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From AJR,   August/September 2008  issue

Disconnected   

As embattled news organizations try to safeguard their futures with intensely local coverage, there is often a wide gulf between journalists and the communities they cover.


By Will Bunch
Will Bunch (bunchw@phillynews.com) is senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and author of its blog Attytood (www.attytood.com). His book on the distorted legacy of Ronald Reagan is slated for publication early next year by Free Press.     

You can't blame Linda Borg, who's covered education for the Providence Journal for roughly 10 years, if she sometimes feels as if she's not even speaking the same language as the students and parents she writes about because quite often, she's not.

"Ironically, I face some of the same obstacles that the school district faces when it tries to engage parents," says Borg, who lives in Rhode Island but outside Providence. "The city has rapidly moved from a white, working-class ethnic mix to a primarily Hispanic, immigrant community, and yet the teachers and the school leaders remain white and middle-class" just like her.

"I don't speak Spanish and many of the parents don't speak English, so it's hard to reach out to families for their thoughts, comments and criticisms," Borg told me by e-mail recently. "Although I try to get into the schools, my visits are usually brief and scripted."

A little more than an hour to the northeast, daily journalism is quite a different story for Erica Noonan, who's a bureau chief in the western suburbs for the Boston Globe. Noonan has shunned downtown Boston, where she once worked for the Boston Herald and the Associated Press, to report on Wellesley, where she grew up and delivered the Globe as a 12-year-old, and Natick, where today she raises her own kids. One recent Saturday, she was walking to the library when she encountered a group of women lobbying for a property tax override a chance meeting that led to an A1 story in the Globe as well as a much-visited online piece.

"I get lots of story ideas living my everyday life, and when possible, I use my background and insider knowledge to write a story or personal column that shows some insight into, and even affection for, the community," she says, adding that the job "isn't a step to some more high-profile, downtown beat to me. I just wish community reporting was seen in the news industry as its own distinguished career path as a choice, not a backwater for the very young, or old and tired."

New Englanders Borg and Noonan represent the two sides of a dilemma that has long existed in scores of newsrooms across America and poses a significant challenge as the struggling newspaper industry tries to reinvent itself.

Most agree that successful newspapers need a highly local focus that is more in touch with, and more responsive to, the community, with a running dialogue in cyberspace and in person between journalists and citizens. But with all that's been written and said about the newspaper crisis of the 21st century, almost no one ever talks about one huge paradox: The actual journalists now asked to produce this new brand of hyperlocal coverage are often remarkably ill-prepared to do so. In many newsrooms but especially in the larger metro newspapers that are suffering the biggest drops in circulation and ad revenue there is a gaping divide between overworked, career-conscious reporters and the communities they cover.

This community gap is familiar to most reporters and editors, and its roots are deep and complicated. For many, it starts with the geographically circuitous career path for journalists hungry for the most prestigious jobs with the best pay a system that sends citizens of Red Sox Nation into Manhattan newsrooms even as native Yankees fans take root in Philly. Once there, reporters work long hours, and when they do socialize, it's usually with other journalists or a narrow swath of sources from politics or law enforcement. When they marry (often other journalists) and have kids, many choose to raise them in suburbs outside of the cities or towns they cover.

But the truth is that many reporters probably wouldn't be that involved in the affairs of their community, even if they had the time or lived in the right place. Some of that is a matter of temperament a lot of reporters are what New York University professor and media critic Jay Rosen likes to call "lone wolves," not joiners. In a classic example, a series of studies has shown that as few as 6 percent to 17 percent of journalists report attending church on a regular basis. In the broader population, as many as 38 percent at least tell pollsters that they do. Other community activities are barred by a matter of policy especially anything with a political bent. (Just ask Henry Norr, a tech writer for the San Francisco Chronicle who lost his job after taking part in a 2003 antiwar protest.) Some top journalists most famously departing Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. of the Washington Post don't even think it's appropriate to take part in the ultimate civic activity, voting, because they believe it would compromise their ability to remain detached, impartial observers of civic affairs.

