to write about things related to those very closest to me (RP7: Journalist).

Feelings of closeness. Feelings of closeness are, in some respects, linked to proximity, although where proximity denotes an actual physical closeness, feelings of closeness derive more from an emotional sense of how a person perceives closeness and what they feel as close to them. An important term in discussing feelings of closeness is “lokalanknytnig,” that is, “local attachment.” Readers explained that they felt a sense of closeness, or local attachment, to a certain area and what went on there. This attachment forms when a reader feels a connection to stories which contain something that affects them personally and, therefore, has meanings for them Hartley (2009).

For some, this local attachment came from the close physical proximity mentioned above but, for others, it was a connection to a place they had once lived, where their parents lived, or something they felt an affinity to. As Hess (2013) remarks about the “geo-social,” it comes from a “sense of place,” which might not necessarily be a physical space, but could also be a relational one.
Even those who report the news can make use of local attachment by adapting broader news articles to fit a local level, making them more relevant for their readers. Newspapers contain different sections to guide their readers to certain subject matters, and reinforce the feeling of closeness.

[…] is good at covering what’s happening locally, I really get the feeling that I know what is happening in […] by reading the newspaper. What they write about tends to be relevant to us who live in the city and not just meaningless chatter to fill the newspaper, I think that is good. Sometimes I see a news story that I read about in the DN [a national newspaper in Sweden] and SvD [a national newspaper in Sweden] that has been taken down to a local level in […] and I think that’s good because it gives a perspective on its significance locally. I really think they are good at making a local connection in the news and I think that means that it feels more like the news affects me; it makes the news more interesting for me as a reader (RP3: Woman, 26-40, bachelors-level education).

This local attachment creates a bond of intimacy between the news and the reader, as well as producing a sense of connectedness to the locality. This was noticeable in both the survey and the interviews. This feeling of closeness also generates ties of association in the places where people live and work, and those they share common experiences with (such as reading the same reports and being affected by them). Thus, it serves a social function by connecting people who read the same news stories. They become part of a mutual understanding in a shared context, which creates a common “us.”
The journalists and editors interviewed said that the most important thing local journalists should do was make their readers believe that the paper had a local affinity with them. The goal was to be perceived as being close to the readers, so they felt the coverage was meant for them and would feel close to the things reported. They said it was difficult for the news they reported to affect everyone who read it, but they tried to reach those people who were personally impacted by stories. They aimed to provide diverse content, to appeal to the wider public.

The best news is that kind that concerns lots of people (RP8: Journalist).

The practitioners stated that your immediate locality is the place where you are interested in the smaller issues and, within which a sense of belonging, “us,” is developed. This “us” has similar interests as a group and is (at least partly) affected by the same things. Local journalism also contributes towards creating the sense of local and regional because their choice of what to report or omit defines the boundaries of a perceived locality (Hanusch, 2015).

Shared interests. Events that occur in a person’s immediate vicinity are perceived by them as the most important (however, the definition of an “immediate vicinity” varies). The close locality, where an individual feels a sense of connectedness, a sense of engagement and a shared intersubjectivity, is the area they are most affected by in relation to smaller issues (such as the school their family members attend or local healthcare). These are examples of the elements the papers cover which influence people’s constructions of their perceived realities (Howley, 2005) People in the immediate area have some kind of fundamental common interests, including issues that are important to them, both as individuals and as group members. The more nearby the issues were, the more important they were perceived as.

For me, local journalism is important. It is important to be informed about events both in the world, in Sweden but also in my city […]. I believe that, as a citizen, I have a duty to be aware of what’s happening in my community locally, nationally, and worldwide. I also need to be informed because of my role as a teacher, in order to participate in discussions about what is happening, with both the children and my colleagues (RP9: Woman, 18-25, bachelors-level education).

Issues in the close locality, mediated through local media, offer a regional context, providing shared knowledge and conversation points. People get the information they feel they need, about the things they perceive to be relevant to them.

The local press is absolutely vital. Because you need to have a local attachment that makes it interesting for the individual. There are many big newspapers who write about things that are national and international, but I think it’s important to have the local perspective also and not to drop it (RP10: Woman, 26-40, masters-level education).

The practitioners asserted that journalism takes place in relation to the public and, therefore, the articles must have relevance for them. They said that a reporter’s purpose is to cover relevant and important issues – both those that are being talked about, and others – to help readers orient themselves in society.

I think if you read the local newspaper you expect it to be written for the readers at a close level. We are out where they are and we write about their schools, homes for the elderly, in a very close way, not only do we describe it in great detail, but we actually are out where they are. I definitely think the readers want us to be as involved as possible. If it’s something at an individual school we write about it, and perhaps it’s just the people who live there, in that particular area, who are really interested in it, but we write it for them and the next time we are in another area (RP6: Journalist).

The issues reported should be close to the readers and must resonate with them personally, according to the professionals. However, a recurrent theme that emerged in the interviews was a journalistic ambition to cover as much as possible of what was relevant to the people living in the local area. Two factors they considered in this were space and time, along with how many people were affected. The goal was to have a mix of these, since nothing would interest everybody, but some things interested some people. Above all, they felt there was a need to ensure local attachment, to make the news seem relevant.


This paper explores notions of shared intersubjectivity and engagement, in order to develop a deeper understanding of people who read their local newspapers (in the context of south Sweden), and how they create a sense of a dynamic “us” through that practice. This perception changes depending on the clusters formed around proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests.

The findings showed a sense of clusters forming around these concepts, both at an individual level, but also as group members, in people’s local areas. This point became apparent in earlier research which found that a shared sense of “us” was formed through dynamic relationships between people living within close proximity to each other and local news (French et al., 2014; Day 2006; Robinson, 2015; Hillery, 1955; Goe & Noonan, 2007; Tichenor et al., 1980). Some common elements of this sense of community and the notion of an “us” (for both consumers and producers) were shared values, ties to a geographic area, ties to each other, and social interactions.

