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Back in the day: Steven Knowlton, right, takes a break from typesetting at THIS WEEK in Forest City, N.C., as Co-Editor Ron Paris looks on. Note the delicious error in the Smoke Here Only sign. (Jock Lauterer photo)
Back in the day: Steven Knowlton, right, takes a break from typesetting at THIS WEEK in Forest City, N.C., as Co-Editor Ron Paris looks on. Note the delicious error in the Smoke Here Only sign. (Jock Lauterer photo)

Being the third installment of one man’s adventure in the Middle Kingdom

Dear Steve,

My dearest pal and cherished colleague, was it not just yesterday back in ’67 when we toiled happily together at the Daily Tar Heel — a mere blink of the eye ago?

Forgive the absence of communication, my old comrade-in-arms, and don’t mistake my silence for lack of caring, or of thoughts of you.  You appear to be whipping the Big C, and nothing could make me happier. I trust your health continues to repair under the care of your docs and most excellent wife.

You have been much in my thoughts of late, and the reason is right here on my left forearm: a large reddish-purple bruise from an encounter with a truculent riding mower. No worries; just a token of its esteem. The wound will heal, but its message persists.

The bruise is the shape of the map of China, where, within a day’s span, I will return to teach our craft.

That Community Journalism is burgeoning in China — where the practice and profession we love so much — is seen as something new and exciting is thrilling to this old old ink-dabbler.

In the world’s largest country, in the world’s top economy, in the one of the world’s worst polluters — there is much work to be done.

According to my research, most cities do have boilerplate party newspapers. But they are not truly local. Nor are they respected, trusted or believed. So I am told.

The concept of local reporting — much less Charles Kuralt’s “Relentlessly Local” community journalism — is a novel concept to this land of 1.3 billion souls, making one out of every five earthlings Chinese.

Sorta’ gets your attention, doesn’t it.

So…how cometh a former small-town newspaper publisher finds his way to the Middle Kingdom? (If, 20 years ago, when I began writing the first edition of “Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local,” you’d told the book would lead me to Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, I’d have said you were barmy!)

I lay the blame for this journalistic adventure squarely on the diminutive shoulders of one Chen Kai, associate professor at Beijing’s Communication University of China.

Though small of stature, she is now a “big potato,” as I like to tease her. For it was she who, back in the ‘90s, happened upon a copy of my book in her college library. Fascinated by the contents, she quickly realized how important community journalism could be in helping to bring about China’s long-sought after “harmonious society.”

Long story short: Prof Chen (who goes by “Karen”…yes, I realize how amazing that is — your dear wife’s name exactly…) studied with me at UNC ’09-’10, resulting in her groundbreaking book, “Introduction of U.S. Community Newspapers: Small is Beautiful,” 2011. That in turn led me to a Fulbright to Beijing summer 2011 for my first teaching junket. A follow-up trip last summer linked me with the third leg of our collegial stool: Associate Professor Ren Li of Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing. I spent a happy two weeks there last summer with his journalism students, and another two weeks touring the country teaching “CJ” in Hefei and Zhengzhou and Shanghai.

Thus united by our common passion for local reporting, we three scholars have formed something of an international community journalism consortium. We presented our preliminary findings last summer to the national convention of AEJMC (Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication) in Washington, D.C.

And here’s our headline: CJ is blossoming in China — improbable as it sounds under a state-run media system. I think local officials are beginning to appreciate how community newspapers can contribute to a community’s livability and sense of well-being.

I’ve distilled it down to this: That great community media help build, nurture and sustain great community.

Equally boggling, (at least to me) my book has been revised and translated into Chinese and rolls off the presses in Guangzhou later this month. Whodda’ thunk it?

So I’ll be there for the book release, but also to work again with Prof. Li in Chongqing, as well as several other community newspaper publishers down south near Hong Kong.

Dear old pal, are we not on parallel career tracks? I’m thinking about your community journalism teaching in Jordan, Moldova and Rumania. You’ve been there, done that, and have 15 T-shirts. How amazing that we two old newsroom rats should find our way around the wide world to teach the journalism we love. I’ll keep you posted.

— Mr. Joke (I was introduced thus at my first Beijing lecture and…well, if the shoe fits…). So be it.

Onward and upward


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