Module JD070

Local and Community Journalism

Module author

Robert Quigley

The University of Texas at Austin

Learning objectives After you have completed this module, you will be able to:
  • Understand the role that local journalists play in their communities;
  • Explain the needs of the audience for local journalism;
  • Understand the beats that are critical to covering a community;
  • Know how to work those beats effectively;
  • Know how to cultivate strong, diverse sources;
  • Connect with your community, anticipating their needs and wants;
  • Understand the modern tools that journalists can use to reach audiences and tell stories;
  • Know the journalistic ethics behind covering local communities.

Chapter 1: The role of journalists in a community: their responsibilities and why it matters in today's age
1.1 How is a community defined? Who are the stakeholders?
1.2 The difference between community journalism and national/international reporting
1.3 What does a community need?
1.4 Do journalists still matter in today's age?
1.5 What are the ethical considerations that journalists should follow?
1.6 What is the role of a print journalist? Of a broadcast journalist? Of a web journalist?

Chapter 2: Local government
2.1 How to prepare to cover this beat thoroughly
2.2 Cultivating sources specific to government reporting
2.3 Understanding open records and open meetings laws
2.4 Covering meetings
2.5 Uncovering wrongdoing
2.6 Covering the court system/judicial proceedings

Chapter 3: Local education
3.1 How to prepare to cover this beat thoroughly
3.2 Cultivating sources specific to education
3.3 Covering school board meetings
3.4 Finding trends in education stories

Chapter 4: Law enforcement
4.1 Listening to the scanner
4.2 Cultivating inside sources beyond the public information officer
4.3 Covering breaking news

Chapter 5: Lifestyle/features
5.1 Writing style and how it differs from other beats
5.2 Unearthing great stories
5.3 Writing top feature leads
5.4 Choosing the right quotes
5.5 Crafting the perfect drumroll conclusion

Chapter 6: Local sports
6.1 What to cover
6.2 Writing preview stories, with a focus on local athletes
6.3 Covering games and events

Chapter 7: Local Business
7.1 Growth/development
7.2 Employment
7.3 Economics/taxes
7.4 Real estate

Chapter 8: Using social media to connect with the community
8.1 What individual journalists should do on social media
8.2 What the news organization could do to connect with the community
8.3 Social media best practices
8.4 Using social media during breaking news

Chapter 9: Multimedia in a small newsroom
9.1 Why use multimedia?
9.2 Shooting great video with a smartphone
9.3 Blogging
9.4 Free/cheap tools

Study points 2
Preview Local and Community Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that Local and Community Journalism is important

Many societies have shifted from small communities that share important information through local newspapers to sprawling populations that rely on mass media to distribute its most important, relevant issues and events. As corporations began to take over many local media outlets, news agencies began to make decisions with an emphasis on expansion and commercialization. As the journalism industry matured, it outgrew small-town America and gravitated towards stories of regional or national interest. This shift created an absence of quality local media reporting that the public desired. To fill this void, the public now relies on the expertise of local reporters and writers. Community journalism is the platform that is reconnecting citizens to their immediate surroundings in this frenzied, contemporary world.


Why study Local and Community Journalism?

Quality local journalism is relevant because it allows citizens to make informed opinions about relevant matters based on unbiased reporting of current events. A journalist's duty is to record statements made by public entities and disperse them in a way that truthfully informs the public. Investigative reporting is necessary to separate false claims for the sake of gain from true informative content. Local journalists can maintain relationships within a given community that allows them access to key fact holders. Citizen's news media consumption has dropped because of news's lack of relevance. The community needs journalists to fulfill their need for information about local public concerns.

Local journalism informs the public of perils in their immediate environment. Society always has, and always will, consist of a part of the population who seek to gain at the expense of others. The public needs watchdogs who will stay abreast of threats to the immediate population so that they can avoid harm. More threats come in the form of product deficiencies and environmental dangers. Local journalists have the ability to maintain relationships with those in the community charged with public safety. Solid reporters access these public figures regularly and can disperse urgent information from these sources to the public.

Local community journalists also protect the public from corruption and oppression. The media's role is to act as an overseer over powerful business and political entities. Due to time and resource constraints, mass media reporters often regurgitate candidate and executive statements without investigating them. Detailed investigation of local figures requires the research, skills, knowledge and connections of a local journalist. Community journalists act as a voice for the people and helps level the playing field against those in power with resources beyond the means of the common man. A journalist's work has the power to pull small groups of people together to work towards correcting injustices perpetrated by those who abuse positions of authority at the expense of the public.