These “us-ness” clusters are also generated by other key factors which were evident in both the literature and our interviews – common interests or issues, things that affect people as individuals, and as members of a group. Respondents felt that this created a sense of “us” and a dynamic cluster, where they could share patterns of association and engagement with other people in that same local proximity and context. This shows similarities with other researchers’ results – for instance, Tichenor et al. (1980) stated that shared associations interact when issues affect people as a group, while Hess (2013) asserted that news channels have an influential position on social flows in a local context.

Both proximity and a feeling of closeness were vital from the readers’ and the journalist’ points of view, as was a desire to connect. Readers want to read about things within close proximity that affect them, and journalists want to write about things that affect the readers in their own vicinity. This finding is supported by previous research about local and community newspapers (e.g. Hess &Waller, 2017; Franklin, 2005; Lauterer, 2006). Respondents explained that they felt this sense of connection through their engagement with, and links to, a geographic area; ties to each other through shared interests, work, lifestyle, culture etcetera.; and social interactions with each other within a group. These are the same criteria that Hillery (1955) considered necessary in order to have and reinforce a community – what we refer to as a dynamic cluster – and, through this, create a common “us.”
This creates connectedness to a locality, which aligns with the journalists’ belief that their task is to connect with the readers. News articles must be relevant for those who read them, but papers should still cover as many topics as possible, because not all the readers feel a connection to all the stories published, resulting in more generalist reporting.

By being part of the same news space and, particularly, reading news that affects them personally, readers form their own notion of a cluster or a group, a distinct “us,” while journalists must make assumptions about their intended public which help to create these clusters, by setting the agenda of what comprises a “newsworthy” story. In order to reinforce a successful community, it is important to know your audience and to choose which information to disseminate based upon that insight (Safko, 2012). People who read their local newspaper feel a connection to the locality, so these papers are important for engaging with and in the community, as Yamamoto (2011) notes. It helps people to form a collective around common values.

The sense of “us” and the clusters which arise from this, are dynamic and fluid, depending on proximity, feelings of closeness, and shared interests. It is also important to recognize that not all the people who read local news feel this way. However, the result is still significant, because many people who read the newspaper do see themselves as part of a collective, contributors to an “us.”
Similarly, journalists help to create the sense of a common “us” through their attempts to communicate with their readers as members of a group with common characteristics, such as shared interests. In this way, the journalists reinforce intersubjectivity, engagement, associations and the sense of a local “us.”


In this media-saturated, globalized world, journalists and newspapers need to understand how their readers cluster around particular interests in a local setting and how this creates a sense of “us-ness” in relation to others nearby. Since the focus here is local newspapers, there’s a given sense of content density. Because the media content must, in some way, relate to its audience. A local audience wants to learn about local news. However, relating to the news can create a sense of an “us.” Not only by publishing news of a certain local content density but how the news was presented and perceived.

In today’s media climate there is a lot to be said in regards of reader engagement, however this article strived to investigate how the reader perceives themselves and their community.

This study has identified the three dynamic key factors of local newspaper readership – proximity, feelings of closeness and shared interests. We have developed a conceptual

framework from this to understand the dynamic clustering of interests and feelings of closeness which are enacted by people living in the local community and through the relations between local newspapers, local journalists, and citizens. Local journalists and their journalistic practice can be seen as a catalyst in creating a sense of “us-ness.”

However, it is important to recognize that our findings were generated in a context where there is a strong and influential press, with high rates of newspaper subscriptions, in one area of Sweden. This represents an active readership, which the local press work hard to sustain. Not only by publishing news, the local press is also present in the society in other ways than just as a publisher, such as sponsoring events and cooperating actively with the municipalities and the other organizers in public events – which they use as part of sustaining their trademark and publicistic values.

It is still uncertain whether community is the right word to use in this context, due to the lack of clarity. We have chosen to include it mainly because it was the term readers used when describing themselves, and it matches previous research about what constitutes community.

Either way, there is a clear sense of an “us-ness,” or a dynamic clustering, which forms around the three dimensions described.
In order to develop this research further, one idea would be to use the same research design to discover how this interplay occurs in other parts of Sweden or within other Nordic countries, using this study as a basis. Another potential future line of inquiry would be to include younger people (aged 15-18), to ascertain how their use of local media differs in terms of engagement, intersubjectivity, and shared associations. In that case, it might be beneficial to adapt the research design according to the geo-social concept discussed by Hess and Waller (2013), because this might be even more relevant for young audiences’ media engagement in the digital world.

End Notes

  1. “Us”, from the Swedish word “vi”, here means the sense of belonging to a community of like-minded people.
  6. TS Media is an impartial media audit, which examines Swedish media and the media market.
  7. Kantar Sifo is a Swedish company that conducts market research, media and opinion polls.
  8. Nordicom is a Nordic knowledge center for media and communication, and it’s an institution within the Nordic council of ministers (Nordiska Ministerrådet).
  9. SCB, 2015.
  11. 11 Regpress, LNU.—gemensamma/regpress/regpress_preliminary-content-analysis-1.pdf
  13. The SOM Institute:
  14. through SurveyMonkey.
  15. The dominant regional media group.
  16. To ensure anonymity, survey, interview and focus group respondents are referred to as a numbered ‘RP’ instead of their name, and some socioeconomic details about them are provided for context.

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About the Authors

Emelie Kempe (main author) (Linnaeus University) can be reached at [email protected].

Annelie Ekelin (Senior Lecture, Linnaeus University) can be reached at [email protected].

Anette Forsberg (Senior Lecture, Linnaeus University) can be reached at [email protected].

Britt-Marie Ringfjord (Linnaus University) can be reached at [email protected].

Mats Wahlberg (Linnaeus University) can be reached at [email protected].

Bridgette Wessels (Professor, Glasgow University) can be reached at [email protected].

Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 9

The Reddit Oasis: Analyzing the potential role of location-based subreddits in the alleviation of news deserts

This mixed-method qualitative-quantitative content analysis examined if content posted to location-based pages on Reddit could alleviate the impact of news deserts. News deserts are areas where, due to newspaper closures and a lack of attention from television stations, a community has no regular news source. Six hundred posts across 20 location-based subreddits were coded based on FCC criteria for information needs. The results indicate content is primarily focused on emergencies and civic information.  

