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Community Building Through Journalism: Neighborhood Newspapers Make a Difference

s-mug.jpgby Sonya Jongsma Knauss

When David Burton at the University of Missouri wrote the words above, he was describing a trend towards smaller, more localized newspapers in his state. He says, “Southwest Missouri is dominated by small community newspapers, which throw their news and editorial weight behind providing local coverage. The finest community newspapers know they are key stakeholders in the forces that help build and grow their communities.” Riverwest Currents was started with a similar philosophy — that it is good to work and live and be involved in your immediate community. That people who live in Milwaukee neighborhoods care and want to know about what’s going on right where they live. That if you tell people who their neighbors are, and what’s happening nearby, they will be empowered and better able to participate in public life and the democratic process. As Tom Tolan wrote in his book, Riverwest: A Community History, institutions like the church, which used to hold urban communities together through a common bond, are in decline. Instead of walking to little neighborhood shops for groceries and other necessities, attending church together, and having a few drinks with neighbors at the corner tap, neighbors today have far less in common. Often media is the only institution to create a common culture — and television is generally the medium of choice. What does it mean when you turn on the nightly news and hear about a grisly murder in Colorado, a raging forest fire in California, and a few sound-bite snippets about Milwaukee’s mayoral race that tell you more about political strategy than anything the candidates might actually stand for or do once in office? As former Journal Sentinel reporter Gretchen Schuldt asks in her page 5 article, why can Milwaukee residents reading the city’s only daily paper find out more about what’s going on in Ozaukee County than what’s happening in their own backyards? While some cynics might tell you that people simply don’t care — they just want to live their lives, go to work, get a paycheck, zone out by watching TV when they get home — I don’t believe that’s true for most people. If that was the case, the Riverwest Currents would not have enjoyed two years of growth in size and quality, thanks to the contributions of residents eager to be involved. We want to be connected, to know our neighbors, to hear what’s going on. Again, from Burton: “Providing the news and information that helps hold a community together doesn’t preclude telling the hard stories or voicing unpopular opinions. Community journalism isn’t synonymous with mediocrity. Community journalism means having newspapers concentrate on being a fair-minded participant in public life, with journalists as citizens, instead of reporters being detached.” Community newspapers are different from standard daily newspapers because they tend to be more invested and involved in their communities. In journalism school, I was taught that this is a “conflict of interest.” Some objectivity purists would go so far as to say a journalist can never legitimately be involved in any community organization or activity because that would compromise their ability to objectively report on it. We make no pretence of objectivity. We have a perspective, and it is this: that it is good to live in the city of Milwaukee. It is good to be part of a vibrant neighborhood. It is good to participate in the public life of the neighborhood and the city. Many of those who work to put this newspaper out every month are also involved in other areas of the community. But while we won’t claim objectivity, you can expect fairness and balance in reporting. I ran into retired UWM journalism professor and media critic Dave Berkman at an event last week, and he was lamenting the American public’s inability to see through the Bush administration’s lies. “I have this theory about Americans,” he said. “They don’t pay attention unless someone pulls their pants down.” While it might take sex, intrigue, or violence to get attention in the sea of information that the mass media constantly spews, we think that focusing on things that are a little more personal and closer to home can do the trick as well. At least, people tell us they’re reading. They’re writing in when they don’t think we’ve done a good job of covering a contentious issue. And they’re buying ads for their local businesses, because they know we value and support local commerce. Ted Glasser, director of Stanford University’s graduate program in journalism, in his book The Idea of Public Journalism, talks about what has happened to the idea of a common good and concludes, “it is not realistic today to expect individuals to reach across their social and ideological differences to establish common agendas and to debate rival approaches.” But we believe good newspapers can serve as a valuable community forum when they make an effort to be involved in the communities and with the people they serve. Newspapers alone can’t conquer racism, rebalance wealth, or keep people and businesses from moving out of city neighborhoods to the suburbs. But we can play a large role in resisting these and other forces at a local level. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . CORRECTIONS: A March feature on 3rd District aldermanic candidate Carole Wehner incorrectly stated that she has lived on the East Side for 8 years. She has lived on the East Side for 28 years. In an editor’s note last month the Riverwest Currents incorrectly referred to Walt Chowanec as the owner of Melanec’s Wheelhouse. His brother owns the property.