None of these factors was noticed as a problem during the years that daily newspapers earned record profits and enjoyed a monopoly on local coverage as well as classified and display ads, and when the "conversation" with the local community was confined to letters on a portion of just one page. Then came the Internet, where many Web sites flourished by creating the very thing that was so lacking in the one-way world of newspaper dialogue a sense of community. From big national Web sites like The Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo , where readers by the hundreds comment on articles and even share tips on investigative reporting projects, to local efforts like Fresno Famous, , which found nightlife for twentysomethings in an unlikely venue, readers feel a sense of connection that's lacking with many newspapers, particularly in metro areas..

Conversely, journalists are increasingly under fire for forming the kinds of social bonds with other elites not only with each other, but with the powerful people we cover that are seen, fairly or not, as being at odds with the mission of serving rank-and-file readers. That takes place most prominently on the national level: Witness the revulsion that many express at black-tie Beltway events where journalists and politicians hobnob and share a laugh (see "Out on Its Feet," online exclusive) and the glee when comedian Stephen Colbert lampooned reporters as stenographers at a 2006 banquet but it can be an issue for metro reporters as well.

"A founding principle of the American press is that it's supposed to be a fence to keep government from encroaching on people's rights," says Steve Boriss, who blogs about changes in the media and teaches a course on the subject at Washington University in St. Louis. "It is really important that the press identifies with the public."

Today, with newspapers in crisis, many journalists not only agree with that sentiment but also are eager to forge new relationships with their communities. But many are finding the opposite of what Neil Sedaka once sang, that linking up is hard to do. Most newspapers particularly the bigger metros now have a stable of staff bloggers, and although there have been some recent signs of life, many lack the kind of engaged community of regular readers and commenters that blogs by nonjournalists have attracted. This April, the results of a major study of newspapers' political blogs by Indiana's Ball State University and the University of Nevada, Reno, undertaken during the 2006 elections, found that most had few postings and largely inactive comment sections and that four out of five newspaper bloggers didn't respond to the comments that they did get. Although there are some shining exceptions, most newspapers don't even offer blogrolls that link to popular citizen voices in their communities.

If you look at the big picture of newspaper history, things have come full circle. As described by historian Benedict Anderson in his 1983 book, "Imagined Communities," it was newspapers that used common language and themes in the 19th century and into the 20th that helped create a cohesive feeling in a young nation as it became increasingly urban. That phenomenon was especially strong in the young America as described by the French proto-sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1830s travels across the country that led to "Democracy in America." There, he wrote that "[n]ewspapers do not multiply simply because they are cheap, but according to the more or less frequent need felt by a great number of people to communicate with one another and act together."

But some of that luster of passionate, community-based conversation dissipated over the next two centuries, starting with the penchant of mass-market newspapers to produce a diverse product with a broad appeal, rendered even more mushy with the rise of suburbs and of increasingly less homogenous, sprawling metro areas where readers shared some interests (like sports teams) but not others (think of the hodgepodge of school districts). That coincided with the rise of big-city journalism as a coveted career for the well-educated, (relatively) well-paid and highly mobile reporters now focused on adversarial journalism with the goal of winning awards and moving up the ladder.

Consider the renowned Knight Ridder executive James Batten, as quoted by Jay Rosen in his book, "What Are Journalists For?": "Newsrooms had become 'over-stocked with journalistic transients who care little about the town of the moment.' With their gaze fixed on 'the next (and bigger) town,' these newsroom gypsies 'know little about their community's past and make no effort to learn.' And, Batten added, 'There is always the temptation to make their byline files a little more glittering at the expense of people and institutions they will never see again.'" (Batten may seem a surprising critic of the phenomenon; Knight Ridder dispatched many editors from one paper to another during his distinguished tenure there.)

Batten voiced his concern way back in the early 1990s, not long before he died of a brain tumor in 1995. And now Knight Ridder, where he served as chairman and CEO, is gone too weighed down by so many of the kind of A-minus and B-plus metro newspapers that have suffered the sharpest declines in the 2000s. But the problem he described is virtually unchanged. What's different was that in the economically booming 1990s it was easy for most journalists to ignore it.

Around the time that Batten made that remark, I had just moved to the Philadelphia area and was attending a dinner party with some journalist friends. One described the younger staffers at Knight Ridder's Inquirer thusly: Ivy League grads "who know how to speak Mandarin but don't know how to find Fishtown," a quintessential salt-of-the-earth rowhouse Philly neighborhood. I laughed, and obviously I haven't forgotten the quip. But maybe, in hindsight, it wasn't all that funny.

For one thing, that lack of connectedness was surely a factor in the travails of the Inquirer, whose finances are joined at the hip with those of its editorial rival and my employer, the Daily News. (The papers are now owned by Philadelphia Media Holdings, a private local company.) The Inky has suffered larger losses in circulation more than one-third of its readers have left since the 1980s, when it had a circulation of more than 500,000 and revenue than many other newspapers. The Inquirer has been squeezed from below by aggressive suburban dailies and from above by the online ubiquity of the national and international reporting that was its hallmark for more than two decades.

But the other reason I shouldn't have laughed is that I myself was a poster child for the newsroom gypsy that Batten was decrying. I had been inspired, like so many wannabe journalists of the 1970s, by the tumultuous times of my youth and, yes, "All the President's Men," which I devoured on my high school summer vacation in Westchester County, New York. I lived up to every stereotype, with an Ivy League degree from Brown and a determination to mow through my early career destinations as if they were pit stops. My first job was at the Washington Observer-Reporter in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. Assigned to cover economically ravaged and nearly empty coal towns like Marianna, I had just learned how to find the Marianna turnoff when, after only five months, something better came along: a job in Birmingham, Alabama, a state where I had never set foot until I was flown down for my interview.

Three quick years later, I was sort of close to home at Long Island's Newsday, but marriage as well as mayhem of the economic variety (New York Newsday's 1995 shutdown) eventually brought me to another place where I was a relative outsider, the Philadelphia Daily News. Ironically, my nomadic wanderings did serve their original purpose. I covered presidential races, political conventions and some big scandals, just like I'd imagined back in the Watergate summer of '74, and shared or won a few awards. But by the new millennium, I really felt that lack of community connection.

Handed a kind of super general assignment beat, I struggled to come up with good Philadelphia stories except for one, a Father's Day story derived from an unforgettable childhood yarn about a narrow South Philly rowhouse street where four dads had been killed in a fiery car crash. This was not my own childhood yarn, of course, but a story related to me by our photo editor, Michael Mercanti, a Philadelphia lifer. In 2005, eager to take my journalism online and perhaps connect a little better with readers, I started a blog on philly.com called Attytood and received a first-hand education in the importance of community.

It has cut both ways. My outspoken criticism of the war in Iraq as well as my views on other issues have attracted a bevy of conservative critics who have studied my biography and never fail to remind me that I'm not a Philadelphia native; that I'm an Ivy Leaguer; and that I live in the suburbs, which apparently disqualifies me from advocating for working people. But generally, Attytood has been successful when it comes to dialogue; often there are 100 reader comments a day, or more. That is in large part a direct result of aggressively courting the communities of other bloggers like-minded political and journalism bloggers from around the country, but especially right here in Philadelphia, where I've struck up friendships and occasionally dropped by a weekly in-person meet-up. When it appeared that the Daily News might go out of business with the collapse of Knight Ridder in early 2006, those connections helped out after my middle-of-the-night blog screed that called for bold discussion on how to remake newsrooms like mine as a very different kind of enterprise for the 21st century. This new phenomenon would be called a "norg," for news organization, because its product would be simply the news it provides rather than the physical newspaper. It turned out that it was not a one-way shout in the dark. Other bloggers my new, mostly virtual, community picked up the call, and it led several months later to a day-long "norg" conference at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication featuring veteran reporters and editors as well as upstart bloggers. It triggered an online discussion that continues to this day.

