It’s About Community… and Fairness

Community Journalism_gg63136827Not long ago I downloaded an 128-page tome entitled “Key Editorial and Business Strategies: A Case Study of Six Independent Community Newspapers.”

I am a skimmer so I jumped to the meat of the piece and was eagerly reading and highlighting sections I liked before some unusual wording prompted me to look at the introduction.

Turns out the research came from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Turns out, too, that the principles that make a successful community newspaper are somewhat universal.

Some of you already know that I have moved from being managing editor to general manager/editor of the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle and the Raton Comet. Some of you may be wondering what that means to the future of those newspapers. Let me be frank:  I hope it means they will be profitable and will stick around for years to come.

Whether or not we achieve that goal depends on my vision — and my team’s vision — for the newspapers so here’s what we want for you:

• We want you to feel a sense of ownership for your community newspapers. To quote from the South African study, “When a newspaper is established and run for profit… it does not mean that community members, , advertisers and employees do not experience a sense of ownership in relation to the publication.”

• We want you to trust the content of the newspapers’ pages. There is a second publication that guided me the first time I worked for the Chronicle a few years back called “Best Practices for Newspaper Journalists: A handbook for reporters, editors, photographers and other newspaper professionals on how to be fair to the public,” written by Robert J. Haiman for The Freedom Forum’s Free Press/Fair Press Project. It will come as no surprise to many of you that most people surveyed by the Freedom Forum still viewed the press as “an important institution in our democracy” but they viewed certain journalistic practices as “unfair.”

It may surprise some in my profession how readers define what is “unfair,” though. Complaints included factual inaccuracies, an unwillingness to admit mistakes, arrogant or elitist attitudes, prejudicial reporting, an unwillingness to reflect the entire community fully and fairly and, my favorite, their belief that the press is “biased,” says Haiman, “not with a liberal bias, but with a negative one. There is too much focus on what is wrong and what is in conflict, and not enough on reporting and explaining what is working and succeeding.”

Apparently a few American newspapers could learn from their South African brethren who, according to the study, “steer clear of reporting contentious and particularly political issues in a biased way and… tend to keep their reports brief and factual.”

• Does this mean we will, from now on, only report “happy news?” Absolutely not. This newspaper will strive, as successful South African papers do, to “be a source of education and information for readers.” Like them, we “cannot completely ignore less pleasant stories.” Rather, we will strive to provide readers with solid journalistic content” that goes “beyond community announcements and press releases.”

• We will strive to contribute to the growth and success of our communities. We will “refuse to make money at the expense of the community’s well being.”

After all, your success is our success and I do hope you will come to see that the latter is also true.

—Ellen Miller-Goins is the General Manager/Editor of the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle.