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DEAR READER: Newspapers not connected to their communities? That's just a myth

Wednesday, June 9, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:21 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A disgraced mayor resigns in Detroit. Financial abuses in day care centers are stopped in Wisconsin. A mentally ill Chinese immigrant in New York is treated after languishing in detention. Corrupt narcotics cops in Philadelphia are weeded out and criminally investigated.

Newspaper stories make things happen every day in communities large and small. Wrongs get righted, laws are changed, corrupt officials resign, needy people find help, consumers are warned, citizens join in conversation.

Relentless reporting fuels public interest journalism. The majority of it — and almost all of it at the local level — still originates in newspaper newsrooms. While newspapers have lost staff and gotten smaller, editors have chosen wisely in preserving the watchdogs and developing the power of their websites.

Today the impact of public interest journalism is growing because it appears in many formats — on growing websites, on mobile apps, on Facebook and Twitter — and yes, in print. It is enriched in ways not contemplated a decade ago, including flash animation and searchable databases. The best reporting embraces interactivity, with citizen sourcing, reader involvement and real-time feedback. Newspapers are building communities of interest with citizen blogs, live chats and social media. In fact, the reach of many newspapers is expanding, thanks to rapid digital growth.

Some might say, oh yes, the big newspapers still have impact on public life, but small papers no longer have the staffs and have stopped covering essential public service beats. Well, truth be told, small newspapers continue to produce powerful local reporting and remain the backbone of democracy in their communities. They have the greatest penetration, often as high as 70 or 80 percent of adults in their markets, combining print and digital audiences.

In Glens Falls, N.Y., a crusading editorial writer for a small newspaper wins the Pulitzer Prize for pounding public officials over secrecy in government. He also starts a blog for citizens, "Your right to know." In Tucson, reporters reveal that the city had essentially wasted $89 million on failed downtown revitalization projects. In Madison, Wis., reporting on safety lapses in carnival rides leads to stepped-up state enforcement.

Finally, a word about a newspaper's institutional voice — its editorial page — and its most powerful individual voices, the columnists. Do they still matter? In the digital world, columnists matter more than ever — they are the stars of blogs and live chats, Twitter and Facebook. They form their own communities, and readers react more strongly than ever because they feel they know them personally.

Meanwhile, editorial page editors are retooling their print pages and enriching their web content to offer more reader involvement. That's as it should be — the more voices the better. The editorial page also has a responsibility to lead, to be a strong and informed voice about what's best for the community. Recognizing that role, candidates, policymakers and special interest groups eagerly seek face time with editorial boards, trying to sway their opinion, and editorial pages are required reading in city halls and statehouses.

A good newspaper is a lamp to its community, shining light in dark places and showing the way. That lamp still burns bright in America's newsrooms.

Charlotte H. Hall is senior vice president and editor of the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel. This column is part of a series distributed through the American Society of News Editors.


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Comments

Ellis Smith June 9, 2010 | 6:27 a.m.

No argument here or with the first three opinions in what appears to be somewhat of a series.

But if what is said is true, and if the public is really convinced that it's true, why is it deemed necessary to continue restating what appears to be obvious?

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin June 9, 2010 | 12:33 p.m.

I'm also kinda sorta tired of the "newspapers are so great, read all about us" columns. They seem out of touch with various new realities, and locally anyway, more than a tad hypocritical.

Among local journalists and newspapers -- even with the J-School -- I only rarely recognize the watchdog function Charlotte Hall describes and praises.

But I consistently recognize it among the local "gadflies" and "indefatigable public citizens," who ironically often find themselves the object of editorial dismissal or backhanded journalistic scorn (G. Kennedy's recent column on the anti-Taser groups a refreshing exception).

And how can all the praise about "a newspaper's institutional voice — its editorial page — and its most powerful individual voices, the columnists," possibly be true at publications -- like the Missourian -- that don't pay their columnists a dime?

What about the powerful institutional voice at that other local newspaper? Powerful for whom -- us, or the good ol' boy factions at City Hall?

Rather than praising thyself, journalist: heal thyself.

This world of ours -- which is being suffocated by bad leadership in universal and creepy ways I've never before seen in my lifetime -- needs you now more than ever.

(Report Comment)
Rob Weir June 9, 2010 | 1:49 p.m.

Mike, out of curiosity, do you consider yourself a journalist?

(Report Comment)
Rob Weir June 9, 2010 | 4:08 p.m.

