Book Review: Why Listening to Community Voices Could Help Revive Local News
By Dan Kennedy
If a new generation of community news organizations is to grow and thrive, then we need a renewed sense of civic engagement. And in order to foster that civic engagement, we need journalism that doesn’t just report the news but also listens and collaborates.
Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust, by Andrea Wenzel. University of Illinois Press, 220 pages, $25 in paper.
Philadelphia and its environs are emblematic of what’s gone wrong with local news. The area is served by a well-regarded metropolitan newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and a powerhouse public radio station, WHYY, as well as various television newscasts. But the focus of those outlets is regional, not local. At the grassroots neighborhood and community levels where people actually live, journalism is scarce and looked upon with suspicion.
Rebuilding local news in places like the Philadelphia area is the subject of Andrea Wenzel’s Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust. Most books about the future of news examine financial alternatives to the moribund advertising-based business model. Wenzel, though, takes a different path: encouraging collaborative storytelling networks among journalists, residents, and other stakeholders. Such networks, she argues, will bolster trust and contribute to the renewal of civic life.
Rooted in an impressive range of on-the-ground research, Wenzel has observed and participated in projects across the country aimed at bringing communities together with journalists. From South Los Angeles to the South Side of Chicago, from Bowling Green, KY, and its rural hinterlands to Greater Philadelphia, she has listened to residents’ concerns as they have tracked news coverage, sat for interviews, and taken part in discussion groups. A former radio producer who’s now an assistant professor of journalism, media, and communications at Temple University, she has written a book that will be welcomed by anyone who wishes to understand how ordinary people interact with the news.
Wenzel’s work in Philadelphia reveals two distinct shortcomings with news coverage. First, in the African American neighborhood of Germantown, residents distrust the media as outsiders who don’t care about their lives and who rarely take an interest in their community except to report on violence and dysfunction.
“Numerous participants argued that local news would be more valuable if it focused less on violent crime and more on community issues — both challenges in the community and positive developments,” she writes, citing housing and development, gentrification, education, jobs, transportation, and the state of the business community as topics that residents said were undercovered.
The second problem Wenzel found was in suburban Montgomery County, northwest of Philadelphia, comprising mostly white, mostly affluent communities that have largely been abandoned by the newspapers that once reported on them. Although Wenzel doesn’t name names, at least six papers in the area are part of MediaNews Group, owned by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that is notorious for squeezing out revenues by eliminating jobs and slashing news coverage.
“In some ways, I think we’ve become disconnected in our communities,” a resident named Anne is quoted as saying. “You have neighbors that we don’t talk to, things like that. There was a day when somebody would say, ‘Oh, I saw you in the paper,’ and say, ‘Oh, hey, great job.’ That was part of the discussion in the smaller community. You don’t have that anymore.”
In Montgomery County, Wenzel writes, residents were able to make up for at least some of the coverage they lacked through volunteer efforts, such as a 4,000-member email list and various Facebook groups. In Germantown, a more hands-on approach was taken, with a community advisory group, university researchers, community and student journalists, and several media partners coming together to form the Germantown Information Hub.
Efforts to bring the community into the news conversation can be traced to the 1990s, when newspapers were at the very beginning their long decline. It was during this period that pioneers like Jay Rosen of New York University began touting public journalism — also known as civic journalism — as a way of restoring the frayed bonds between journalists and their audience.
As Rosen, whom Wenzel cites, explains in his book What Are Journalists For? (1999), the idea behind public journalism was to involve the community in shaping news coverage. For instance, citizens might be asked, through polling, focus groups, and public meetings, what issues concerned them the most. Coverage of a political race could then be planned to reflect those concerns. Not only would the result be more relevant, but readers (or listeners or viewers) would believe they had more of a stake in the outcome.
Public journalism failed to achieve liftoff, and it sputtered out within a few years. For one thing, it was labor-intensive and, thus, expensive. For another, traditionalists, led by the editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post, criticized the idea as an unacceptable intrusion on the part of news organizations into making the news rather than merely covering it. But the ideas that animated public journalism did not go away. As digital technology became more robust, comments on news sites, blogs, and, later, social media gave rise to renewed optimism about the possibility of carving out a role for the public.
Rosen began referring to “the people formerly known as the audience” as a way of describing once-passive readers who could now talk among themselves and talk back, providing a form of instant accountability and fact-checking for news organizations that may or may not have welcomed such exchanges. Unfortunately, online comments at most news sites turned out to be a cesspool of sociopathy; and, as it turned out, few bloggers had the time or the temperament to make a real contribution to civic life.
Nevertheless, the dream lives on. My 2013 book, The Wired City: Reimagining Journalism and Civic Life in the Post-Newspaper Age, is largely about a nonprofit news project called the New Haven Independent, which engages its audience in ways that both Rosen and Wenzel would find heartening — it provides comprehensive coverage of life in the city’s Black and Latino neighborhoods; it moderates comments so that they are actually a useful part of the local conversation; it stages community events at which the “former audience” can be heard; and, in recent years, it has operated a low-power radio station featuring voices from across the city.
