August 19, 2006

The Little Interest Group that Could

A San Francisco Journal from outgoing head, Jock Lauterer

Forgive a purely personal perspective here, but as the founding (and now outgoing) head of your interest group, I can’t help but reflect on how far we’ve come.

Truth be told, the launching of the Community Journalism Interest Group last year at San Antonio, where we had our initial programming, was preceded by many years of consensus-building among peers from across the country. In fact, the genesis for COMJIG goes back to the mid-‘90s.

So, to those COMJIG’ers who participated in this year’s medley of research paper sessions, panels, scholar-to-scholar sessions and/or our mini-plenary session — a huge thank you. You don’t need to be told how meaningful and worthwhile our sessions were this year at AEJMC/San Francisco. But you do deserve a big shout-out from the outgoing founding head (who has promoted himself to ex officio fairy godfather emeritus).

To those COMJIG’ers who missed San Fran, I hope the following summary stirs your intellectual pot; we need you in DC ’07, and you need to be there for yourself!

As I look back on AEJ/San Fran, I am filled with a bone-deep sense of satisfaction. What a meteoric rise we’ve had. Three years ago COMJIG wasn’t even on the map at AEJMc except as a glimmer in the eye of your founding head; now with 93 members, we’re a certifiable positive force, a community of scholars doing immediately practical and significant research, vital to the academy and the industry.

So I like to think about COMJIG as the Little Interest Group That Could.
For we thought we could, as we toiled uphill huffing and puffing to ourselves, “I think I can I think I can I think I can.” And by golly, we did it. Just take a look at this year’s rich and robust slate of programming described below.

Our sessions were fairly well attended (always room for improvement there) with lively Q&A resulting in consistently positive feedback as each session broke up. In fact, it seemed to me at least, that each session led in an orderly progression from one to another, with a growing sense of academic weight and intellectual import, so that by conference’s end, we all had been exposed to an exciting new body of work which advances our field and the understanding of the reach and importance of CJ in a truly significant way.

Here’s the run-down on our programming at San Francisco.

Weds, Aug. 2
10-11:30 a.m.
“Connections that Matter: Theories and Methods for Researching Community Media”
This teaching session, the brainchild of outgoing Research Chair Bill Reader, was co-sponsored by the Graduate Education Interest Group and designed to help researchers who want to do work in the area of community media. Moderated by Reader, the session featured:
•Liz Hansen of Eastern Kentucky,
•Janice Hume of the University of Georgia,
•Steve Lacy of Michigan State,
•Wilson Lowrey of the University of Alabama and
•Lisa Coble- Krings, a master’s graduate from the University of Kansas.

Now I don’t want to embarrass Bill Reader with my praise, and so if I do, then remember the words of Dizzy Dean: “If you done it, it ain’t braggin’.” — because this kick-off session was just a stunner, and my meager notes don’t do it justice. With that caveat, Reader’s main point was that community journalism defies easy stereotyping, that it a style of journalism that is about much more than just “small-town newspapers,” although that bedrock is fundamentally and historically important. “It’s all about the connections and how the journalist is a member of the community,” he explained. “Community journalism takes a more holistic approach (to the community and the profession) and values the “journalist who knows his or her city or community.”

Let me underline that Reader’s session was a first-of-its-kind for us at AEJMC. Each of the presenters shed light on his or her own work and the challenges they faced and met. It made for an absorbing “best practices” workshop.

The outgoing chair for research at COMJIG, Bill has piloted our IG through the first critical two years of paper calls, submissions, reviews and presentations. That he has accepted the vital post of vice head for next year, with programming responsibilities, can only bode well for the future of COMJIG!

1:30-3 p.m.
Referred paper research session
Moderating: Bill Reader, Ohio. Our second-ever refereed paper session featured the immediately practical and significant work of the following community journalism scholars:
• Lisa Coble-Krings, Kansas, “Weekly Dilemmas: A Study of Community Journalism, Connections, and Ethics in Small Towns.” (top student paper)
• Yanela Gordon, Florida A&M, “The Historical Mission and Evolution of the Capital Outlook Newspaper.” (top faculty paper)
• J. Steven Smethers, Bonnie Bressers, Amber Willard, Linda Harvey, and Gloria Freeland, Kansas State, “No Union in Humboldt, Kansas: Readers’ Perceptions of Loss When a Community Loses Its Newspaper.”