Community residents rely on local media to stay connected to their community and those in it. Today's citizen has many responsibilities to themselves and others leaving little time for them to regularly discuss and discover current community information. Populations have become too large and widespread for one person to realistically scrutinize all people and things that interest them. Local media acts as a clearing house for this purpose. Readers use local media to learn about people's successes, challenges and losses. A local journalist knows what issues are pertinent to those in their community.


Local and community journalism in today's media environment

Local journalism is important in today's media environment because it provides a level of service to the community that large media outlets cannot. A large media outlet does not keep the resources to report events of importance from every community in the country. If it did, it still doesn't have an efficient resource to report those findings to consumers near the event's source. Local citizens are not vested in mass media stories other than by their human connection. Local journalists account for roughly 20 percent of the reporters in the industry. This is the polar opposite of past industry trends. Even on a local level, change is fast paced and needs extensive coverage. Local reporters are sorely needed to keep up with the pace of rapidly developing events.

News outlets now produce the same amount of news with fewer resources. To keep profits up, large media groups cut staff as much as possible. The resulting tradeoff is equal production with less staff at the cost of quality work. Large media outlets seek out stories that appeal to a mass audience and lean towards ready-made stories that are not timely but are easily producible. Although these stories may hold the interests of many throughout the country, they don't speak to local communities directly. Weather, traffic and sports reports take up a large share of media real-estate but do not offer significant information. Regardless of the venue, the need to fill media slots with stories outweighs the importance of producing well thought-out factual news. Some major news companies are turning to automated news producing programs that compile stories without human interaction. The industry needs local journalism outlets that are more community focused than its larger peers.

Local news stories are often plagued with errors and inaccuracies. Mass media reporters often must rush to meet tight deadlines. Many of these submissions contain grammar and spelling errors because editorial staffing is tight as well. Today's reporter is too time-pressed to diligently confirm facts. An overwhelming number of industry reporters have admitted to fabricating facts to make deadlines. The news industry needs an infusion of fresh talent so that reporters can focus on quality rather than quantity.

Profit drives modern media. To fulfill that need, large agencies push writers to present stories in a way that excites the public. Often reporters will use bait and switch tactics in their title or opening announcements to gain a reader's interest. Once the reader views the scheduled advertisements, the story typically ends up being no more than a brief narrative used to draw attention. These tactics often lead to the public losing trust in media outlets and eventually not considering them as a serious news source. Stories that are somewhat exciting are often over-hyped and run repeatedly. Local journalists have the ability to cover stories that are actually exciting to their audience and present them to the public.


Local and community journalism in today's journalism practice

Knowledgeable local journalists are vital to protect unwary citizens from corporate interests. Due to staffing cutbacks, major media outlets cannot cover many important stories. They lack the resources to produce in-depth coverage or thoroughly fact check information. Public relations departments produce their version of stories for the media to promote their brands. Businesses support these press releases with mass media advertising. The media bombards the public with sponsored messages more than ever. Local reporters understand how these businesses interact with the community and can inform the public accordingly.

Non-profit news organizations are unable to sustain their business model. In attempts to provide their communities with pure news driven content, non-profit news agencies pop-up around the country regularly. Raw energy and the promise of the freedom to deliver news that's important to its readers bring these entities to life. Unfortunately, these agencies do not stand the test of time. Non-profit news agencies have not been able to maintain operations based on the donations of its subscribers. Local journalism needs agencies using standard for-profit business models to thrive.

Despite reductions in circulation, print media will not disappear entirely. Print media remains the most cost effective way for local businesses to advertise. Advertisers realize the value of an impression that will last longer than its screen displayed alternatives. Although this is just a segment of local journalism, it's important to mention it to show that the foundation of local news media will always be present. Local media outlets will always connect the local business community with its market and provide a relatively inexpensive outlet for non-business advertising needs.

With today's growing media practice of recycling news, society needs reporters who create news stories from their source of origin. Consumers find no value in absorbing the same information repeatedly. When the local community fails to see the value in a media outlet's coverage, the outlet simply becomes a utility for finding out basic information. Without a valid source of information citizens become uninformed and detached from their surroundings. Rehashed news does a great disservice to its community. Public readers need local reporters to inject fresh stories in the news information pipeline.

The module on Local and Community Journalism prepares students for a career in various specialties and types of news organizations. It begins with an overview of the local journalism audience and how that audience differs from other markets. Registrants learn the importance of community reporting and the roles and responsibilities of local journalists. The lesson plan distinguishes the work skills necessary to cover local government, education, law enforcement, lifestyle, sports and business specialties. It goes on to examine the cultivation of information sources and the work and writing style for each arena. To round out the class, students review the importance of ethics and learn the modern tools of the local and community journalism trade.