The Role of the Community Newspaper
by Jill Bishop
In Community Journalism: The Personal Approach Jock Lauterer states that "The enlightened community newspaper is intimately involved with building its community through consistently positive coverage that also strives to be accurate, comprehensive, balanced and fair."1 To be other than "accurate, comprehensive, balanced and fair" would be irresponsible for any newspaper of any size, and organizations exist to assure journalistically ethical standards.2 A community newspapers mission of "building its community through consistently positive coverage" may sound straightforward, but it presents a challenging dilemma. Because of the personal connection of a small town editor to the community and the overall connectedness of people within the community, editors must often address difficult decisions regarding what to print and how to present it. "Daily news is a stream of stories of the doings of strangers... Weekly news is of friends and neighbors."3 Nonetheless, a local editor must consider his or her journalistic responsibility to report the news even if it is unpleasant and reflects negatively on the community.
In many ways The Annandale Advocate is an enlightened community newspaper. In this essay I will examine the role of an ideal community newspaper and compare the Advocate to that model.
People in small towns want positive coverage in their newspapers. It is part of small town culture to express the negative only privately and to be positive in public. Since the newspaper is the most public of forums, small town residents only want to read positive things. Whether members of the community are "from" Annandale, having graduated from the only high school, or have chosen to move in because they consider it a place where friendly, hard-working people live; either way, they consider it a good "place" to be, a good place to raise children, and they want that reflected in the newspaper. Boosterism has long been a mainstay of community journalism, as has "refrigerator journalism," the practice of publishing many pictures and names of local people so that they end up magnetted to the refrigerator. This quote from one of the participants in my online interview about the Advocate illustrates the small town desire for positive coverage: "I don't like the crime blotter part of the paper. I think it was put there to embarrass people into not doing wrong. It hasn't worked. It's too much like voyeurism to me."
Negativism in a small town is certainly expressed, it is just not expected to be all over the local newspaper. In Garrison Keillors mythical Lake Wobegon the Herald-Star is run by Harold Starr, but "anyone in town who has normal hearing and eats a slow lunch at the Chatterbox [Cafe] is a better source of straight poop than the Herald-Star."4 Seeing negative things in the paper disagrees with residents concept of themselves as nice people and their town as a good place to live. "...we like to think of ourselves as considerate and kind, not out to hurt anybody. . .thats one of the main reasons we live in a small town."5 It isnt only journalistic boosterism that suppresses negative press in small communities, it is an integral part of traditional small town culture.
Jock Lauterer defines the "enlightened community newspaper" as the modern ideal, but there are still newspapers around that arent enlightened at all. In my interview with Advocate publisher/editor Steve Prinsen he pointed to some neighboring papers6 that are still very old-fashioned i.e. the Herald-Star whose "severe discretion"7 restricts printing anything that might offend anyone. He sees the Advocate as a more modern paper, closer to Jock Lauterers definition of an enlightened community newspaper: "Some small town papers are bulletin boards, but they should be more."
The weekly newspaper has a different role in the community from the large, metro daily paper. "It reflects, as the city newspaper never can, the whole and total life of the community and of the individuals dwelling therein. . .The value of the weekly newspaper in the social, economic and political progress of the area it serves is incalculable."8 The papers economic role is to communicate to readers what is available from the merchants. All parties are served: the readers find out what is available, the merchant is able to notify the community what s/he has to offer, and the newspaper is able to exist with the advertising revenue. "The newspaper makes a communitys economy work by advertising. Cities retail trade drops markedly when newspapers cease to operate even temporarily."9
But community newspapers can be more than just a medium of communication. "At their best, community newspapers satisfy a basic human craving that the big dailies cant do, 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 of our us-ness, our extended family-ness and our profound and interlocking connectedness."10
Steve Prinsen offered his own description of community journalism in my interview with him:
The following excerpt from my fourth E-mail message to the online interviewees summarizes the views of several journalism authors11 regarding the role of the community newspaper and includes my evaluation of the extent to which the Advocate fulfills these roles:
12 photos and the "People" column.
