Awards are nice, but it’s community service that matters

Posted on November 01, 2010 by Janet Coats

Congratulations to my friends at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune for winning the Online News Association’s Knight Award for Public Service. The award recognized the H-T’s series “Flipping Fraud,’’ which documented just how much of the Florida housing crisis was spawned by fraudulent real estate deals.

It’s been a good year for the H-T on the awards circuit – the ONA award comes six months after the paper was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Recognition like this is an important outward sign of the seriousness and quality of a newsroom’s work. In a city that takes justifiable pride in its support of intellectual pursuits and the arts, there’s reason to be grateful for a news organization that takes its own commitment to enriching civic discourse so seriously.

While journalism awards are nice to get, I always said as editor of both the H-T and The Tampa Tribune that the awards were just frosting. The work was what mattered, and it needed to be work performed in service of the community – not in just as awards bait. I think the H-T has kept community service at the center of its journalism, and it’s nice to see work like that be recognized by peers in the industry.

Community service should be what journalism is all about, but too often it has been about competition, for attention and for awards. I grew up in a newsroom culture that talked about “owning the story.’’ I never believed that was the right way to think about journalism. The story, I believed, never belonged to those of us in the newsroom. It belonged to the community, and our job was to serve as a responsible caretaker of it and get it to its rightful owner.

But now I think even that model is basically flawed. There is no one story; the life of a community is a tapestry of many stories. Newspapers and news websites can tell some of those stories, but they can’t – and never could, not even before the days of slashed newsroom budgets – tell them all.

Newsrooms need to move beyond their role of caretaker of the few stories they can tell and embrace their position as one part of a larger news and information ecosystem. Their role in that ecosystem is an important one, because even with diminished resources, traditional newsrooms reach more people and have more journalism capacity than any other single organization in a community. It’s what newsrooms do with that position and capacity that will determine whether they can stay relevant in a changing news environment.

Instead of focusing on what has been lost in the slashing and burning of newsrooms during the last four years, smart editors are looking at how they can best use the resources they have and partner for the rest.

That’s why I’m so interested in what my friend David Boardman and his colleagues at The Seattle Times are doing. David is editor in Seattle, and I talked to him at ONA some about the networked news project they’ve been engaged in there.

The Times is developing a journalism network with Seattle bloggers and micro-local news sites in which they truly work together to serve the information needs of the community. The Times has avoided some of the so-called partnering models other newspapers have tried that have been downright offensive in their heavy-handedness. They haven’t tried to get bloggers to migrate into space on the Times own site. They haven’t tried to shape or change the coverage or the voice of their partner sites. And they haven’t tried to divert traffic to the Times’ site; the traffic goes to the site that originates the content.

The result is a spirit of good will – and better coverage for the community. David spoke of an instance when there was a major fire in the early morning hours. The community site in that part of Seattle got to the scene long before any Times reporters – and Times readers benefitted by being able to get to that coverage easily and immediately. But the Times had more resources to put to the whys and hows of the event – and the community site readers got the benefit of that coverage.

The networked news project, which was enabled in part by a grant from J-Lab, isn’t focused only on breaking news or neighborhood news, either. They are finding ways to explore tougher community issues through this broader coalition of news organizations. Last month, The Times worked with community sites on a project about homelessness in Seattle. It was project made richer by the grassroots insight into the issue the community sites brought to the work.

What is making this effort work is the attitude. The newspaper doesn’t see itself as the news giant, towering over the community. It sees itself as part of a larger system. David and his staff understand that a healthy news ecosystem is good for the community, and even better for the newspaper. Because a community whose information needs are well-served is a community that wants to know and understand more.

It is a community that understands the value of journalism.

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