Many communities in the United States have been, and still are, experiencing a journalistic crisis in the form of news deserts (Abernathy, 2016). The term is used to define areas where, due to closures of newspapers and a lack of attention from television stations, a community is left with no regular publication of “credible and comprehensive news and information” as defined by the book The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts (Abernathy, 2016). The Southeastern U.S. has been hit the hardest by this phenomenon, with a total of 91 counties without any newspaper. The next-closest region is the Mountain West, with only 28 counties without a newspaper. No Southern state has been hit harder than Georgia. Georgia has 28 counties without a newspaper. That is more counties without a newspaper, either daily or weekly, than all of the West Coast, Mid-Atlantic, and New England states combined (Abernathy, 2018). From 2009 to 2018, the number of newspapers in Georgia decreased 21%, newspaper circulation declined 48%, all while the overall population of Georgia increased about 9.5%. The news deserts are often seen as the result of the chaotic, shifting nature of the modern news economy, one where newspapers have seen their traditional ways of making money shrink due to competition from the Internet and a changing reader base (Napoli et. al., 2019). As newspapers run out of money and close or become shells of their former selves, the areas they cover lose access to vital information.

The Federal Communications Commission and the University of Southern California released a report called “Review of Literature Regarding Critical Information Needs of the American Public” (Friedland et. al., 2012). In the report, the FCC and USC detail eight key needs that communities have that are fulfilled by local news outlets. Those are: access to clear and credible information during emergencies; access to health information; information about local schools and educational possibilities; information about transportation; short-term and long-term information about the environment and planning; economic information concerning development and opportunities; information about local civic institutions and interaction; and information about the local impact of state and federal-level political decisions. As local newspapers close and news deserts form, those key eight needs are left unfulfilled for millions of Americans (Abernathy, 2016). This has left many mass communication researchers searching for a solution to the news desert problem.

This is where Reddit comes into play. Reddit is one of the biggest digital spaces in the United States. As of March 2020, it is the sixth most-visited website in the U.S. (Alexa, 2020). The site, which might be most-accurately called a “social link aggregator,” is not one single thing, but rather a huge network of smaller topic-specific pages called “subreddits,” where people can post content, comment on other people’s content, and vote positively if they like that content and negatively if they do not (Widman, 2020). There are subreddits for any conceivable topic, from identifying insects to finding friends for table-top games to swimming pool maintenance. And, on Reddit, there are subreddits that have been made to represent geographic areas. Each of the 50 states within the U.S. has its own subreddit, many of which have more than 10 million subscribers. Within each state, there are anywhere from dozens to hundreds of subreddits made for cities, towns, and communities, and many of those subreddits are active hubs where users post about concerns they have in their local area, share stories, announce new restaurants, advertise garage sales, and post photos of lost pets. Within larger cities, there are subreddits dedicated just to specific neighborhoods. There is a ribbon of digital highway crossing the U.S. in the form of these location-based subreddits.

This study analyzed 30 of the top posts in 20 location-based subreddits in Georgia to see if the eight needs identified by the FCC and USC via Friedland et. al. (2012) are potentially being fulfilled by the content posted to those location-based subreddits. The study examined if the subreddits could organically create enough of the right kinds of information, not simply reposted from a local or regional newspapers, but original to the subreddit itself, to alleviate some of the lapses in critical information caused by news deserts.

Literature Review

Uses and Gratification Theory

From a theoretical standpoint, it is important to establish that there are specific needs associated with consuming local news. This study, which looks at the eight needs identified by the FCC and USC (Friedland, et. al., 2012), uses Uses and Gratifications Theory to support the concept of information as a human need. As it was articulated by Katz and Blumler (1974), Uses and Gratifications Theory outlines the reasons people consume media. Among the reasons are cognitive needs, affective needs, personal integrative needs, social integrative needs, and tension-free or entertainment needs. This study focuses on the cognitive, or informational, needs that are associated with news media.

Key to Uses and Gratification Theory is the idea of the active audience (Kaye & Johnson, 2002). Understanding the audience as a self-aware consumer was a departure from the media-effects focus of the 1940s. At that time, a person’s motivations were of less interest to researchers than the impact of media interaction. The shift to emphasizing individual’s goals and needs makes the theory uniquely suited for internet-based research. Uses and Gratifications research is adapting to the changing media landscape. Sundar and Limperos (2013) argue that the not all gratifications are the direct result of need and that technology can change a person’s needs. They point out that the type of engagement used with online media requires more active interaction and selection of content than traditional media. Ruggiero (2000) said that while the question remains the same – why do people use one form of communication over another – there are new concepts that need consideration in our understanding of Uses and Gratification. He introduced these additional concepts: interactivity, demassification, hypertextuality, asynchroneity and interpersonal aspects of mediated communication. He also pointed out that Uses and Gratifications Theory provided a “cutting edge” theoretical approach for new media (27). Use of the internet, and by extension a location-based subreddit, may therefore be best interpreted through a Uses and Gratifications lens.

News Deserts

News deserts are geographic areas where key issues and events are no longer covered journalistically in daily or weekly newspapers or via dedicated professional news websites (Abernathy, 2016). From 2008 to 2018, more than one in five newspapers ceased operation. The newspaper closures have disproportionately been in areas not typically serviced by either larger metro daily newspapers or local TV news stations.

As Abernathy (2018) describes it, the news deserts are expanding quickly in areas that may have vastly different demographics from one another, from inner-city neighborhoods to affluent suburbs on the periphery of metro areas to rural agricultural towns. Those areas were once serviced by smaller local publications, but since 2004, almost 1,800 local newspapers have shut down. The reasons for this sharp decline are primarily economic. Newspaper circulation over the last 15 years has decreased from 122 million to 73 million, and decreasing circulation means less advertising revenue. Demographically, people who live in the counties that are considered either total news deserts or emerging news deserts have a five percentage-point higher rate of poverty, have a medium income $14,000 lower, and have a 14 percentage-point lower rate of people with a college degree. The lower income also means less advertising revenue for a newspaper or news product wishing to operate within that area. The period of growth for news deserts also correlates with the trend of newspapers being purchased by larger and larger chains that consolidate, and to make up for the cost of consolidation, tend to cut reporters, editors and photographers, along with shutting down bureau offices and constricting coverage area (Fox, 2019).