That experience led me to ponder the community gap, and how much it was hampering efforts to turn around the newsroom, especially in big cities like my own. To get some answers, I called upon one of the new tools that I had begun to use as a blogger, a version of crowdsourcing, which involves openly seeking tips on the Internet (see Drop Cap, October/November 2007). I wrote a letter to Romenesko asking others to tell me their stories. I received a couple of dozen impassioned responses, and they told two very different sides of the story.

Many wrote of how hard it is for journalists to forge or maintain community ties, either at big-city metros or at some smaller dailies that tend to train the twentysomethings who are racing to get to those papers. Typical is the experience of Mara Lee, a Washington correspondent for several Ohio papers. She started her career at that state's Mansfield News-Journal (circulation 28,000) and found two kinds of reporters in the smaller newsroom.

"[T]here were two metro desk reporters who had lived in Mansfield's circulation area for 30 years or more, and one, particularly, it really showed in his work," she told me. "He was a columnist, but even in his stories, you could feel the love [and] respect he had for the town and its people." Eight reporters were under age 27, she says, and only one was from Mansfield; some commuted from Columbus, some 60 miles away. Lee a native of Richmond, Virginia didn't feel very connected there either, although she said she came to know some local people by playing mah-jongg at her local synagogue.

Michelle Hiskey, enterprise reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says the community gap was driven home to her a dozen years ago when she left the newsroom on maternity leave. "My life outside the paper was so different than when I was working," says Hiskey, whose husband is also a journalist. "I was around people who talked about more interesting things. They told stories that were funny and memorable. The paper rarely carried these little stories. I started to see that most reporters write as if the people reading the paper are other reporters." Partly through parenthood and partly through her personality, she became more involved in local activities from church to knitting, and she says it informs her journalism today. When she wrote me, she was justifiably proud of an article she'd just published in the Journal-Constitution about a husband who'd posted yellow signs on local telephone poles trying to win back his estranged wife. Hiskey had seen the signs around town.

Interestingly, Hiskey was one of only a handful of journalists from big-city metros where the community gap tends to be the widest to respond to my query. Conversely, I heard from quite a few reporters and editors at small-town dailies or at community papers that are printed weekly or semi-weekly, and these tended to be success stories from places where the community gap is less of a problem, even nonexistent.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but there is increasing evidence that smaller newspapers, including some dailies but especially the already hyperlocal weeklies and biweeklies, have been holding much of their print circulation, even growing in some areas. Newspapers in Dothan, Alabama; Morgantown, West Virginia; and Mitchell, South Dakota, are among those that have seen readership gains at times during this decade, bucking the trend at their larger cousins.

"Honestly, I think the solution is not to be big," says Bill Reader, a career journalist who now teaches at Ohio University and heads the Community Journalism Interest Group of the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication. Like many, he bemoans a system that lavishes major awards and higher salaries on those who practice detached reporting with a broad focus, when it is highly localized journalism that best connects with the public. "Your job is to be the connection. The cultural role of the newspaper is the inherent value of the newspaper, because what you're selling and what you're doing is holding the community together and everything else will fall into place."

The credo of these community papers was best voiced a couple of years ago by a columnist for one of them, Baxter Black, the "Cowboy Poet" who freelances for the News-Sun of San Pedro, Arizona, in a manifesto titled: "Why I Love My Hometown Paper." He wrote: "Small-town papers often thrive because CNN or the New York Times are not going to scoop them for coverage of the 'VFW Fish Fry' or 'Bridge Construction Delay' or boys and girls playing basketball, receiving scholarships, graduating, getting married or going off to war... I think of local papers as the last refuge of unfiltered America a running documentary of the warts and triumphs of Real People unfettered by the Spin and Bias and the Opaque Polish of today's Homogenized Journalism." (Apparently "Real People" use more capital letters than the rest of us.)