5. __Watchdog__ The paper serves as a chaperone for moral transgressions (the blotter) and keeps our governmental bodies and other organizations honest, preventing the abuse of power. Lauterer says, "The newspaper is there in proxy for the citizen who wont or cant attend the meeting."13 In this respect our neighbor to the east (H. Brutlag)14 does a more consistent job of covering meetings. In Annandale we have seen some thorough coverage of public meetings, but not always.
6. __Local Economy__ The local newspaper should support and promote the local business community vigorously. While I believe that the present editor could be more aggressive in this (and other things), he is a businessman himself and his Business Update and Business of the Week features (unpaid and paid, respectively) reflect his awareness of the importance of the communitys economic well-being. These are challenging times with franchises slowly moving into Annandale and closing down businesses that have supported local families for decades. Our commercial sector needs all the help it can get.
Economic challenges have impacted the Advocate too. The closing of the second grocery store in town, resulting in less advertising revenue, offers some explanation for the abundance of canned, non-local articles.
7. __Leadership__ I addressed this role of the newspaper in my discussion of Civic Journalism in the last E-mail message. The Advocate has provided some positive leadership in the community, such as the editorial regarding Suicide Corner, "Call to Action: Community must join forces to straighten deadly curve" in January of 1996 following Charlie Adams death. The thorough coverage and follow-up of the Highway 24 situation by the Advocate has contributed to the progress made on this issue. But there should be more examples of editorial leadership such as this one. While extensive coverage of positive endeavors is a subtle form of positive leadership, such as the Advocates thorough coverage of the Youth First program, I would still like to see the Advocate be more direct and aggressive in its leadership.
8. __Vital__ The newspaper is supposed to be a vital and necessary part of the community. Several of you alluded to how little you read the Advocate compared to earlier times. But I see the present newspaper as a slumbering lion; the power is still there. The Advocate has been part of the Annandale community for over 100 years, and the power of the press is legendary. An informed society is a hallmark of democracy, and if it ceased to exist there would be a huge void in the community.
Admittedly, it does not seem to be vital if so few are reading it, but the newspaper is like many rights we Americans have that we take for granted until they are threatened. If it looked as though the Advocate was closing its doors, there would be an outcry. Even though many claim to ignore it, the Advocate fulfills the many important roles I have listed above.
Charles Kuralt once said that community newspapers must be "relentlessly local," and Jock Lauterer reiterates the important role of the local paper as being "...far more subtle, important and far reaching than one might suppose. The sheer accretion of relentlessly local coverage of city council, planning board, Boy Scout field days, church suppers and even Aunt Maudes 100th birthday all add up to ...affirmations of the communitys identity and its vision for itself..."15
The identity that citizens want reflected in their paper is, of course, a positive one. There was a recent period when the Advocate was not publishing the positive local stories that are expected in a community newspaper, and the cumulative effect of negative reporting is still being felt today.
When John Fisher purchased the paper from Myloe Loberg in 1982 he catapulted it into modernity. He was an aggressive editor who dropped the homey chit-chat news of visits to Minneapolis relatives and replaced it with such things as in-depth reporting of political candidates views. His aggressiveness as an editor reached its peak with his tenacious pursuit of the reason that the local police chiefs dismissal had been decided behind closed doors. He took the quest to court and the decision is known today as the Open Meeting Law. But in the eyes of many, Fisher crossed the line of respecting local citizens private lives because the police chief was a local man with deep roots in Annandale, and Fishers perseverance caused deep resentment in the community.
More recently, Steve Prinsen, publisher/editor since 1990, crossed that line when he published an explicit description of a local pastors sexual misconduct. Even though the language was taken directly from the police records, the pastor has many friends and supporters in the community, and again, the invasion of privacy, the printing of "negative" news about local people, was cause for backlash.
Should these editors not have done what they did? Did they overstep their journalistic responsibility? The responses from the online interviewees indicate that they did, and the newspaper lost readers with these actions.