The shutdown of thousands of local papers has left 3,143 counties in the U.S. without a single newspaper or dedicated news website devoted to specifically covering issues within that county (Abernathy, 2018). That is not to say that every area noted in the data on news deserts is without a newspaper. One of the newest areas of analysis in studying news deserts is that of the “ghost paper.” A ghost paper is defined as a small weekly or daily newspaper that still publishes, but whose budget is no longer big enough to perform proper journalistic coverage (Abernathy, 2018). Ghost papers often carry an excess of wire copy and may be limited to only one or two stories written by local reporters per edition.

Abernathy (2018) points out that television news does not combat the problem of news deserts. Although local television news does cover stories from news desert areas, there are two problems. One is that TV content from news desert areas tends to be limited to only one or two stories per broadcast, as TV news stations tend to keep their reporters close to their main metro area. The other is that the few stories they cover from news desert areas are almost always limited to four topics: crime, weather, sports, and soft features.

The way news deserts impact society is still being actively researched. The growth of news deserts is impacting the entire “news ecosystem” (Miller, 2018). Miller (2018), through a series of interviews with editors and journalists, notes that important investigative reporting often begins with otherwise mundane city council meetings, school board meetings, and zoning meetings. This is reflective of the role of journalists as watchdogs and journalism as having a key role in democracy (Roughton, 2019). News deserts tend to have lower voter turnout, leading to questions about the press and the long-term health of an informed electorate (Abernathy, 2016). Areas where news coverage declines tend to see an increase in government inefficiency and municipal borrowing (Gao, Lee & Murphy, 2018). Even physical health is affected. Health researchers and epidemiologists often study local news content when analyzing areas at risk of serious health outbreaks, which means those very same epidemiologists are less able to quickly target said outbreaks (Branswell, 2018).

There is compelling research on inventive ways to “fix” the problem of news deserts. Some work has focused on the need to better assess the nature of local journalism, focusing on infrastructure of news production, the output of news, and the quality of said news coverage (Napoli, et. al., 2016). Some researchers have attempted to more clearly understand the informational need gaps when news in an area is lacking by assessing different models of need (Watson & Cavanah, 2015). Dedicated online news sites have been a hopeful solution, but many are short-lived, and those that survive tend to be clustered close to metro areas already serviced by a larger daily newspaper or TV news (Abernathy, 2018; Nygren, Leckner & Tenor, 2018). This study is a continuation of the work into what options may exist to “fix” news deserts, as it examined the potential of Reddit, with its myriad location-based subreddits and democratic system of posting content, to act as a method of fulfillment of the needs of communities that were once filled by local newspapers.

This research also shares some commonalities with researching examining user-generated content, which is sometimes referred to as citizen journalism or participatory journalism. User-generated content is the processing and distribution of news-related content that was originally created not by a professional, trained journalist, but instead by someone from the audience (Paulussen & Ugille, 2008; Lewis, Kaufhold & Lasorsa, 2010). User-generated content could be anything from a photograph of storm damage posted to a news outlet’s Facebook page to a full solicited article of a city council meeting. Professional reaction to user-generated content is inconsistent. Lewis et al. (2010) found that editors who disapprove of user-generated content did so on two differing grounds: theoretical and practical. For theoretical, the issue was a concern over amateurization of the industry, and for the practical, it would take too much work to make sure the content met professional standards.

However, one important distinction between this research, which looked at Reddit, and pure user-generated content, is that UGC involves a central, controlled organizational structure. The question of community news publications relying on UGC, by default, involves a conversation about the centralized structure and what it chooses to distribute. With Reddit, there is no central authority beyond the moderators and site administrators, neither of which approach the centralized role of an editor.


Reddit is neither a social media platform nor a forum, neither a news website nor a message board. There is no single, central “Reddit.” Instead, the website is constructed out of more than 500,000 “subreddits,” or smaller sites dedicated to specific topics (Widman, 2020). Each “subreddit” is identified in the URL of the website by the notation “/r/,” which has led to the popular nomenclature of including the “/r/” in the name of the overall subreddit. Each subreddit can be subscribed to by people who have signed up and made an account with Reddit. Once they have subscribed to that subreddit, they will see content from that subreddit in their main feed, like the “wall” of a social media site. The subreddits range in size from the gigantic /r/funny, a very general subreddit made for posting funny photos with about 30 million subscribers as of April 2020, to /r/slowcooking, where people share Crock Pot recipes, with about 2 million subscribers, to smaller subreddits of increasingly niche topics with fewer subscribers.

The uniqueness of Reddit comes from the way users interact with it. Users have the option to post items to subreddits of their choosing, with the options being a text post, an image post, or a link. A text post is like a blog. The content will show up with a headline for others to read and a body of text written by whoever posted it. An image post is an uploaded photograph or video clip, or one linked from an independent hosting site like Imgur, where other users can click a small icon and make the image or video itself appear without having to go to another page. A link post is a hyperlink to another, outside website.

Reddit is very popular. According to Alexa (2020), Reddit is the sixth most-visited website in the U.S. based on unique page views. According to their own internal data, Reddit regularly averages 234 million unique users and 8 billion page views a month (Smith, 2018). The numbers alone indicate that Reddit has the potential to act as a powerful digital space. It has more people visiting, sharing, clicking, and reading than any news site. Yet there have been comparatively few academic studies examining Reddit, using it as a basis for an online, digital space in the same way sites like Facebook and Twitter have been examined.

Research Questions

The study progressed with two research questions:

RQ1: Do location-based subreddits contain user-created information in ways that fulfills the needs that community newspapers once did?

RQ2: What needs and sub-needs, as categorized by the FCC and USC (Friedland, 2012), are being fulfilled by location-based subreddits?


