Seeing the value of community in journalism’s future

Posted on November 23, 2011 by Janet Coats

We’ve come to think of Thanksgiving as the ultimate family holiday – a time when we gather around a common table with those we most love to share a meal and our gratitude.

But of course, Thanksgiving has its origins as a celebration of community. That first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621 was a community celebration of a good harvest. More than that, it melded the harvest traditions of two communities – Native American and European – into the beginning of a ritual that has become an American staple.

We live in a time when community can seem an outdated concept, when our focus is often on our own hearth and kin. I’ve done a lot of thinking about the meaning of community as part of my work with the New Media Journalism Initiative, and that thinking has been furthered by some of the conversations I’ve listening to lately.

Earlier this month, I heard Steven Waldman speak at the University of Missouri. He’s the chief author of the Federal Communication Commission’s 365-page report, “The Information Needs of Communities.’’ The report, issued in June, documents the major shifts in the ways communities are served by news and information providers and makes some recommendations for building healthier information systems.

In some respects, the report is a depressing narration of the gaps that have opened up in journalism during this secular shift from the old legacy models. As Waldman noted in his remarks at Missouri, 27 states have no reporters covering their representatives in Washington. Statehouse resources have declined dramatically; in Florida, the state press corps is down by more than 60 percent since 2000.

But Waldman also made the point that the one area of journalism that is showing signs of real improvement in the digital age is the community, or hyperlocal, level.

“The ability for citizens to contribute … is significant,’’ Waldman said. “It is a powerful and new capability.’’

This insight seems to me to have been the seismic change in journalism’s shift from legacy to digital. The experiments in how to use digital tools to facilitate real connection – not only virtual connection, but face-to-face connection – are under way around the country, led by entrepreneurs who are committed not just to the values of journalism but to the value of community.

The two should be inexorably linked. Journalism is a community endeavor. When done well, it becomes a community conversation. The issues journalism illuminates become part of a broader dialogue about what a community holds most dear and how those values will express themselves in the way we govern ourselves, educate our children and care for our needy.

When I look around at the independent community news sites that I’ve come to know in the last two years, I see publishers who recognize what my friend Joy Mayer at the University of Missouri says: News isn’t a lecture, it is a conversation. I see my friends at the St. Louis Beacon, who see their mission as being part of the fabric of civic life in their community. The Beacon understands that it’s role is to “meet people where they are,’’ as General Manager Nicole Hollway puts it. Digital tools aren’t the end in themselves, but a means to enable you to meet people where they are having community conversations.

I’ve spent most of the last year focused on ways to improve the financial sustainability of these community sites. It is important work, work that needs to be done with intensity and discipline, and I’ve been glad that we have been able to contribute to that effort.

But as I give thanks for my working life this year, I won’t be thinking about the dollars and cents piece of it, but rather what those business practices can enable: the gift of community.

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