Are you connected with the community you cover? That may be hard to answer honestly. Sort of like asking, "Are you nuts?" You may not be the best authority on that. But it's likely that you could use some improvement. On the connection thing, I mean.
Philadelphia Daily News journalist-columnist-blogger Will Bunch spells it out in an AJR piece titled "Disconnected:" "I myself was a poster child for the newsroom gypsy that [Jim] Batten was decrying." He describes a "lack of connectedness" at the rival Inquirer that "was surely a factor" in the Inky's loss of more than one-third of its readers since the 1980s, and his personal and sometimes painful journey away from journalistic detachment that he accomplished through his blog, Attytood.
It reminds me of the journey taken by Mary Lou Montgomery, editor of the tiny Hannibal Courier-Post, which I described last year in a post titled "Live newspapers and dead deer."
With the best of intentions and concerns about ethics and standards, we've built walls between journalism and the people and places we write about. America's newspapers were founded by activists, boosters and community-builders. The institutions they built had hearts and souls that over the years have been lost, forgotten, or just thrown away.
This problem is not peculiar to America. Simon Jones, a former newspaper editor who's gone over to government work in a London borough, writes in the Press Gazette that "The very best papers want to be at the heart of their community and are produced by people who understand the area."
But he also describes many regional and local papers as "afterthoughts, poorly produced by undervalued, disillusioned sub-editors in centralised “pods” where the only relationship to the area they are serving is through a worn-out A-Z."
That's led local government councils to produce their own newspapers, something that's not likely to happen in America. Reflecting a community-building mission, these papers seek to "ensure that residents are not disconnected from what is happening in their neighbourhoods" and "have an underlining obligation to promote community groups, businesses, charities, local sport and the arts."
Bluffton Today, our lowcountry South Carolina project, has gotten a lot of attention for its focus on community blogging, but its greatest success has been in print readership. The reason seems to be that community voice, community interactions and community building are deeply embedded as newsroom priorities. Participating in the Web conversation is just one of many ways it's done.
Awhile back we conducted some market research in several communities, part of a NewspaperNext-inspired effort to identify poorly met needs. We applied the same research techniques to both external and groups -- including customer service reps and journalists. Across the board, the largest gaps were between the responses from community members and those from journalists. CSRs were much closer to the community.
The exception was Bluffton. The process of participative listening -- both on the Web and in person -- really works. We're not stuck in a world where newsroom culture constitutes a barrier to success. We're not doomed to be disconnected.