This study was conducted as a mixed-method quantitative and qualitative content analysis. First, a sample was formed. This study focused on Georgia because of the research that shows the Peach State has more news deserts than any other state both in raw number and per-capita (Abernathy, 2018). A list of all location-based subreddits was found on the subreddit called “/r/LocationReddits.” Each subreddit listed as being in Georgia was checked, and if there had been at least one post made to the subreddit within the last week, the Georgian subreddit was included in the sample. Having at least one new post within a week showed that the subreddit was at least somewhat active. Twenty subreddits qualified to be included. They are: /r/Alpharetta, /r/Athens, /r/Augusta, /r/CarrolltonGeorgia, /r/Cartersville, /r/CherokeeCountyGA, /r/ColumbusGA, /r/DaltonGA, /r/DecaturGA, /r/Gwinnett, /r/JohnsCreek, /r/Macon, /r/Marietta, /r/Pooler, /r/Newnan, /r/RomeGA, /r/Roswell, /r/Savannah, /r/Smyrna, and /r/Valdosta. The number of posts made in the last week during the period of time where these subreddits were evaluated on their activity level ranged from a single post on five of the subreddits, to Savannah, with 37 new posts in the previous week.

There was one large subreddit that was not used in this study: /r/Atlanta. When examined, /r/Atlanta had more than 300 posts in the previous week, making it quite active. But the intention of this study is to examine the potential for geographically based subreddits to potentially alleviate the problem of news deserts. Atlanta, as a major metropolitan hub, is the center of a large TV market, and has plenty of available news media. It was therefore excluded from the sample. The Atlanta subreddit lists other neighborhood-specific subreddits like /r/Midtown and /r/BuckheadGA, but none of them except /r/DecaturGA met the criteria of having at least one new post in the previous week.

Once the 20 subreddits were picked, the top-30 most-upvoted posts in the history of the subreddit were screen-captured in order to save and analyze. One post was considered one unit of measure. The screen-capturing occurred in January 2020. It is important to note that while coding and analysis was occurring in March and April 2020, a cursory look at the subreddits in the sample revealed that some posts about that city or county’s response to COVID-19 had made their way into the top-30 posts by upvote. If analyzed in April 2020, the sample would likely result in more items coded in the “health” category. The top-30 all-time posts were picked instead of the 30 most-recent posts in order to get a better sense of the kinds of content that the subreddit values the most and potentially sees the most importance in. It also helps avoid issues where a single recent news event dominates the entire subreddit. Each of the 20 subreddits in the sample were assigned a “desert score.” This was based on the UNC county-by-county data and was a number of how many newspapers, both daily and weekly, exist in the county (Abernathy, 2018). Five of the subreddits scored a 1 on the “desert score,” indicating they had only one newspaper left serving the whole county, something the UNC data notes as being high risk for becoming a total news desert. Three of the subreddits in the sample, /r/Alpharetta, /r/JohnsCreek, and /r/Roswell, had a desert score of 11, meaning there are 11 different newspapers within that county, the highest in the entire state of Georgia. That was because they are geographically within Fulton County, which is also one of the main counties Atlanta is in, and most of those 11 publications within the data are based in Atlanta.

Another important distinction with the sample involves the geography of Atlanta’s suburban sprawl. The Atlanta Regional Commission (2021) recognizes 10 counties that together compose the Atlanta metropolitan area: Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, and Rockdale. Some subreddits in the sample come from areas that are designated as existing within the Atlanta metro area, such as /r/Gwinnett in Gwinnett County, and /r/Marietta and /r/Smyrna in Cobb County. Those areas are within the coverage area of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, however because the AJC is not located within Cobb County, it does not register as a news outlet in the news desert data.

Information about the subreddits in the sample, as well as their desert scores and population, can be found in Table 1.


Table 1


Subreddits used in the sample of this study and information about the real-world location and subreddit activity.

Subreddit name Real-world county News desert status Subreddit subscribers County population Posts to subreddit in week before data collection
/r/Alpharetta Fulton 11 1,696 57,551 6
/r/Athens Clarke 2 6,511 125,964 25
/r/Augusta Richmond 3 3,471 195,844 18
/r/Carrollton Carroll 2 205 24,388 1
/r/Catersville Bartow 3 244 19,731 2
/r/CherokeeCountyGA Cherokee 2 465 254,149 1
/r/Columbus Muscogee 2 1,376 189,885 6
/r/DaltonGA Whitfield 1 369 33,500 2
/r/DecaturGA DeKalb 1 1,230 19,335 1
/r/Gwinnett Gwinnett 1 3,547 927,781 14
/r/JohnsCreek Fulton 11 238 76,738 2
/r/Macon Bibb 1 1,030 153,095 3
/r/Marietta Cobb 1 1,983 60,806 3
/r/Pooler Chatham 4 208 19,414 3
/r/Newnan Coweta 2 428 33,039 1
/r/RomeGA Floyd 1 448 36,303 2
/r/Roswell Fulton 11 1,227 88,346 1
/r/Savannah Chatham 4 7,100 136,286 37
/r/Smyrna Cobb 1 677 51,265 2
/r/Valdosta Lowndes 1 460 54,518 2


It is important to note that the Columbia Journalism Review has collected their own data on how many newspapers exist in each county, but they only have data on daily newspapers, not weekly newspapers (Applegate & Hoffman, 2017). Since smaller rural communities are disproportionately impacted by expanding news deserts (Abernathy, 2014), and many of the subreddits in the sample are for smaller rural areas, data on the number of weekly newspapers that often operate in these areas was needed for comparison. Another important note is that there are recorded criticisms of Abernathy’s (2008) news desert data. One of the more prominent concerns shared by the Georgia Press Association is that Abernathy (2008) does not include newspapers that exist to publish government-mandated legal notices (Williams, 2020). Abernathy has responded that those publications do not meet the FCC’s criteria for a newspaper. This study used the same FCC criteria, and as such, would not have included those publications as functioning news outlets.

Next, a codebook was developed to help shape the qualitative assessment at the individual post level. First, it was noted if each post on the given subreddit was a text post, an image post, or a hyperlink. If the post was a hyperlink, it was noted if the hyperlink went to a news website or not. If the post went to a news website, it was noted what kind of news was being linked, namely to determine if the news outlet being linked to the subreddit was from a local source, a regional source, or a national source. This determination was important, because if a geographical subreddit is only acting as a conduit for what a local newspaper is publishing, it is not really acting to alleviate the problem of news deserts. This study was fundamentally examining if these subreddits were acting as their own generators of news and information that could fulfill the needs noted by the Friedland et. al., (2012) study. Finally, the needs and sub-needs from that report were noted. Coders were asked to identify if the post contained information pertaining to: emergencies and public safety, health, education, transportation, environment and planning, economic development, civic information, or political life. Each one of those eight needs also had a list of sub-needs as noted in the FCC and USC research (Friedland et. al., 2012), and coders were asked to pick the sub-need that best applied or note “other” when necessary. Coders were told they could select more than one need being fulfilled by the same post, but they were asked to explain their decision in the codebook. Coders were asked to write a short description explaining the topic of the post and how it fit within the sub-need, or if it did not fit within a listed sub-need, why it still should be considered as fulfilling a need.