In the third message of my online interview I introduced the sensitive issue of the Pastor S. by presenting two sides of the newspapers decision to print the details of his indiscretion. But every one of the respondents sided against the newspaper. In their minds the paper had clearly overstepped its responsibility to be a watchdog for the community and had practiced inappropriate sensationalism instead. The editor did not account for the standing of the pastor in the community and the extent of personal loyalties toward him:
The Pastor S. incident was reported in a 1994 article by Jerry Carter, and the "1994 Year in Review" feature, also written by Carter, included numerous other reminders of problems in Annandale that year. In the summary Carter said, "What had been called the areas best fishing lake [Lake Sylvia] gets knocked down a notch [italics mine] after a fish analysis reveals high levels of PCBs and mercury."16 This information could have been reported very differently. Lake Sylvia residents have great pride in their lake, and their pride was affronted unnecessarily. Of the ninety events listed as memories of 1994, thirty-one were negative reporting such as a drive-by shooting, vandalism, abduction, lawsuits, accidents, a protest, burglary, and a drug raid. Such emphasis on problems in the community was very inappropriate for a community newspaper.
Carter ignored the small town value that says dirty laundry is handled in private, not in public, and not in the newspaper. He did not use "severe discretion", and now Steve Prinsen is paying for that indiscretion. One community member said, "We had a few brutal years with Carter and Creger seemingly doing all that they could to stir up ill-will in Annandale. I think it hurt the community spirit, if it didn't KILL it. I think the editor should have been more sensitive to the damage their reporting-style did to our town. I am very glad to see more positive stories, not mud-slinging."
Jock Lauterer spoke about the accretion of positive reporting and the effect it has on the community, but the opposite is also true. The accretion of negative reporting in 1994 and 1995 has had an effect on the community, and publisher/editor Steve Prinsen is still feeling the effects of this negativity in 1998. The respondents in my online interview reflected very negative attitudes toward the Advocate; several had ceased reading it or subscribing to it and made complaints about the Advocate that were valid several years ago but no longer are. The many important roles of the newspaper cannot be filled if it is not being read, or if it is held in such low esteem that it is disregarded, deemed unworthy of readers time and attention. One respondent commented, "I look forward to the paper each week but sometimes when Im done I wonder why."
Providing "accurate, comprehensive, balanced, and fair" coverage that is also "consistently positive" is a challenging dilemma for small town publishers and editors, and "...the very extent of an editors inevitable involvement, whether or not he consciously seeks it, subjects him to criticism even if he sticks to reporting the facts and does not carry a line of his own opinion in the paper."17
In 1995, the year following the rash of negative reporting, Steve Prinsen temporarily stepped down from his editing duties and appointed one of his young reporters to be Managing Editor. Mike Creger took his role seriously and sought reader input to improve the newspaper. He published a survey18 and offered a cash incentive to fill it out and return it. He also held a much publicized meeting to elicit feedback from the community, but there was little interest in this process and few people attended the meeting. He apparently hadnt realized the extent of the accretion of negative reporting.
An August, 1995, report of that meeting said that readers want news in the area (the area including South Haven and surrounding townships and lakes), stories about people in the community, history of the area and the people in the area, non-sporting events in school as well as sports, and the news and how it effects them rather than boiler plate news. They just wanted news that was "relentlessly local." The newspaper has "difficult and conflicting roles as a fair and balanced reporter of the news while also serving as advocate for all it finds good and worthwhile in the community, a consistently positive force for community-building and appropriate growth. ...The big-city papers [have] a relatively simple role when it comes to public service--report the news fairly and completely, and dont get involved."19
Steve Prinsen has children in the schools, he attends the Annandale United Methodist Church, and he is a former president of the Chamber of Commerce. The transient reporters are not a part of the commuity to that extent. One downside to community newspapers is that in their role as a training ground for budding journalists, these journalists "...never get involved in the community. [They are] at the paper only long enough to get some experience under their belts, then its on to the next rung on the corporate ladder."20 One respondent said, "It is often conspicuously evident that the writers and editors are not from Annandale." Jerry Carter did damage to the community spirit in 1994 which managing editor Mike Creger tried to mend. Russ King and Jessica Hasslen are two of the young reporters who wrote wonderful positive features that conveyed their regard for the community and its residents, but they are gone now too.
