Community Journalism as Ministry

By Bob Litton

As a teenager I was what some might call “religious”. I even declared in a formal vow before our small Methodist congregation my intention to go into the ministry. It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that my understanding of the minister’s role and of my own motives were off base.

I learned that the minister is as much or more a business manager as a preacher of sermons and comforter of the ill and bereaved. One day I received a letter from some organization addressed to “Rev. Robert Litton”, and I hadn’t even completed the course for a preacher’s license yet, much less been ordained! Nor would I have liked to be addressed as “Reverend” had I been ordained. Then there was the day our pastor terminated the colored custodian, whom I liked very much, because he was “unreliable”.  I could add more, but enough is enough.

It also occurred to me that what I really wanted to do was stand at a pulpit, explicate the Bible verse, and tell people how to live their lives in accordance with Christian values.  All of a sudden I saw such a self-image as self-glorification. I dropped the notion of ministry.  I also dropped my association with the church and, I thought, my spirituality.

However, I found out that it’s not that easy to drop one’s spirituality — one’s spiritual seeking or yearning as I much later came to view it. But that is another subject that I might develop one day; right now I just want to concentrate on the broader sense of ministry.

Also while I was a teenager a wise lady told me, “Any honest work is honorable work”. And it is a commonplace within our society to speak of an honest trade or profession as a “calling”; it is not only ministers who are “called” to perform certain tasks.

Eventually, after stumbling around through various fields — school teaching, social work, carpet sales — I settled into community journalism, i.e., working as a reporter for small town newspapers and a radio station. I was editor at two newspapers, reporter for two others, and contributing correspondent for two more. And now I have this blog; because, you see, I’ve got what the old-time journalists used to call “ink in my veins”.

During all those 20 years of reporting for various news media, I came to realize that I was, after all, involved in a ministry — a ministry that needn’t cause me to blush, assuming that I pursued it honestly and humbly. At first I just wanted to write because I enjoy “word-smithing” in a fashion that is clear, concise and convincing.  I just wanted to describe the people and the country around me much as was formerly done by writers for the New Yorker magazine in the informal essays under the “Talk of the Town” column.

It didn’t take long, however, for me to discover that the citizens of those towns expected more of me.  They didn’t want me to just describe the happenings at county commissioners’ court meetings and city council meetings; they expected me to spotlight my subjects, either through exposé or through simple background education. All of a sudden, I was in fact telling people how to live their lives according to civic values, if not specifically Christian values.

A self-change like that can easily go to one’s head. Hanging onto one’s humility or modesty can become a struggle. Also, the reporter/editor, if he has any values, will become aware that his/her editor or publisher may not share those values. Like the church, a news medium is not just a servant of the people: it’s a business.  The publisher, especially, has his eye more focused on advertising revenue than he does on editorial content.  When the latter negatively affects the former, the publisher will sit down on his editors and reporters. Take the weekly full-page ad from the local grocer, for instance. If the grocer’s daughter’s name shows up on the police blotter for DWI or shoplifting, many a publisher is going to erase any mention of the incident in the reporter’s police log. The publisher doesn’t want to jeopardize his biggest advertiser’s account just for the sake of “fair and balanced” reporting.

But let’s return to the “ministry” aspect of community journalism.

The reporter and the editor can find a thrill in laying out before their neighbors full and clear accounts of local governmental meetings. It is largely through those reports, usually read by more than a thousand eyes, that the American ideal of self-governing continues. The best reporters and editors will concentrate on developing that completeness and clarity, not primarily to bolster their egos but to support their fellow citizens — at least the ones who care — in their efforts to govern themselves. In other words, the small-town editor/reporter can become immersed in and enjoy the many facets of grass-roots democracy.

Provided the editor/reporter is a gregarious person, he or she can also gain much from gathering stories from individuals about their conditions and adventures. For some of us, it is a thrill to walk down Main Street the day a paper is published or a radio story broadcast and receive either kudos or railleries…or damnings…from our neighbors and readers. (Even the damnings inform you that the people are at least reading your stuff.) And to interview most of those people for either a hard news story or a feature article can enlighten the journalist in surprising ways and degrees about the varieties of human nature. It’s as if those folks magically changed from two-dimensional beings to three-dimensional persons.

But enough for now of sweetness and light.  There are the harsher aspects of chronicling a small town or county’s life.  I’ve already mentioned one: the economic pressure on the publisher to earn a living and the ethical compromises to which he can succumb. But there is another side of the publisher’s personality that is vulnerable: his or her view of the sensational. This publisher here might be so timid and ignorant of, or indifferent to, journalism’s highest purposes that he will block any story that reflects badly on the community, regardless of the non-existence of any danger to advertising revenue. That publisher there might be so hysterically addicted to sensationalism that he will fabricate a story just to see tempers (and his subscription level) rise: Recall the famous anecdote about how “yellow journalism” publisher William Randolph Hearst told Frederic Remington to just provide the pictures, he (Hearst) would provide the (Spanish American) war.

Even the idealistic reporter or editor is not immune to imbalance in his/her work. Regardless of  how much a writer may struggle to write a fair account of some person or event, there will be readers who perceive a “slant” in the article. And, no doubt, we all do have subconscious drives that cause us to depict a subject in an imperfect manner, often simply by the choice of some particular verb, adjective or noun. That can’t be entirely forestalled, only striven against.

Then there is the factor of compensation. I assume that the national news media folks are well-paid; certainly they are when compared to community journalists out in the hinterland. In this regard, community journalists can be compared to school teachers, the majority of whom receive deplorably low wages because their employers assume that they derive much compensatory enjoyment through their creative jobs. Also, after Watergate and the glory-lift that episode gave to reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, there was a huge influx of students into journalism schools. And there are many hacks now with indifferent skills who are willing to report on a meeting or a ball game just to see their name published as a byline.

Perhaps I have concentrated too much on the “harsher aspects” of community journalism. After all, no occupation that I know of is free of its downsides, especially the downside of office politics.  As one former publisher said to me, “If you have three people working together, you have office politics.” That, in fact, was my Achilles heel: I couldn’t cope with the office jealousies and sniping.

In spite of all that, I treasure the memories of my days covering news stories and helping my communities develop their democratic muscles. That’s why I hate to see similar opportunities fall out of this new generation’s hands. The “newspaper of record” seems to be fading into oblivion in many communities, along with the competition among two or more papers in a single town. News print is continually becoming more expensive. Many major dailies closed down forever last century, and the smaller papers who depended on those dailies’ presses to publish their own issues have fewer and fewer places to turn for their own survival.

The Internet is to a large extent responsible for these major turnovers. Cyberspace has become crammed with periodicals, both large and small; and, just as anybody can now “publish” his or her own book online, so can any bubblehead with an opinion (rational or not), who knows how to spell and punctuate, turn out a deceptively attractive “newspaper” on the Internet. It’s a veritable Tower of Babel.

And Facebook-style “social media” notwithstanding, where’s the “community” in that?


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