Intercoder reliability was tested using two trained independent coders who cross-coded three posts from each subreddit, for a total of 60 posts. First, the numeric overlap was scored as if it were a quantitative content analysis. Those numbers indicated agreement at 93%. The justifications for noting a sub-need were also compared. Although this qualitative component was not calculated mathematically, the coders agreed in their justifications in 56 of the 60 tested posts.


A total of 600 posts were coded, 30 from each of the 20 subreddits. Of the 600 coded posts, 201 (33.5%) were text posts, 224 (37.3%) were image posts, and 175 (29.1%) were hyperlinks. Although the proportion of type of post appears even when looking at the dataset as a whole, once broken down into individual location-based subreddit, differences do appear. Of the 30 coded posts from /r/Savannah, 27 (90%) were image posts. And, of those image posts, most fulfilled no informational need. Almost all of them were either memes containing inside jokes about the area or were simple photographs showing off the beauty of the historic areas of the city. The same trend is seen is some of the other location-based subreddits in more populated areas. In /r/Augusta, 24 (80%) of the posts were image posts, and in /r/Athens, 21 (70%) were image posts. In general, the more populated subreddits relied more on image posts, while smaller subreddits had an even split, and the smallest subreddits tended to have more text posts. This appears to be more connected to the given location being one with a higher volume of tourism in a more tightly centered metro area than any other variable, as Savannah is known for its history and architecture, Augusta for the Masters Tournament, and Athens for the University of Georgia and its music scene.

First, some of the quantitative components of the content analysis will be addressed. Of the eight needs examined from Friedland et al. (2012), there was a divide between four needs that were popular on the subreddits, and four that were not. Of the 600 total coded posts, 338 were identified as fulfilling the eight needs. Breaking that down, 101 posts (16.8%) contained information that could be identified as fulfilling the need for information on emergencies and public safety, followed by 69 (11.5%) that fulfilled the need for civic information, 48 (8%) that fulfilled the need for economic information, and 40 (6.6%) that fulfilled the need for political information. Those four needs represent the most popular. The four needs that were less fulfilled were transportation information with 24 posts (4%), information on education and schools with 20 posts (3.3%), health information with 19 posts (3.1%), and environmental information with 17 posts (2.8%).

However, it is important to note that some of those posts which were coded as fulfilling one of Friedland et. al.’s (2012) needs were posts that were hyperlinks back to existing news websites. For the purposes of this study, those must be accounted for, as they do not represent a subreddit organically fulfilling the role that either a closed community newspaper or a ghost newspaper once filled. At that point, the subreddit is acting as a conduit for existing news coverage, meaning they are not alleviating the problem of news deserts. Of the 600 coded posts, 163 (27%) were identified as coming from existing news sites. Of the 163 linked news sites 40 (24.5%) went to local newspapers, 30 (18.4%) went to local news websites, 37 (22.6%) went to local TV stations, 25 (15.3%) went to regional newspapers, 19 (11.6%) went to regional news websites, and 12 (7.3%) went to national news websites. None of the 600 coded posts linked to national newspapers or national TV news outlets. The most prominent single news source was the Atlanta Journal Constitution, even in southern areas of the state such as Valdosta and Macon, which are 228 miles and 83 miles from the Atlanta metropolitan area respectively.

The goal of this study was not just to count how many posts qualified as fulfilling the needs defined by Friedland et. al. (2012), but to qualitatively examine how qualifying posts are potentially fulfilling the sub-topics of those needs defined in the same research. To do this, the results will now be broken up by need, with sub-needs analyzed within. They will be ordered from most-fulfilled need to least-fulfilled need.

Emergencies and Public Safety. Information on emergencies and public safety was by-far the most-posted form of information fulfillment. Of the 101 coded posts, 49 were posted organically from non-news sources. Breaking the sub-topics down further, of the 101 posts that fulfilled the need for information on emergencies and public safety, 53 (52.4%) involved policing and crime, 11 (10.8%) involved outbreaks, 7 (6.9%) involved Amber Alerts, 6 (5.9%) involved dangerous weather, 1 (0.9%) involved terrorism, and 21 (20.7%) were counted as “other.” Many of the reported “others” were people upset over a run-away pet, often posting photos and contact information and asking if anyone has seen it to let them know.

The most common context for policing and crime was people reporting crimes or posting evidence of crimes. The nature of these crimes ranged from car burglaries to shootings. This follows one of the norms of traditional journalistic coverage, where crime is often disproportionately covered. Ironically, the subreddits, despite not being traditional news, followed those same trends. There was also an element of breaking news and usefulness to the reader in some of the posts, as can be seen below in Figure 1, where a user is warning others who might live in the Blanton Street neighborhood of Valdosta to stay indoors because of a shooting.

Figure 1

This is the same kind of content, with the same applicability, that one might find on the website of a local news website, however the information was reported organically by a Reddit user. The language is less professional, as a trained professional reporter would not likely say victims are “probably dead,” but if the end goal is to keep people away from a dangerous area, then the post is fulfilling that need.

Civic Information. Of the 69 posts that fulfilled the need for civic information, 50 (72.4%) were posted organically from non-news sources, making it one of the most organic categories in information sharing. Of the 69 posts, 42 (60.8%) were coded as recreational opportunities, 8 (11.5%) were coded as culture and arts, 4 (5.7%) involved non-profit organizations, 4 (5.7%) involved social service programs, and 10 (14.4%) were coded as “other.” There were no posts about libraries, churches, or other religious institutions. The vast majority of information fulfillment in this was people posting things to do, and most of that involved real-world meet-ups or events of some kind. And along with that, most of the coded “others” were people inquiring about non-specific recreational opportunities, which was not enough to qualify it as describing a recreational activity but is still similar. An example of a recreational opportunity post can be seen below in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Although there are clear holes in how location-based subreddits are conveying civic information, the kinds of content that is being posted in regard to recreational opportunities mimics the kinds of coverage one might see in an “events calendar” section of a community or newspaper. The posts contained information about who will be there, what the event is, where it is, and when it will start.

