The role of community newspapers as promotional tools and problems therein

By T. J. Beisner
Community Journalism
University of Kentucky
Fall 2005

One role of the community newspaper in the United States has remained basically the same since the first local papers were printed more than 200 years ago. They have always been responsible for identifying important issues and news in the community and informing the citizens of these issues.

As newspapers try to compete with 24-hour media, the struggle to retain advertising dollars and a strong readership has been brought to the forefront more than ever before. In this struggle, has community journalism’s credibility or service to its community been compromised in an attempt to promote the community to the outside world and fight for advertising dollars?

To answer this question, one must begin with a firm grasp on what community journalism is. According to Jock Lauterer, a professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina, a community newspaper has a focus that is relentlessly local and has a circulation under 50,000.

It is important that a community newspaper not reach a circulation over 50,000 if it wants to maintain its identity as a community paper, according to Lauterer. Other community journalists, however, say a circulation of 30,000 is a more accurate figure. This is because, as a newspaper grows, it becomes harder to maintain its local focus and to identify issues important to the community.

When a town or community becomes a city, problems arise and the newspaper can no longer effectively be local enough with its community, Lauterer said in an interview. After a town reaches that status of a city, the paper often finds it more difficult to identify its community because the interests and beliefs vary in larger populations.

Because of this, rarely do papers growing into city newspapers effectively reach their community. Lauterer says the only one that has successfully done so is The Oregonian in Portland, a city that he feels is appropriately titled “the city that works.”

Having coverage in a community newspaper that is “relentlessly local,” means sacrificing nothing to cover the news of the community before national or state news, according to Lauterer. He also says that when this local news is reported, it is not demeaned in any way and local issues get first billing. This gives these items a place to be appreciated and sends the message to the community that, according to Lauterer, “this stuff matters.”

As a newspaper continues to take the approach of putting the community first in its reporting, a bond develops between the paper and the community over time and then the paper often finds itself promoting the town more than it had before. This promotion comes from the idea of “Who else is there to make us look good?,” but also is done subconsciously as the paper develops a pride in the community, according to Lauterer.

According to Lauterer, an example of this promotion occurred earlier this year when “American Idol” finalist Fantasia did an interview with People magazine. In this article, Fantasia describes being raised in an impoverished, rugged town called High Point, N.C. In reality, High Point is not impoverished at all and when this story was published, the town was shocked and upset, according to Lauterer.

In the Sept. 30 issue of People, Fantasia was quoted as saying that she is illiterate and was raped as a ninth grader in school, placing blame on the school system of High Point, a city that she referred to as “the land of the dead.”

In a community of 90,000 people, with many blue-collar workers in the furniture industry, this was offensive. Many people in the town were outraged and People magazine wrote a follow-up story in a later issue.

In the Oct. 18 issue of the magazine, a story ran in which two High Point citizens who wanted all signs promoting Fantasia’s new album and citing her as High Point’s favorite daughter to be removed from the city. People outlined the claims of the people in town distinctly and noted many complaints that they had received from local citizens and media.

“The local newspaper was outraged and defended its community by writing to People magazine,” Lauterer said. “The paper really defended the community against negative promotion.”

Following this new story in People, a High Point couple took to the local paper, writing letters to the editor defending their views and putting pressure on the city council to speak out against High Point’s new star. They even started their own Web page called www.FantasiaLies.com, where they made their complaints available to the whole world.

This site pointed out several false statements Fantasia made in her interview with People magazine and in her autobiography, as well as proof that these statements were false. Among the disputed information was the claim that High Point was impoverished. The site stated that Webster’s dictionary defines impoverished as “poverty stricken, or reduced to poverty”, and pointed out that High Point’s average income is $48,057, above the poverty line in the United States.

This site received coverage in the local High Point paper, the High Point Enterprise, as well as in national publications, further drawing to the town’s struggles to maintain its positive identity. The editorials and stories about the Web site in the High Point Enterprise, as well as stories on the couple’s fight to get the city council to renounce the singer, led to the council making an official statement.

Although the council did not condemn Fantasia, or remove the billboards and signs claiming to be her hometown, the council made a statement that what she said was false and asked her to make a statement doing so.

The situation was ultimately resolved by Fantasia’s father, Joe Barrino, in Oct. 2005. Barrino met with Kyle Sandler, the man in charge of fantasialies.com, to set the record straight on his daughter’s claims.

Barrino, according to a letter written by Sandler and posted on the site, said that the biography misquoted Fantasia on several things and misunderstood what she meant. Barrino acknowledges that one of the ghostwriters for the book was a member of the Barrino family and had a differing point of view than the family when it came to writing the book.

Barrino added that Fantasia loves her hometown dearly and she has been hurt over the accusations and misunderstandings. He said that although she did refer to the town as the “land of the dead,” she meant that it was musically dead and if she wanted to succeed in the music business, then she needed to move elsewhere.

The letter on the site is the final post of the site’s authors and brought an end to the struggle between the town and the singer. With the letter of explanation, Sandler agreed to remove all previous posts which referred to Fantasia as a liar.

In this situation, the High Point Enterprise had the community’s interests in mind. While it did not single handedly fight the story in People magazine, its stories covering the events helped sway public opinion and force the city council to take action to defend the city. In the end, both parties got what they wanted out of the deal. Fantasia was still welcomed in her hometown and the community got its apology and its sense of pride back.

This promotional role that the newspaper takes on can cause problems in one of two ways, according to Lauterer. The paper can either invest itself too much in community promotion and minimize important issues, or it can project a false image of the community and its ideals. When these issues occur in communities, they often occur when business or unions are involved.