3:15-4:45 p.m.
Other Voices, Other Newsrooms: Ethnic, Alternative, Urban and Community Media
Niche publications, the ethnic press, urban alternative weeklies and community weeklies have enjoyed a period of robust growth. What comes as a shock to nearby major metro dailies, which have been suffering from circulation declines, doesn’t surprise those who work at such community publications that cater to specific affinity groups.

The brainchild of outgoing Head Jock Lauterer and incoming Head Peggy Kuhr, this mini-plenary session (thanks to P. Kuhr) was a smash success, as large group of scholars heard from area leaders from a diverse set of Bay Area publications explain why their media outlets were such a success.

In the words of Sandy Close, such publications are thriving “because in a media culture, belonging, having a sense of visibility — it’s a vital way for people to feel validated.”

Our Community Journalism Interest Group took the lead on putting this panel together. Here it should be said in italics that incoming head Peggy Kuhr not only took this ball and ran with it, but also that she steered this year’s entire COMJIG programming effort with grace under pressure. It was a joy to work with her, (though I must de-emphasize my role, for when I say “work” I mean she did most all of the heavy lifting). COMJIG is good hands with Peggy as incoming head.

COMJIG also had co-sponsorship and help from the Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender Interest Group, Magazine Division, and the Religion and Media Interest Group. Vikki Porter, director, the Knight New Media Center (Southern California and Berkeley) moderated.
Panelists were:
• Sandy Close, Pacific News Service and New America Media
• Vanessa Carias, El Show de Vanessa Carias, and Avance magazine
• Daisy Hernandez, Colorlines magazine
• Cynthia Laird, Bay Area Reporter
• Becky O’Malley the Berkeley Daily Planet

Thursday, Aug. 3

11:45 a.m.-1:15 p.m.
What’s Next for Newspapers and for Journalism Education?
Our group was the co-sponsor in this SRO session led by the Newspaper Division’s Wilson Lowrey, of Alabama, who moderated this session.
Panelists were:
• Andrew DeVigal, co-principal of the interactive firm Devigal Design, San Francisco State, who called on universities to concentrate on teaching multimedia skills.
• Jan Schaffer, director of J-Lab, The Institute for Interactive Journalism, Maryland, who called on universities to teach more entrepreneurship.
• Phil Meyer, author, The Vanishing Newspaper, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who said, “Newspapers are on a pretty straight downward trajectory,” and “content has very little to do with it … we need to create students who can provide the creative solutions.”
• Jerry Ceppos, former vice president/news, Knight Ridder; and former executive editor, San Jose Mercury-News, who chided newspapers for being so slow to put news online and journalism educators for not teaching students how to expect change. “Journalism educators should lead the profession, not the other way around,” said Ceppos, who also campaigned for a required ethics and fairness class.
• Mary Nesbitt, managing director, Readership Institute, Northwestern, who said J-schools still should teach the fundamentals, but also that students need to “have a sense of who they’re writing for,” which brought her to praising community papers, saying, “the smaller to mid-size papers who feel the connections (to their communities) are great destinations for our grads.” And she pointed out that of this year’s Editor & Publisher 10 Newspapers That Do It Right, six were small to mid-size.

