In a panel discussion on Nov. 13, seven distinguished journalists from a variety of news outlets presented their differing views on the continuing importance of community journalism and potential methods of funding it.
The discussion, “How Can Community Journalism Survive in Rhode Island’’, was held to commemorate the University of Rhode Island’s annual Journalism Day, sponsored jointly by the Rhode Island Press Association, the school’s journalism department and the Harrington School of Communication and Media.
Following a series of morning workshops discussing journalistic ethics and new methods of digital storytelling, the discussion featured varied and often conflicting views on the steps local news organizations should be taking to stay relevant and profitable in the world of online journalism. Moderated by “Newport Daily News” executive editor Sheila Mullowney, the panel was held at noon in the Memorial Union ballroom.
Tim Cotter, managing editor of “The Day” in New London, Connecticut, stated that he is optimistic about the survival of local journalism due to the lack of small town coverage he sees from larger outlets like the “Providence Journal”.
“The South County Independent did a great job on social media, online and in print, and that’s where I got my news on who’s going to represent me on the town council and who’s going to represent me in Providence on the legislature,” Cotter said. “I think that’s made it an exciting time for small papers. We’re the ones who are really delivering the community news and if you’re interested in community news, you need to come to us.”
Fellow panelist Brian Jones, founder of the “Rhode Island Library Report” and past “Providence Journal” reporter, said he was shocked to hear about the lack of coverage from his former paper. Jones noted that during his 35 years at the “Journal”, the paper had 13 bureaus throughout Rhode Island and Massachusetts and printed seven local editions. He agreed with Cotter’s comment that large news sources are no longer able to provide adequate local coverage. “I am not optimistic about whether we can ever regain the huge newsgathering organizations that I was privileged to be part of,” he said.
Also optimistic about the future of local news, “The Westerly Sun” editor David Tranchida brought up what he refers to as the “refrigerator door” factor.
“Parents want their kids’ first grade field day picture,” he said. “If they’re lucky enough to get in the newspaper, they want to clip it out. They want their dean’s list and their honor rolls.”
Tranchida argued that the placement of such information in a local paper is more than just an ease of access.
“Anyone can print that on their home printer,” he said. “But when it’s in a newspaper or published online by a news organization, it means someone else has looked at that information and vetted it and felt that it was important for other people to see.”
Scott Pickering, the general manager of East Bay Newspapers, disagreed with the idea that the “refrigerator door” factor holds much weight after the advent of social media.
“I don’t think it has the same magnetism that it used to,” he said. “[Parents] can put it on Facebook and they can do it within five seconds and all their friends see it and celebrate it, like it and share it.”
One suggestion Pickering offered to new journalists was to ignore less interesting stories in order to focus on more eye-catching news.
“If you’re going to do 10 stories a week as a reporter, what if you were to just not do the bottom three?” he said. “They’re going to stink anyway and no one’s going to read them. So take the seven and do them that much better.”
Pickering suggested that reporters might choose not to attend every zoning board meeting if it doesn’t appear to be newsworthy.
“Go to the school committee meeting where the PTO has rallied 57 mothers who come in angry about a topic,” he said. “That’s the school committee meeting you have to be at because that’s the one that everyone cares about. The rest of them? Maybe not.”
Jones disagreed with Pickering’s suggestion, explaining that attending every meeting is a required part of discovering the more interesting stories.
“The reason you go to the zoning board and the school committee and you listen to the police scanner is not because you have to do it,” Jones said. “It’s because that’s where you find out that they’re really good stories.” Though he agreed with Pickering on picking and choosing meetings to an extent, Tranchida referred to coverage of government meetings as required “mission work.”
Another point of contention between the panelists was Jones’ suggestion of foundation- or government-based funding to keep news organizations in business. As an example of the former, Jones referenced the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news outlet covering state government in Texas, that has become a multimillion dollar operation. Cotter agreed that a nonprofit news source is a viable option, citing the grant-supported CT Mirror as responsible for “some of the best journalism in Connecticut now.”
Jones cited the BBC as an example of a great government-funded news outlet.
“They’ve been able to keep the firewall between the government interference and the independence of this robust news organization going,” he said. “News is too important to let die, and if it comes down to it, somehow the government has to support it at the local level as well as the national and international level.”
Pickering disagreed with the idea, citing the differences between the U.S. and U.K. governments.
“I just think the culture here is too far removed from that,” he said. “There’s such an independent capitalistic mentality here.”
Pickering was also critical of the idea of grant-based journalism.
“It would thin the landscape,” he said. “You can’t publicly fund everyone. I think the number of companies would decrease because there wouldn’t be enough to go around.”
Overall, the panelists agreed that while the future is uncertain when it comes to funding small news operations, the necessity of local news coverage will never cease to be a necessity.
“Yes, there are a lot of things that are going to change,” Rhode Island Press Association President Paul Spetrini said. “The one thing that’s not going to change is that quality reporting is always going to be very important and very vital.”