One instance involving a newspaper’s investment in community promotion and development occurred in a small North Carolina town over whether to allow a Wal-Mart to move into town. According to Lauterer, the citizens of this small town, which he did not want to identify specifically, vehemently fought the requests of Wal-Mart to move into a new shopping center. The problems developed when the community newspaper did not agree.

The local newspaper took the stance of promoting the good of Wal-Mart moving in and using the “might as well be here instead of somewhere else” angle to try to sway public opinion. According to Lauterer, this was “shameless boosterism” on the part of the newspaper and is blatant disregard for the primary role of the community paper.

This primary role for the newspaper in a small town is to be an agenda-setter, Lauterer said. By taking sides with Wal-Mart on this issue and neglecting its community, the paper had not only set the wrong agenda, but it had betrayed the community it is supposed to serve.

The newspaper wanted the Wal-Mart to move in because, although the company does not advertise locally, it would attract other businesses in the shopping center and the town that would buy advertisements with the paper. The Wal-Mart came, and the paper lost some of its credibility with the community, in Lauterer’s opinion.

“Everyone knows Wal-Mart is bad for small towns,” Lauterer said, “Everything about the company is designed to hurt the community, from the wages to the monopolization of the economy.”

Another instance involving a large business and its ties to the paper caused a controversy in Russellville, Ky., in the 1960’s. This situation involved union representation at Emerson Electric Co., a factory in Russellville.

The papers in Russellville, the Logan Leader and the News-Democrat, had played an active role in the community’s economic development and helped attract 3,000 jobs to the community with the Emerson plant. While this is not “shameless” in the way that Lauterer described the Wal-Mart situation, a problem still arose from the boosterism of the papers, which have the same staff and ownership, but publish on separate days.

The newspaper had helped bring these factories to town, directly or indirectly, and helped the community grow economically, which also helped the newspapers. The factories were the big story in the town and the newspaper treated them as such.

According to Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, the newspapers gave extensive coverage to issues concerning these plants, including printing pictures of company officials and local leaders together. This gave the community a sense of togetherness with the factory and the management there.

A major dilemma arose, however, when some employees at factories in Russellville wanted to unionize. The newspaper, neglecting its role as an unbiased protector of the community, began running articles about strikes and labor problems at other Emerson plants in an effort to turn public opinion against unions, according to Cross.

Not surprisingly, the vote came out in favor of not unionizing, which was the agenda of the newspaper. The town did not react to the outcome much, but the National Labor Relations Board had something to say about it.

The NLRB threw out the vote because of the one-sided coverage that the Russellville newspapers had provided to the voters. According to Cross, the NLRB said the paper was “too rough on the unions in its news columns and even in its editorials.”

Labor issues are frequently the cause of newspapers using the promotional aspect selfishly. The reason that the newspaper involves itself in these issues is because of dollars. A newspaper, especially a community one, can only function as long as the advertising money is rolling in, and in this case, the Russellville newspapers thought the best way to attract more business was by keeping the union out of the Emerson factory.

In addition, by keeping the union out of the factory and keeping the area non-unionized, the town becomes more attractive to other factories. This helps the newspaper generate possible new customers into the city, as well as providing a chance at improving job retention and community size.

Community newspapers often pride themselves on what they are doing for their community and as the defenders. Sometimes, they get confused and see the dollar signs and forget their primary role, which was the case with the factories in Russellville.

This is an example of how a newspaper can see the need for economic development in order to get ads and promote itself and compromise its role to the community in doing so. The newspaper has improved its status economically, but has lost its credibility with its community.

This pressure for advertising dollars can compromise large newspapers as well. The Los Angeles Times fell victim to advertising pressures when it ran a special section covering a new arena that had just opened up. While this might seem innocent enough, it was what happened behind closed doors that made the special section controversial.

It is not uncommon for a community to advertise new businesses or new attractions in an effort to stir up interest or promotion in their community. Many community newspapers, according to Dr. Soontae An, a journalism professor at Kansas State University, promote these things in an effort to develop pride in their community and stir up outside interest.

In the case of the Los Angeles Times, its goals were not so noble. According to Dr. An, the newspaper crossed the ethical line when it ran its special section promoting the new arena. The newspaper had agreed to split $2 million worth of advertising revenue generated by the special section in exchange for an exclusive look at the new arena.

According to Dr. An, a newspaper as large as the Times should have known better than to make such an agreement and compromise its integrity. This was in direct violation of a code of ethics that the Times follows.

The Times adheres to the code of ethics of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. This code states that there must be a “clear separation between editorial and advertising matters.” It also goes on to add that it is unethical to promise a story in exchange for advertising.

Clearly in this case, the only separation between the editorial and advertising matters was the one going on when the money was separated into equal halves. If the Los Angeles Times can fall victim to advertising dollars, then where is the hope for small, family owned community papers?

Dr. An suggests that newspapers have never been more handcuffed by advertisers than right now and they need to make certain strides to maintain their credibility and not compromise their community.

To do this, many newspapers now have their editors serve on strategy committees, along with advertising people, to determine what readers want and how to attract advertisers the right way. They also develop ways to combat advertisers who want to influence the news stories, a problem that a study by Dr. An showed was as high as 90 percent.

Luckily for journalists facing this issue, rules for situations like these do not change and the role of the paper remains the same. Frank Gannett, a newspaper publisher and founder of Gannett Co. Inc., summed up this ethical conundrum best nearly 60 years ago.

“The independent community newspaper has two incentives: to promote the general welfare and to make money,” he said in 1948, “Like the physician, it (the newspaper) must be more concerned with the good that it does.”

This basic approach to community journalism can prevent newspapers from compromising their credibility while in search of advertising revenues.


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
College of Communications & Information Studies

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879

Al Cross, director , al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated:
February 16, 2006