In my recent interview with Steve Prinsen he said that he tells the young journalists to "think about what they write in terms of what if they were still here in 5 yrs...and that helps them to be less aggressive in their reporting. [They] have to be reminded that these people that might be the object of some big investigative report are going to still live in Annandale in five years, whereas they wont, but Steve will, and they have to remember that." He pointed out that he derives his income from the town, and editors in small town newspapers "are not protected by the same walls as the writers at the large dailies."
In the interview Steve said "One way to judge a paper is simply how much is in the paper, the quantity." He pointed out how many more pages the paper has than it did years ago, but readers do notice the high percentage of canned, boiler plate features. They told him that in the 1995 survey, and the respondents in my online interview concur.
In the early 1990s, when Steve Prinsen first took over the Advocate, there was a period of factual inaccuracy and sloppy editing. One issue of the Advocate reported that my husband John graduated from Annandale High School (he didn't), I was not a certified teacher (I am), and my daughter Sara was 16 years old (she was 15). John was amused, I was annoyed, and Sara was delighted. But three major inaccuracies about members of one family in one issue was inexcusable. Since that time the accuracy of reporting has improved immensely. One of the respondents commented on the editing: "I would read the Advocate more often and more thoroughly if it included fewer typos, grammatical errors, awkward sentences, etc. I often find it difficult to focus on content when the structure gets in the way." She admitted elsewhere in the interview that she doesnt read the Advocate very thoroughly any longer, but in my opinion both content and form have improved over the years to the point that they are quite satisfactory for a community newspaper. In fact, the Advocates form, particularly its photography and layout, is a consistent strength. However, there is much more to a paper than that.
In this way, Lobergs paper had the most soul of the three editors in this half of the century. His caring and interest came through in the social notes and the intensely local coverage. Fisher made it interesting, as did Creger and Carter, but the heart and caring werent there. Steve Prinsen runs his paper as a business, ever cognizant of it as his bread and butter. He says, "The longer I do this the more mellow, pragmatic and deliberate I get, which may be worse for the paper."
It has been suggested that criticism heaped upon a newspaper is not necessarily an indication that an editor is doing a bad job. "Newspapers are always unpopular, however good they are [and] there is always demand for a campaign of abuse against an editor, particularly if he is successful."22 Since in America "success" usually refers to economic success, a look at economic considerations that impact the community newspaper business may shed some light on editorial decisions.
Steve Prinsen is a businessman first. Just over a year after he bought the paper he made that clear in a mock interview of himself in a "Business of the Week" feature:
Since that time (1992) he has increased his personal holdings by purchasing one other community newspaper and a printing company.23 An article in Business Week says that "The days of mom-and-pop ownership of a small-town newspaper that was deeply rooted in the community are over."24 Like farmers, teachers, and many others in small towns and all over, newspaper editors today expect a much higher standard of living from their line of work than in earlier times.
In my recent interview with Steve Prinsen he explained the economic incentives for his recent acquisitions.
The consideration of economics sheds some light on one respondents comments about the imbalance of canned material compared to locally generated writing. "The Advocate used to have more local and human interest articles. Too much space is devoted to articles that are informational pieces reprinted from other sources. There just isn't much that is interesting to me anymore. I do not enjoy The Advocate as I did in the past." The loss of Annandales second grocery store in 1995 had a tremendous impact on the entire community, including the Advocate. The guaranteed full page of advertising every week of the year translated into roughly two staff members at the Advocate, so now there are fewer writers to cover the communitys news.
In the seven years that Steve Prinsen has published the Advocate he has shown that he knows the elements of excellence in community journalism; they have all been evident at some time. But readers do not consider economic concerns such as diminishing advertising revenue when voicing their expectations of their community newspaper.
The online interview process pointed out, actually invited, criticisms against the Advocate. But many of the criticisms apply to things of the past: insensitivity (Pastor S.), negative reporting (Carter), and sloppy editing. The most valid complaint is the excess of boiler plate articles. Economic considerations offer some explanation for this disappointing imbalance, and it remains to be seen whether Steve Prinsen can sufficiently expand his holdings or generate enough advertising revenue other ways to "build [our] community through consistently positive coverage that also strives to be accurate, comprehensive, balanced and fair."
