Metro dailies now want to do community journalism

If your teenager takes a bite of dinner and announces that the dish is “sick,” don’t be upset. Sick is a good thing in teenlanguage. It means cool.

As writers, we know that the general semanticists are certainly right when they say that words don’t have meanings — only people have meanings. And meanings change.

King George I of England once looked at the architecture of St. Paul’s Cathedral and told Sir Christopher Wren that his work was “amusing, awful, and artificial.” Wren was delighted. In that day, amusing meant amazing, awful meant awe-inspiring and artificial meant artistic.

Words and definitions certainly aren’t static, but a lot of us didn’t anticipate a change in the meaning of community journalism.

According to Bill Reader of the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, the term “community journalism” is at least 50 years old. It was first used by Kenneth Byerly at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who taught a course — and wrote a textbook — by that name.

And though scholars have written many pages on just what community journalism is, most of us have always seen it as journalism that’s tied to a community — most frequently a smaller town or suburb, but also other types of communities, like the Jewish community or the farming community or a religious or political community.

At the other end of the spectrum were metro dailies. They served large groups and covered news of interest to the city as a whole, including news of the state and the nation and the world.

But remember that word meanings change. Community journalism is no longer associated merely with rural areas, small towns and specialized groups. Now even large media companies realize that community journalism is where it’s at.

What newspapers are turning to community journalism?

The New York Times, for one. Check out this hyper-local Times-sponsored blog. It’s even called The Local.

The editor, Andy Newman, kicked off the first edition with an introductory piece that could have appeared in any small town in Texas:

Welcome to our big little experiment.

Greetings, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. This is your Local speaking. Soon, we hope, you will talk back to it.

Starting today, The Local is an online news site for these communities. But if we build it right together, The Local will be something much more: a glorious if cacophonous chorus of your voices singing the song of life itself in these astoundingly varied and vibrant neighborhoods.

With your input, The Local will tell stories that matter: crime and politics and culture and civic life and everything else. Some stories will be snapshots, mere moments. Others will unfold over days or weeks or marking periods – the birth pangs of a food coop or a high school newspaper, the aftermath of a crime, and, as the unstoppable wave of local gentrification crashes into the unstoppable wave of global economic meltdown, an ever-growing tale of loss and struggle.

Through all this, I will be your co-curator, moderator, referee and Local recruiter. I will also be doing old-fashioned journalism. Because my affiliation means that I can usually get city agencies to at least take my calls, and because I have all day to devote to this stuff, I might be able to get help and answers where you have hit walls.

And that’s not just The New York Times; the Chicago Tribune is also launching a community journalism site, along with a growing list of other metros.

So if community journalism can be practiced in the city or in the country, at a large paper or small, and on the Web or in the dead-tree editions, what then are the real defining characteristics of community journalism?

All I can do is to start the answer and trust the Texas journalism community to add to it, but let’s begin with these bedrock characteristics of what we can call community journalism:

Community journalism is personal. If you’re never likely to run into the people you write about or interview, it isn’t community journalism. If you’re writing about — and for — the folk you attend church with or buy your groceries from or who coach your kid’s Little League team, you’re in community journalism. Besides, in community journalism people can walk right into the newsroom and tell you what they’re thinking.

If you want to cover the complete pageant of your community’s life, what has been called “micronews,” you’re involved in community journalism. Sure, you cover the city council, but you also chronicle high school sports and local church news and the winners of the Bridge tournament and the women’s club meetings and the lunch menus at the elementary school.

Community journalism means you care about what happens in the community. I love the motto of the Mason Valley (Nevada) News: “The only newspaper in the world that gives a damn about Yerrington.” The contents of your paper and Website aren’t just stories, they represent news that can build people up or tear them down. Sometimes you have to uncover wrongdoing, but you don’t do it with a “gotcha” attitude and an eye toward journalism prizes. You’re sensitive to the needs of the community.

Community journalism has a focus — it’s what Charles Kuralt once called “relentlessly local.” Community journalism is the news people care about, because it’s about people they know or events that affect them. Or maybe Pulitzer Prize-winning weekly editor Bernard Stein said it best: “Our job is the everyday lives of ordinary people.”

In all the journalism periodicals, people are debating what community journalism is — is it public journalism or citizen journalism or civic journalism? And can The New York Times engage in community journalism just like the Goldthwaite Eagle?

All of the old definitions of community journalism are changing. So remember what Humpty Dumpty told Alice: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean….”

Dumpty was right. So don’t be surprised as more and more metro dailies come out with announcements that they’re “doing community journalism.”

You probably never realized that you were the wave of the future….

Can you add to my “definition” of community journalism? If you think of something I’ve left out, please post a response.

By Kathryn Jones Malone

Kathryn Jones Malone is co-director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism. She began her career as a staff writer at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, then worked as a staff writer for the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News; as a contract writer for The New York Times; as a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly magazine; as editor of the Glen Rose Reporter; and as a freelance writer for numerous state, regional and national magazines. She teaches journalism at Tarleton State University.