Claire Duquette is the editor of a hometown paper, the 6,200-circulation Daily Press in Ashland, Wisconsin, just 25 miles from where she grew up and where she has worked for two decades. Duquette has some community ties that might make a High Priest of journalism like the Post's Downie cringe. She volunteers in schools and with a group seeking more hiking trails, and she's on the board of her church and of a women's shelter, although she says she'd quit that post if the shelter became the subject of a newspaper article. "People recognize me in the grocery store," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "Heck, my 78-year-old mother hears about things that are liked or disliked in The Daily Press."

Many community papers have a radically different approach than those of the big-city metros when it comes to reaching out to their readers. Kira Lisa Warren says she rarely left the building in her 22 years as a copy editor and city desk editor at the now-defunct Cincinnati Post. Things changed for her when she took a buyout in 2001 and became the editor of two small Ohio dailies, Hamilton's JournalNews (circulation 20,000) and the Middletown Journal (circulation 18,000).

"They are 'community' papers and I am out in the community every day," she told me in an e-mail. She says she's now active in the Rotary and teaches at a nearby university. "The JournalNews sponsors a food drive every year with the local food bank, and I personally organized a community forum at the YWCA, attended by 150 people on a Tuesday night, to foster a calm and civil discourse on the influx of Hispanic workers in the county. Every year, the paper sponsors a fitness project with the local hospitals, and I and my staff are out walking daily in bright yellow T-shirts."

At bigger newspapers, even medium-size ones, the burden of forging connections with the community tends to fall on the individual journalist. Here, success stories come in several flavors. Some reporters who succeed at telling the stories of their communities do it the old-fashioned way, with shoe leather and nerve.

Consider award-winning columnist Dave Bakke at Illinois' Springfield State Journal-Register, who delivers a speech at writers' workshops titled "I'll have a cup of coffee and a story idea, please." He speaks of his mapped-out meanderings through the diners and barbershops of mid-state Illinois in search of column material. "There is always a table of regulars sitting there, talking," he says of the restaurants he visits. "I want to be there, too. The first time is a bit of a challenge because you feel such an outsider."

Maybe that explains why some younger journalists are instead using the Internet to accomplish a similar goal. "We are transients, we work late and we tend to socialize with those who can sympathize: other journalists," says St. Petersburg Times designer/copy editor Adam Newman, who adds that he decided to look outside the newsroom for connections after he broke up with a staffer he'd been dating. He did so largely through his passion for the sport of cycling. He now brings that to the newsroom in the form of his popular blog on the subject called "Spoke 'n' Word." "I like to think the cycling community here in Tampa Bay now has a representative in the local media," he says.

It's important to note that some still harbor worries and they are legitimate ones that too much community involvement and connection, or a staff with only homegrown reporters, might obliterate the types of great journalism that go along with a sense of detachment. In waxing poetic about small-town America and its salt-of-the-earth values, do we forget that communities can also harbor darker instincts small-mindedness or even racism and other prejudices? One who voiced that concern is Allison Hantschel, formerly of the Chicago Sun-Times, now a popular blogger (as "Athenae" at First Draft), author and weekly columnist for Chicago's SouthtownStar. She told me: "I had one editor who was a local at my old paper who didn't think it was relevant that the cops in a neighborhood we covered sat on the corners of the borders of the hood and made a habit of pulling over any black person who drove past the imaginary dividing line because 'it's always been that way.'"

It's a valid concern, to be sure, but in America's still highly mobile society, larger newsrooms will always have some people with outside perspectives. In a perfect world, newspaper staffs would be a mix of people with deep personal roots in the communities that they cover and newcomers ready and willing to make a different kind of effort to connect with their new chosen home. That's not an easy thing to do. It will take a conscious effort, and it will involve undoing some newsroom norms that have been in place for decades. With that in mind, here are some suggestions for a more connected newsroom. Take a cue from St. Petersburg's Adam Newman: Hop on your bike, at least metaphorically, and get out there.