Does the Advocate fulfill this role of the newspaper in the community? The Advocates editorial policy got out of hand in the middle year of the decade, and the negative effects are still being felt. But the editor is a knowledgeable, professional newspaperman and a principled man, so I hope that he will remember his words that he printed in that 1992 "Business of the Week" feature: "We feel committed to the community to deliver the news, editorial and advertising product [that the community] deserves. ...It is challenging to be the chronicle for a community."
Are the readers of the Advocate ready to forgive and forget past lapses and acknowledge the important role of the the paper in the community and their lives? The following comments from two respondents indicate that they are coming around to seeing the valuable role of the Advocate in the community and it their lives:
1Jock Lauterer Community Journalism : The Personal Approach (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995) ii
2The trade journal Newsworthy is a publication of the Minnesota News Council. Its mission is to encourage a more responsible and responsive press and more informed consumers. It conducts public hearings and publishes determinations of hearings. Hearing results are online at the News Council homepage: <http://www.mtn.org/~newscncl>.
3Bruce M. Kennedy Community Journalism: A Way of Life (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1974) 10
4Garrison Keillor Lake Wobegon Days (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985) 260
5Arthur J. Vidich and Joseph Bensman Small Town in Mass Society: Class, Power and Religion in a Rural Community (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968) 44
6The Maple Lake Messenger and the Silver Lake Leader
8John Cameron Sim The Grass Roots Press: Americas Community Newspapers (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1969)
11Particularly authors Lauterer, Sim, and Kennedy
12A typical photo in community papers that you won't find in large daily metro papers is what Jock Lauterer called a "tree full of owls." That's the group of people just standing or sitting there with all their names in the caption.
14Harold Brutlag is the editor of the Maple Lake Messenger
16Jerry Carter The Annandale Advocate, January 4, 1995
18The survey appeared on the back page of the 8/30/95 Advocate and included questions that were similar to those that I asked of the community member in my online survey.
22Ed Howe, Plain People (Binghamton, N.Y.: Vail-Ballou Press, 1929)
23The Tri-County News in Kimball, ten miles west of Annandale, and Medallion Media, Inc. in Annandale
24"A License to Print Money?" by Wendy Zellner Business Week June 30, 1997
Ed Howe Plain People (Binghamton, N.Y.: Vail-Ballou Press, 1929)
Robert F. Karolevitz From Quill to Computer: The Story of Americas Community Newspapers (National Newspaper Foundation, 1985)
Garrison Keillor Lake Wobegon Days (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985)
Bruce M. Kennedy Community Journalism: A Way of Life (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1974)
Jock Lauterer Community Journalism : The Personal Approach (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995)
John Cameron Sim The Grass Roots Press: Americas Community Newspapers (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1969)
Phillip J. Tichenor Community Conflict & the Press (Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications, c1980)
Arthur J. Vidich and Joseph Bensman Small Town in Mass Society: Class, Power and Religion in a Rural Community (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968)
Directory of Community Newspapers (Minneapolis: National Newspaper Association, 1994) Annual
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "A Web Grows in Blacksburg," Connect-Time June, 1997, vol.1 no.8, insert in Minneapolis StarTribune.
"One of the tougher decisions for the weekly newspaper editor is how to handle coverage of a local tragedy." Robert Gibson Rural Electrification November, 1994.
"The media vs. The people: please tell us what we need to know" by Abigail McCarthy Commonweal February 23, 1996.
"Bridge Builder: The Newpaper as a Community Institution" by Michael Stricklin, College of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1994
"A License to Print Money?" by Wendy Zellner Business Week June 30, 1997
1996 Community Newspaper Showcase of Excellence
The Annandale Advocate, all, 1990 to 1997.
Publisher Auxiliary (trade journal)
Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media (HBNC):
HBNC Community Newspaper Showcase of Excellence:
University of Alaska online class in Community Journalism:
Blacksburg Electronic Village: <http://www.bev.net/>
News Council homepage: <http://www.mtn.org/~newscncl>
Annandale Advocate: <http://www.annandalearea.com/>
Steve Prinsen, publisher and editor of The Annandale Advocate since 1990; interviewed 1/9/98.
Eight community members in Annandale, Minnesota; interviewed online 2/1/98 to 2/18/98.
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