ROADSHOW 15: In Which Mr. Joke Returns to His Roots
Fresh from his adventures teaching community journalism in China, “Mr. Joke” (because many of my Chinese hosts could not pronounce “Jock” correctly) hits the blue highways of the Old North State with the 15th iteration of the Community Journalism Roadshow, a public service initiative of the Carolina Community Media Project at the UNC-CH School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
A Letter to a Very Young Reporter
This summer’s Roadshow began with a May 13 visit to the Hendersonville Lightning, a three-year-old start-up launched by veteran N.C. journalist Bill Moss, who told me he wanted me to speak to two very green cub reporters — both college students who have never before worked at a community paper. The opportunity gave me reason to dig deep and try and say something fundamental about our core mission, the so-called DNA of community journalism. This is what I told them.
To my fine young friends at the Hendersonville Lightning.
This morning as I sat on the deck of my old log cabin, listening to bird song and creek chortle, I thought about what I wanted to say to you.
And this is something of a Community Journalism Manifesto.
First, I am an unapologetic and unrepentant champion of community newspapers – small local-angle dailies and weeklies — especially locally owned and operated independent community papers, most of which are weeklies, like the Lightning.
Today my message to you is that of assurance and hope.
Community Journalism is alive and well out there on the Blue Highways.
For the last 15 summers I have crisscrossed the Old North State, giving free, on-site workshops at community papers from Murphy to Manteo, literally from Wolf Creek to Whalebone. From the Cherokee Scout to the Outer Banks Sentinel.
And I can tell you with utter confidence that after visits to 185 papers that the doom and gloomers, the professional mourners, sadly prognosticating the death of newspapers, well, they need to get out of their offices and beyond the Beltline.
They need to spend a day in a robust newsroom — like that of the Pilot of Southern Pines, the Transylvania Times of Brevard, or the Sanford Herald — and grab a cup of joe while talking shop with a fourth generation independent publisher like Charles Broadwell of the Fayetteville Observer.
If those circling buzzards would only accompany me on the Community Journalism Roadshow, they would see that the demise of newspapers, most especially, COMMUNITY newspapers, has been like Mark Twain’s premature obituary…”to which the great Twain is said to have responded: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
In fact, a new book, titled thus, “Greatly Exaggerated,” has just been published, and author and professor Marc Edge points to how newspapers have changed, shifted, morphed and shrunk in the case of big dailies – but most importantly, they have ADAPTED AND SURVIVED.
He notes that a so-called Newspaper Death Watch launched in ’07 hasn’t added any dailies since 2009.
Prof Edge is mostly concerned with big dailies, which, according to me, were already in trouble back in the early ‘90s, (before the Internet), when I wrote the first edition of Community Journalism, the Personal Approach, now in its 4th edition, the last one, 2014, in Mandarin.
The Heartbeat of American Journalism
To my way of thinking, community newspapers, the heartbeat of American journalism, have been the saving grace, the silver lining of an otherwise volatile media landscape after the bottom fell out in ’08.
Community papers endured, weathered, survived — and in many cases thrived.
Don’t you wonder, why is that? What are the community newspapers doing right that the big guys are missing?
I’ll come to that in a minute.
First, what were many of the big guys doing wrong?
Raleigh News & Observer opinion editor Ned Barnette, writing in the May 3rd N & O, under the headline (Newspapers shrink, but survive), notes how large media companies (his parent company, McClatchy, included) got underwater in the early 2000s saddled by corporate debt — and I would add: investor greed.
Big newspapers made and make money, but much of it went – and still goes – to paying down debts, and to mollify out-of-town investors who don’t give a fig about the communities these newspapers serve.
Which brings us to our main message, the so-called “nut graph.”
Community newspapers survived, are surviving and will survive – because they serve, because small is beautiful and because local is the only game in town.
And weeklies, so called non-dailies, can pack their pages with all local news, photos, features, arts and entertainment, obits, weddings, engagements, first birthdays, check presentations, opinions, and ads – and never leave the community.
Community newspapers survive and thrive because of the SERVICE IMPERATIVE, a core working principal of their business plan, not an afterthought or add-on.
So take heart, young friends. You are entering a noble profession. No, you will not likely get rich doing community journalism; much like teaching, it is a calling, some call a sacred calling.
But you will be rich in experience, rich in meaningful relationships, and rich in the satisfaction of seeing how one person – you – can make a powerful difference for good in this sad old fractured world of ours.
You will see that when you help people tell their stories, when you give them a VOICE, that you are helping to build COMMUNITY, that most valued, elusive and precious of assets that a healthy society can possess.
For then, residents become citizens, strangers become friends, and people become stakeholders, engaged in the maintenance of their own civic affairs.
“Our most important job,” one enlightened community newspaper publisher told me,”…is to convince ordinary people that their lives matter!”
Let me close with another great quite, this one from the late great speaker of the house Sam Rayburn who said,
“Any mule can kick down his barn. It takes a carpenter to BUILD one.
Long live, community journalism!
Let’s get busy.