Economic Development. Economic development was the first of the coded Friedland et. al. (2012) topics to be diverse in the qualification of sub-needs. Of the 48 posts that fulfilled the need for information on economic development, 22 (45.8%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 48 posts, 24 (50%) were coded as “other,” 15 (31.2%) were coded as economic development, 5 (10.4%) were coded as job opportunities, and 3 (6.2%) were coded as small business information. None were coded as information on job training or retraining. The “other” categorization required a deeper look. There were two distinct themes in the posts coded “other.” The first were announcements of new businesses opening that did not specify that they were hiring, because if they were hiring, they would have been coded as “job opportunities.” The second were posts about local established vendors who set up during art festivals, parades, farmer’s markets, etc. An example of this can be seen in Figure 3 below.

Figure 3

Political Life. The political information category was also diverse. Of the 40 posts that fulfilled the need for information about political life, 20 (50%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 40 posts, 10 (25%) were coded as being about voting and elections, 7 (17.5%) were about public meetings and outcomes, 6 (15%) were about city council or council elections, 3 (7.5%) were about state-level issues, 2 (5%) were about county government, 1 (2.5%) was about neighborhood councils, 1 (2.5%) was about political regions within a city, and 9 (22.5%) were coded “other.”

One of the most popular topics posted about in this sub-need that were not from existing news sources was how to register to vote, where to look up your voting location, and where to check if your voter’s registration is still valid. This represents a utility use, users of these location-based subreddits posting this information are providing crucial information to potential voters. There may likely be people who have participated in elections for the first time because they saw information on how to register, or were reminded about upcoming elections. This can be seen in Figure 4 below.

Figure 4

Transportation Systems. Of the 24 posts that fulfilled the need for information on transportation systems, 19 (79.1%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of those 24 posts, 9 (37.5%) were coded as traffic and road conditions, 4 (16.6%) were coded as mass transportation, 3 (12.5%) were coded as debate over growth, and 7 (29.1%) were coded as “other.”

The most common topic in this sub-need was complaining about traffic backups, potholes, speeders, and flooding roadways. There were more posts about these complaints than were officially coded as such, because many of the posts were memes joking about falling into potholes or people who ignore riders in bike lanes. These posts that were purely jokes and memes were not coded as information fulfillment, as they are not informative. However, if they contained either some form of geographic-based warning, such as a joke about how much longer it will take someone to get to work now that so-and-so road is closed for repair, then it was included. Figure 5 represents one of these posts. The language of the headline is pointed and joking, implying that drivers in Alpharetta do not know how to properly use a roundabout. However, the linked image itself is a non-joking informational graphic about the etiquette of entering and exiting a roundabout. Despite the joking headline, this could clearly be seen as fulfilling an informational need for some.

Figure 5

Education. One of the most difficult categories to code was the education category. Of the 20 posts that fulfilled the need for information on education, 6 (30%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 20 posts, 5 (25%) were coded on the quality of schools, and each of the following were coded with 1 (5%) post each: teacher performance, student academic achievement, school curricula, job training, and higher education. The criteria of school funding and school choice were not selected, and 9 (45%) posts were coded “other.” This represents one of the highest percentages of “other” within the sample.

All five of the posts on school quality came from existing local news sources, and all five were simple news stories about the “grades” of local high schools. Despite Reddit being popular with college-aged people, there was almost nothing about higher education. This is interesting, as the sample included subreddits with prominent universities within their geographic area, such as the University of Georgia, Augusta University, Georgia Southern University, the Savannah College of Art and Design, the University of West Georgia, and Valdosta State University, among others. One interpretation of this is that those universities have their own subreddits dedicated to them. The kinds of content organically posted was scattered and hard to find any useful commonalities besides posting about training sessions and community classes. This can be seen below in Figure 6.

Figure 6

Health. Health, despite not coming up very often, was also one of the more diverse categories. Of the 19 posts that fulfilled the need for information on health, 7 (36.8%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 19 posts, 5 (26.3%) were coded as the spread of disease and vaccinations, 4 (21%) were coded as local health campaigns, 2 (10%) were coded as health programs and services, 2 (10%) were coded as availability of care, 1 (5.2%) was coded as family and public health, and 5 (26.3%) were coded as “other.”

Although information about diseases and vaccinations was the most-coded sub-need, all of the posts in that category went back to existing news websites. It was the “other” where this category showed its potential as a form of information spread. The “others” were often in the form of warnings, such as someone eating at a restaurant and falling ill. One example of useful organic information in this category can be seen in Figure 7 below, where a Reddit user has gone to the Cherokee County’s department of health website, collected public data on restaurants with failing health inspection grades, compiled it into a single document, converted that document into an image, and posted it to /r/CherokeeCountyGA. This is important, as it represents a user of this subreddit’s willingness to take action to share crucial information that otherwise sits on a government website. It is this user acting almost as a journalist.

Figure 7

Environment and Planning. Information on the environment and planning was the least-posted form of information fulfillment. Of the 17 posts that fulfilled the need for information on the environment and planning, 7 (41.1%) were posted organically from non-news sources. Of the 17 posts, 5 (29.4%) were coded as environmental problems, 5 (29.4%) were coded as natural habitats for recreation, 2 (11.7%) were coded as natural resource development, 1 (5.8%) was coded as water and air quality, and 1 (5.8%) was coded as environmental hazards, while only 2 (11.7%) were coded as “other.”

The categorization of these sub-needs posed a similar challenge to the sub-need of transportation. Many of the organic posts were photographs of walking trails or parks with a headline talking about how nice of a day it was. Those were not coded as being informative. However, if a post contained a photo of a walking trail and had information about where to access the trial, or how much access costs, or the conditions of the trail, that was coded as fulfilling a need. An important example of this information fulfillment can be seen in Figure 8, where someone has posted a video on how to maneuver hydraulic currents in a kayak after two kayakers died at a popular area known as “Redneck Beach” in Athens.

