One editor's definition of community journalism

Prepared remarks of Jan Larson, Wood County editor, the Sentinel-Tribune, Bowling Green, Ohio, during panel discussion at Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications conference, Bowling Green State University, Feb. 24, 2006:

Definitions for community journalism vary greatly. At the Sentinel-Tribune, we sit somewhere in that vast gray middle ground of community journalism. We don’t define the issues that should be tackled or direct the outcomes, but we listen to what our community cares about, inform the public of issues that affect them — then we follow them as they chart their course.

We do this in several ways — by putting a clear emphasis on local news through giving it a prominent place in our newspaper; offering consistent coverage of local policy-making groups; searching for the local impact of national stories; seeking input from our readers about the news we are giving them; and being personally involved with our community.

We decided about 10 years ago to make our daily format more community-friendly. While we had always focused on local coverage, we made a new commitment to our readers — showing them that local stories are clearly our priority. Our front page shifted to all local stories, except for one wire story on most days. We realize that coverage of our community is something we can do better than anyone else.

We are the only media in our area to routinely cover meetings that may be mundane — or may hold some unexpected action that could alert residents to a Wal-Mart Superstore eyeing their neighborhood, or to raw sewage being pumped into the ditch that runs past their homes.

We are frequently the only accessible source of information about issues such as an upcoming school levy or zoning change for our readers. While TV news may cover the plight of a school district on the verge of financial collapse, they don’t have the time to give their audience details on exactly how they will be affected if the levy passes or if it fails. By dedicating ample space to local controversies, we are able to go beyond the extremists on the fringes of each issue, but also seek out people in the middle ground — understanding that most stories have more than two sides.

We realize it’s not only important to listen to the loudest voices, but also those standing by quietly. It’s vital to interview not only the movers and shakers in the community, but also the powerless who are being moved and shaken by them.

Just this week, we told our readers about the lack of local dentists willing to treat patients who are under or uninsured. We told them about overcrowding concerns at one elementary school after another school was closed down. And we told them about a gambling ring raided in Bowling Green — and explained the difference between this illegal gambling and our readers’ poker games every Friday night. We will follow these and other stories as the community responds to them.

We frequently take national wire stories and look for ways to localize them. Bird flu, new voting laws and federal budget cuts are often too weighty or seem too far removed for many readers to wade through. So it is our job to tell our readers how our local officials are preparing for the avian flu, how to use the new touchscreen voting systems required by federal law, and just how those cuts in local government funds may cut into something near and dear to them.

Since our news staff lives and works in a relatively small community we are constantly in touch with local issues, even when we leave the newsroom. The people who make the decisions — and those affected by them — are the same people we run into at the grocery store, barbershop and PTO meetings. And unlike many other newspaper staffs, our editor does not discourage us from actively participating in the community. Nearly all our reporters are involved in volunteer community groups — not connected with their beats, of course. These relationships with our community keep us in touch and aware of local issues.

We also have a liberal “letters to the editor” policy, which allows all letters to be printed as long as the author is identified and they aren’t libelous. And we seek input from our readers by holding “call-in” nights, giving our audience an opportunity to tell us exactly what they think.

We have shown a commitment to our community by alerting them to hard news like a proposed landfill expansion, a mega dairy farm planning to move next door, or miles of trees being bulldozed along a river in an effort to alleviate flooding. And we tell them the human side of stories, by sharing the lives of their neighbors who face the difficult decision of putting a loved one in hospice, having to sell their farm because they can’t pay their bills, or finding a new life after years of domestic violence. Those kind of stories and photographs resulted in our newspaper winning 21 state Associated Press awards last year, including the top award for General Excellence.

We don’t subscribe to the type of community journalism that dictates which direction residents or governmental leaders should take on an issue. But by giving our readers the information they need, we give them a greater opportunity to get involved and steer their own destiny.


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
School of Journalism and Telecommunications

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

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

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

Last Updated: Feb. 27, 2006