Projects such as the Independent, though, are the exception. As Wenzel describes it, few of the people she spoke with have the sense that the media are listening to them. “It’s like we’re reality shows,” Wenzel quotes a Chicago resident as saying. “The more crazy people act, the more they watch.” Another Chicago woman put it this way: “My kids are not gang-bangers, they do good in school. What about us?”
Nor is the complaint that the media are arrogant and elitist restricted to communities of color. In rural Ohio County, KY, Wenzel found that residents detected a sense of smug superiority from the national press, which disdains them for their conservatism and support for President Trump. Said one woman: “I get the feeling that they stand back and they wait and they watch and find the person that’s got about four teeth, you know.”
If I have a quibble with Community-Centered Journalism, it’s that Wenzel takes an overly academic tone given that her book is aimed squarely at giving a voice to ordinary people.
She writes a lot about solutions journalism and engaged journalism, which are phrases that at least are used among journalists and whose meaning is relatively clear without having to be explained. But she often invokes something called “communication infrastructure theory,” or CIT, which attempts to describe “the network of residents, community groups, and local media that are all involved in circulating community stories.”
And in case you aren’t quite sure what “trust” is, Wenzel will explain it for you: “I adapt Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman’s factors, conceptualizing ‘trust’ as perceived accuracy and credibility, respectful and equitable representations, and benevolence of motives.” All right, then.
Fortunately, Wenzel is a smooth and stylish writer, so her use of jargon impedes neither flow nor understanding. One word that I tripped over, though, was objectivity. As Wenzel puts it, “scholars have found a relationship between practices associated with objectivity, such as maintaining a distance from communities, and the reinforcement of white supremacy.”
Objectivity is a fraught word in journalism circles, mainly because no two people define it the same way. According to Walter Lippmann’s original conception, objectivity refers to a fair and dispassionate pursuit of the truth, which strikes me as a positive good. Wenzel, on the other hand, appears to be referring to a caricature of objectivity: balance at all costs, even at the cost of telling the truth, and of keeping a strict emotional distance from the people we cover — what Jay Rosen derisively calls the “view from nowhere.”
Some years ago the media scholar Howard M. Ziff offered a different, and to my mind more useful, way of thinking about journalistic objectivity. He defined it as “cosmopolitanism” versus “provincialism,” with the former describing the view from nowhere often practiced at large newspapers and the latter referring to small news organizations that are embedded in their communities. Those smaller papers, Ziff argues, must make different calculations in how to cover people who are often their friends and neighbors.
Ziff takes issue with the prevailing orthodoxy that the cosmopolitan model of journalism is superior to the provincial model, writing that they are a matter of “two loyalties, two life choices of equal moral validity, neither of which is inherently better than the other, both of which have their unique sense of problems and possible pitfalls.” In effect, provincial journalism is rooted in the view from somewhere.
It is this sense that provincial journalists are part of the places they cover and that they care about their welfare that is relevant to Wenzel’s findings. Indeed, she reports that her respondents trust local news outlets more than they do national media, writing, “While national press was perceived by residents of all political backgrounds as distant, privileged, and dismissive of local culture, it was not uncommon for residents to have first- or secondhand interactions with local reporters. So while participants could identify shortcomings, there was a base-level familiarity and trust.”
Local news organizations must learn to listen better, but it’s just as important that they find a way to survive and thrive. As Penelope Muse Abernathy of the University of North Carolina has shown, we’ve lost 2,100 newspapers in the United States over the past 15 years. Many of the ones that are left are “ghost” papers — empty shells with a few press releases, a bit of advertising, and little or no news. The COVID-19 pandemic made the local-news crisis that much worse, with 36,000 employees at US news companies laid off, furloughed, or having their pay cut in just the first few weeks of the shutdown.
We may never see a return of the robust advertising-supported journalism that supported newspapers from the 1830s until about 2005. But local news projects grounded in the kind of community collaboration and deep listening that Wenzel advocates could help fill the gap created by the market failure of the legacy press. Indeed, such projects have been popping up here and there for the past 15 years. You just have to know where to look.
Wenzel’s views also coincide nicely with those of Victor Pickard of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, who argues in his 2019 book, Democracy without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society, that we need to reimagine journalism as something that is both participatory and democratic. “Community engagement in the news-making process,” he writes, “is the best way to create a new kind of journalism, one that is accountable and trustworthy.”
In her conclusion, Wenzel writes that her overarching goal was to answer a question: “How can communities access some of the power of journalism to shift narratives from exclusively negative to solutions-oriented ones and to find a variety of ways to be involved in the process of making and circulating community stories?”
For those of us who think and write about the future of local journalism, Wenzel’s question is profound and fundamental. If a new generation of community news organizations is to grow and thrive, then we need a renewed sense of civic engagement. And in order to foster that civic engagement, we need journalism that doesn’t just report the news but also listens and collaborates.
Communities and journalism are dependent on one another. If we can learn to get along at the local level, maybe that can have some effect on our hopelessly fractured national culture. Wenzel has made an important contribution by showing us how we might get started.
Dan Kennedy is a professor of journalism at Northeastern University, a panelist on WGBH-TV’s Beat the Press, and the author of two books about the future of news, including, most recently, The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century (ForeEdge). His blog, Media Nation, is online at dankennedy.net.