3:15-4:45 p.m.
Working Hurricanes Katrina & Beyond: Was There Any Way to Really Prepare?
Loret Gnevicki Steinberg of the Visual Communication Division took the lead on this panel, while Community Journalism was the co-sponsor. Outgoing COMJIG head Jock Lauterer moderated the session, introducing the topic by saying: “When all hell breaks loose, newspapers are there not because journalists enjoy documenting the suffering of others, but because it’s their job to show and tell the human condition, what it’s like to be in this place in this time when this event is happening – and to make meaning out of chaos. These “riders in the storm” weren’t passive detached observers, but citizen-journalists (or journalist-citizens) actively swept up in the storm surge of events larger than anything they’d ever covered before. As Katrina swept into the Gulf Coast, out went the notions of a detached, aloof, unbiased press. For the media outlets of the Gulf Coast could not longer point the critical fingers and say “your end of the boat is sinking,” for they were indeed – all in the same boat.”
Panelists were:
• Meg Spratt, of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, said that better training is needed for post stress traumatic disorder, not just for victims but for journalists too: “We need to know the physical and emotional needs of our journalists,” and that media outlets need to have pre-planned evacuation, food and fuel plans.
• Norris Babin, co-publisher, Belle Chasse Watchman and Plaquemine’s Gazette, Belle Chasse, La., couldn’t attend because he had to run the press himself after his pressman quit; Jock Lauterer told his story in absentia, of how Babin and his brother fled westward from New Orleans, picking up generators at every Home Depot they could find along the way to Houston, where they regrouped, then returned and restarted the paper in four weeks; and also of how they have adopted an elderly neighbor publisher who was totally flooded out by the storm.
• Sue Morrow, a photo editor from Sacramento Bee, had been a photo editor at the St. Pete Times during the summer when Florida was raked by four hurricanes. From that experience she learned management has “to be there for the staff,” give them time off for family emergencies, and be sensitive about how storm assignments are put together: always try to have teams with at least one person who has covered a hurricane before.
Morrow stressed that she valued the lives of her staffers more than she prized a dramatic photograph from the storm, and that she forgave her shooters for “being on their knees” (literally praying for their lives) when they might otherwise been out shooting in the teeth of the gale. This point led to a lively discussion among the audience, several of whom took issue with this point of view.
• Vincent LaForet, The New York Times, was also in absentia, but sent a CD of his best work from Katrina, which Loret Gnivecki Steinberg showed, and then told the story of one of her students on exchange to London last summer when the subway bombing occurred. Loret’s student got some off the most published photos from that terrorist attack, but was so moved by the experience he didn’t want to accept pay for his work. Loret, who has counseled the student regarding his experience in London, said she realized he was suffering from post traumatic stress and that shooters in such situations pay a steep price for getting excellent news photos of disaster.

To my way of thinking, the student-photographer was lucky to have Loret as a mentor-counselor. Maybe that’s what Kevin Carter didn’t have — someone older and wiser to whom to talk.

8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Members’ meeting
At our members’ meeting we elected a new slate of officers for 2006-2007:
Head: Peggy Kuhr, Kansas
Vice Head, Bill Reader, Ohio
Research Chair: Jack Rosenberry, St. John Fisher College
PF&R Chair: Al Cross, Kentucky
Teaching Chair: Liz Hansen, Eastern Kentucky
Secretary: Eileen Gilligan, SUNY Oswego
Webmeister: Doug Fisher, South Carolina

Passing the symbolic gold pica pole to incoming head Peggy Kuhr, outgoing head Jock Lauterer said, “Now it’s time to take COMJIG to the next level. No less than 93 of us have opted in to this community of scholars who deserve the best and brightest in leadership next year.”

Outgoing founding officers were thanked:
Peggy Kuhr, vice head
Bill Reader, research chair
Eileen Gilligan, PF&R chair
Chris Martin, teaching chair
Doug Fisher, secretary

But the high point of the evening had to be when Doug Fisher, outgoing secretary, (who created the COMJIG blogsite) performed an ad-lib version of what could be called “the COMJIG Shuffle” — waving both arms around and chanting “Com-JIG! Com-JIG!” and making some decidedly hot moves without ever getting out of his chair. (Perhaps you had to be there.) Following adjournment, the executive committee reconvened at the bar for further discussion, with ex officio fairy godfather emeritus Jock Lauterer presiding and buying the first round.

Friday, Aug. 4:

8:15-9:45 a.m.
All in the Fishbowl: Campus Newspaper Initiatives with Community Newspapers
Our Community Journalism Interest Group took the lead on this session with Civic and Citizen Journalism Interest Group serving as co-sponsors.

This panel was created by Jock Lauterer, who, as moderator, asked, “What happens when the paper’s enlightened student leadership collides with and then embraces the concept of the campus as a distinct community with its own peculiar culture and distinct history and customs – and begins functions as a community newspapers – which is to say, becomes relentlessly local?”