To disambiguate, because a couple of people in the office have asked me, my question for Mike is driven by actual curiosity -- I'm not meaning to be leading at all. I think Mike performs a valuable watchdog function, I just have never known whether he describes himself as a journalist, and as I've had a recent class discussion about whether journalist = blogger I thought I'd have him weigh in.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin June 9, 2010 | 8:29 p.m.

Rob:

Not sure why this question keeps coming up, but here goes once again.

I'm a science and technology journalist and just now had time to come up for air (have been on deadline for 4 different publications over the past 2 weeks).

With few exceptions, I work for $1.00 to $2.00/word.

I've been a science journalist since 2000, starting with UPI in Washington not long after Helen Thomas left and the Reverend Moon bought the joint (the umpteenth owner in as many years -- but hey, we were two long blocks from the White House).

It was a second career for me and a great training ground with a still top-notch staff. I was the U.S. Capitol science correspondent, the Rev paid well ($72,000/year + benefits), and I enjoyed myself. I broke a lot of stories, and made a sport out of staying two steps ahead of my British nemesis, New Scientist.

Tobin Beck and John O'Sullivan -- my editors at the time -- sponsored me when I joined the National Press Club.

After working in DC, I wrote for UPI from Columbia. I then wrote for NewsFactor, a tech newswire based out of L.A., as their Chief Technology Research Correspondent for roughly 4 years.

I gradually took on clients and now write for about 60. When I need a change of pace from interviewing sources and banging on keys, I renovate houses in the central city.

Here are some of my UPI stories:

http://www.notablesoftware.com/Press/Mar...

http://www.physics.ucdavis.edu/~savrasov...

http://www.aegis.org/news/upi/2001/UP010...

http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2002/03/...

And several others:

http://www.the-scientist.com/article/dis...

http://harvardmagazine.com/2009/07/virtu...

http://www.agd.org/publications/articles...

http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/conte...

http://www.americancraftmag.org/blog-pos...

http://illumination.missouri.edu/f09/mol...

I've also been an on and off member of the National Association of Science Writers.

You can visit
http://www.weeklyscientist.com

for links to my other stories, reader comments, etc.

(Report Comment)
Rob Weir June 10, 2010 | 11:01 a.m.

Thanks Mike. I was referring more to your work with the Columbia Heart Beat blog. As I said, the eternal "does blogger = journalist" question came up in a recent class.

(Report Comment)
Joy Piazza June 10, 2010 | 1:01 p.m.

That's an interesting response Rob. Gets me to thinking: when is a journalist not a journalist? When blogging? But then the Missourian has blogs to which journalists write, as well as the local Trib, as well as innumerable print and online categorically news sources, as well a innumerable "media" sources...magazines, television, journals, and so on. Would be a good topic for discussion in one of your classes.

(Report Comment)
Rob Weir June 10, 2010 | 2:35 p.m.

The question isn't so much whether someone who works for a media outlet and also blogs is a journalist. It's whether a blogger (on any given topic) is a journalist if he or she doesn't work for a media outlet.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin June 10, 2010 | 7:13 p.m.

Though I don't entirely understand the question, here's a reasonable Wikipedia definition of journalism that might help:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Journalism

It doesn't seem to include for what or whom you work, just what you do.

My contribution to the J-school student discussion would be that journalism is in great flux these days, and any professional boxes you create that are too narrow, constrictive, or provincial will not help you once you graduate and start looking for work, a paycheck, or an entrepreneurial endeavor all your own.

Constrictive definitions might help J-schools charging big tuitions; troubled "media outlets" that hate additional competition; or cheapo publications that don't want to pay for your writing or other content.

But they will not help you.

(Report Comment)
John Wolpers June 13, 2010 | 10:56 a.m.

For the most part, Ms Hall is correct, although I don't feel it is as good as in the past. Economics have led newspapers to hire unqualified reporters with little or no journalism training. The other problem is the disappearance of family-owned newspapers. As corporations buy newspapers, they replace publishers with ad people or business managers who don't understand the true role of newspapers, and profit becomes the number one driving force of the "business".

But still the main problem with newspapers is credibility. The doctor can cure the rash, but if he ignores the heart, the patient dies. As long as newspapers in their national coverage continue to support advocacy journalism instead of objective journalism through columnists, editorials and the Associated Press, newspapers will continue to die and the local imporance will be moot.

(Report Comment)

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