You can start where that's easiest on the Internet by engaging local readers through blogging, through comments on your articles or Web postings (check the thickness of your skin first, because some will be negative and harsh), or through soliciting story leads the way that I did for this article. But ultimately, getting out there should mean just that engaging local readers in person. You can do that through community events and involvement, like the food drives and forums in Ohio, or through walking the beat like Springfield's Bakke. Or you can take a more direct approach.

One way is via a trick that I learned from bloggers. In my hometown of Philadelphia and in many other U.S. cities, bloggers with a progressive point of view get together once a week for a Happy Hour event called Drinking Liberally; here, people who initially just shared a few e-mails and a political point of view have formed a kind of community and some real-world friendships. Why can't journalists and regular citizens who share a passion for news do the same thing? You could call it Drinking Medially, although someone probably has a better name. Bring in featured guests from fields that don't get the coverage they should local scientists or engineers, for example and start the conversation. Actual alcohol is not required.

Broaden the notion of diversity in hiring at daily newspapers. Encourage more young staffers with local roots, with a special eye toward reporters and editors who don't simply have a diploma from an elite college but offer valuable backgrounds and experiences, and hopefully an ability to reconnect to those working-class and urban communities that were once the backbone of large circulation dailies.

The entrenched job loop for ambitious journalists sending college grads like Peace Corps Volunteers off to short-term stints in far-flung outposts, en route to isolated newsrooms that poorly cover a patchwork of neighborhoods and suburbs isn't working for either news people or the communities that they cover. Economics are already forcing big city papers to hire more journalists just out of school (at a lower pay scale), which is a golden opportunity for editors from Philly to L.A. to bring in that homegrown reporter who does know how to find Fishtown, regardless of his or her Mandarin skills.

Flip the rules on journalists getting involved in local activities. Rather than erect walls between the newsroom and civic activities, break them down, with a strong emphasis on openness and transparency, and actively encourage people to get involved with their neighbors. Common sense would rule out clearly unacceptable situations a newspaper's political writer working on a campaign, say but transparency would clear the way for reporters who wish to work in a battered women's shelter or maybe even that technology writer protesting the war in Iraq.

The Internet makes it feasible and desirable, in my opinion for journalists to use cyberspace as place to voluntarily tell our personal stories: our bios, our passions, our core beliefs, even, if applicable, our politics. I don't think it's possible or wise for newsroom bosses to force such transparency on their staffs, but at the same time journalists who choose to become open will reap the rewards of a better conversation with readers. As NYU's Jay Rosen told me recently: "Transparency starts in a different place: Here's who I am. You're a journalist: a person with a life... You don't start out as this imposing institution that looks objectively upon the city of Philadelphia but on a more human plain. Trust, reliability and credibility, as it is called in your newsroom, are more easily rebuilt that way."

For large urban and metro communities, where it's just not feasible anymore for most daily newspapers to put a reporter in every borough or important big-city neighborhood, find creative ways to link to the best local conversations, and collaborate when that's possible. Dan Gillmor, the former San Jose Mercury News tech writer who founded the now-defunct Northern California citizen journalism site Bayosphere and now teaches at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, says he became interested in this issue when he learned on the tech beat that his readers knew more than he did. He noted how an e-mail list of several hundred people broke what he considered news in his old Palo Alto neighborhood.

Gillmor advises journalists to "stop pretending your organization is an oracle. It's not. You don't know everything, and even if you did you couldn't publish or broadcast as much as you'd like to. Pointing to outside sources of information especially local blogs and other media is a great start. It doesn't mean that you endorse what these folks are saying or vouch for it, but it does mean that you recognize that others in your community are creating media with at least some information other people might want to see."

Not any one of these ideas is a panacea. But with so many media organizations in trouble, it helps a lot to know and bond with the folks right around the corner who care whether the news lives or dies and are speaking your language, whether it's Philly-flavored English, Spanish..or even Mandarin.