• Andrea Breemer Frantz, along with student journalists Kristin Kile and Jamie Babbitt from Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, Pa, discussed “Getting Off the Island: Re-defining Student Community Identity Using Ingenuity and a Little Newsprint.” Breemer Frantz urged educators to combat the “island mentality” of college life by requiring journalism students to get off campus, to have assignments that force students to engage the community, and by so doing, allow students to “negotiate their own identities within the community.
• Kevin Schwartz, general manager, Daily Tar Heel, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said his paper’s wide readership and acceptance was based on a history of excellence and a foundation of financial independence. According to Schultz, it’s a given that the Daily Tar Heel will out-hustle any professional media outlet when it comes to campus coverage, and that key to their news strategy is the mantra of “local, local, local.” Schwartz says that emphasis on local news doesn’t play second fiddle to anything; they find creative ways to localize every major state, national and international story.
• Venise Wagner, of San Francisco State, led a spirited discussion of how journalism educators can and should sensitize journalism students to issues surrounding diversity in their respective communities. Students need to become aware of their “unexplored biases.” Her class created an ethnic news service for Bay Area ethnic papers. Wagner advocates “ground-up understanding of community vs. top-down” saying, “ We push our students out of the classroom.” Equipped with maps, historical background, and having heard from guest speakers talking about cultural nuances, her students explore the community by linking with community- based organizations, and by hanging out in what urban sociologists call “third places” – diners, bookstores, laundromats, etc., where the authentic stories can be heard from disenfranchised communities.
• Thom Lieb, of Towson University, discussed his very successful online project,, a Web-based student project in which four teams of students explored six communities around Baltimore with long-form multimedia storytelling. Lieb says his students began producing high quality work when he asked them to go after some issue of importance facing their respective community.

11:45a.m. to 1:15 p.m.
Regrettably, I was not able to attend this event due to a scheduling conflict. Perhaps another COMJIG’er will want to fill us in on these sessions.
• Rita Colistra, North Carolina-Chapel Hill, “The Rumble in the Dark: Regional Newspaper Coverage of the West Virginia Buffalo Creek Mine Disaster of 1972.”
• Wilson Lowrey, Amanda Brozana, and Jean Mackay, Alabama, “Toward a measure of community journalism.”
Discussant: Bill Reader, Ohio

3:15 pm to 4:45 pm
Will Civic Journalism Become a Subset of the Citizen Journalism Movement?
The Civic and Citizen Journalism Interest Group took the lead on this session with COMJIG as the co-sponsor.

Moderator Cole Campbell, of Nevada, Reno, said he was disappointed in the conference programming, vowing, “We are not asking any new questions,” and that “the work of our group is more important than ever.”
Panelists were:
• Leonard Witt, Kennesaw State, who gave a brief overview of the history and development of the civic journalism movement.
• Cheryl Gibbs, of Miami of Ohio, who has introduced a beginning reporting text but through the lens of civic journalism.
• Jan Schaffer, executive director, J-lab, at the Institute for Interactive Journalism, University of Maryland, who praised the development of citizen journalism.

The discussion seemed to center on what has happened to the civic journalism movement, where it’s going and what to call it now. COMJIG’s incoming head Peggy Kuhr playfully suggested to the panelists that a lot of what they were describing sounding like Community Journalism — and why not just call it that?

*** *** ***
Onward and upward.
So, even before the dust has settled from this year’s convention, we are already thinking about our third year of programming for next August 9 –12, 2007, in Washington, D.C. If you have a suggestion, a wild hair, a zany idea for a panel, NOW IS THE TIME to contact programming guru, Bill Reader, our incoming vice head, at
And now is also the time to start thinking about your research paper submissions. Incoming research chair Jack Rosenberry will send out our paper call on January 1, 2007. Come and be a part of our community of scholars!

As community newspapers diversify and flourish, citizen-based journalism spreads and major metro newspapers start acting and looking like wanna-be community newspapers, our work becomes even more important.

Mark your calendars now for next Aug. 9-12 at the Renaissance Hotel in D.C.

--Long live community journalism!

Jock Lauterer
Outgoing head
Incoming ex officio fairy godfather emeritus
Community Journalism Interest Group
213 Carroll Hall cb 3365
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, N.C., 27599-3365
(919) 962-6421

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