Figure 8

Discussion and Conclusions

R1: Do location-based subreddits contain user-created information in ways that fulfills the needs that community newspapers once did?

The results of this study indicate that although location-based subreddits are not functioning in a way to act as a one-for-one replacement for local newspapers, they do show potential to serve as a way for people to share important information about happenings in their communities, and some people are already using them in this way. There was a particular emphasis on utility. From health information about which restaurants to avoid, to how to properly maneuver a roundabout, to warnings about avoid an area after a shooting, there was content posted that a reporter for a local newspaper could easily have crafted into a news story, vetted through sources and written in newswriting style. However, the subreddits also have an issue of over-emphasis on certain topics. This will be discussed with R2.

R2: What needs and sub-needs, as categorized by the FCC and USC (Friedland, 2012), are being fulfilled by location-based subreddits?

In the same way that television news has been identified as not alleviating news deserts because they focus on crime, weather, sports and soft stories too often, perhaps the same criticism can be leveled at these location-based subreddits for focusing so much on two main topics – emergencies and civic information. And within those needs, there were very clear trends in the sub-needs. For emergencies, it was crime. What constitutes “crime” coverage was more nuanced, however. The content ranged from someone asking for help finding a stolen bike, to warning others that people are breaking into cars on a specific street, to something as serious as warning others to stay away from an area where a shooting has occurred and an armed suspect is still on the loose. The latter was likely covered by journalists in the area, but the timing on the post in Figure 1 indicates that this was a breaking event, and the post was made before journalists had the time to report on it. For civic information, it was recreational opportunities – things to do around the community. Although some may see this as “soft news,” as our society grows more and more alienated, location-based subreddits acting as the events calendar in place of a shuttered or ghost local newspaper can possibly help alleviate at least some of that problem.

Some needs and sub-needs are clearly not being met by these location-based subreddits. Environmental issues were barely discussed, and the ones that were tended to be lighthearted information about local outdoors recreation. As our society faces the impact of climate change and global warming, people in smaller communities are going to need access to credible, vetted information. Health was also barely covered. One common element of both health and environment as topics that perhaps explains why they were posted about less is that they are difficult topics that require some scientific knowledge to be able to convey the seriousness of the issues. Although this was stated earlier, the researchers would like to reiterate that the data for this study was collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic taking full hold in the United States, and they recognize that if the data were collected today, coronavirus alone would likely be enough to increase the number of health articles.

The topic areas that were lacking in the sample also represent one of the issues that other researchers have found with user-generated content: some journalism requires access or knowledge that tends to only be bestowed to journalists (Lewis, Kaufhold & Lasorsa, 2010). Although Georgia’s robust public record laws allow all citizens access to government records, few are trained in the procedure to procure them in the way journalists are taught. That means that someone might post that a shooting has just occurred down the street and people should stay away from that area on a community subreddit, but that person is less likely to go and request an arrest report, or record interviews with police or neighbors about what happened, or go cover the ensuing criminal trial. The results indicate that community Reddit have enormous potential for fulfilling an overall “witness,” role of journalism, but less potential for the “watchdog” role without training or incentive for follow-up. The content that was the most prevalent tended to be the content that could be obtained and posted with little effort. However, there was one post that bucked that trend: the post by the individual in /r/CherokeeCountyGA who collected the failed health inspection reports of local restaurants and posted them together as one homemade database.

This research area needs to be continued in two directions. One is on the audience side. A survey should be conducted of the users of these location-based subreddits to better understand how and why they use them. That would not only help people studying news deserts get a better sense of what people are doing in areas of emerging news deserts, but would also help expand our understanding of Uses and Gratification Theory in the wider world of mass communication. The second is using the setup for this study and applying it to larger cities with established media environments to be able to compare and contrast the differences in location-based subreddits in areas with plentiful media versus areas without.

There are several important limitations that should be noted aside from the standard limitations of content analysis – the sample could always be larger. One important limitation to the long-term implication of the findings is that the researchers did not attempt to vet the information in the sample. Whereas a professional journalist working for a local newspaper will assumedly be working under professional norms and ethical guidelines, someone posting information to the location-based subreddits might be plagiarizing or fabricating the information they post. Such actions would mean that the location-based subreddits are not actually fulfilling the duty needed to act as replacement form of news within a news desert.

As news deserts continue to expand, mass communication researchers must get ahead of the problem and be able to not just assess the impact they have on communities, but also understand ways of reversing and healing those impacts. The results of this study could very well help guide the development of a training program for citizen journalists to use location-based subreddits as a platform for their work.


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About the Authors

Jeffrey K. Riley is an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University

Holly S. Cowart is a lecturer at Georgia Southern University

The Reddit Oa
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.

Works Cited

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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

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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

Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 6

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

Marcus Funk

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

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

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


Gatekeeping Theory & Normative Deviance

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

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

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

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

News Factors

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

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

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

Community Journalism

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

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

Research Questions

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Word Dictionaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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About the Author

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

Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 6

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

Dianne M. Garyantes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community, Community Journalism, and Cultural Competence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural competence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research Questions

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Factors Influencing the Cultural Competence of Student Journalists

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

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

Relying on Journalistic Norms and Routines: An Objective Approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Over-Reliance on Norms And Routines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evidence of Previously Identified Dimensions of Cultural Competence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion and Implications

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

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

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

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

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

Future Research and Limitations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author

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



Community Journalism Journal Issue 1 Volume 6

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

J. David Wolfgang and Joy Jenkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literature Review

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

Journalists’ Conceptions of Audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Roles and Functions of City Magazines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research Questions

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

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

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


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

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

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

Site Description

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

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

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


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

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

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

Research Stance

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

Data Analysis

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

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


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

Connecting Audience and Advertising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Function of Midwest Monthly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Public service versus market orientation

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

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

Journalists’ conception of audience

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

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

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

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

Imagined communities

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

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

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

City magazine functions

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

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

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

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

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

About the Authors

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

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