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The Community Meets The Cosmopolitan

With all the navel gazing that goes on in the media, it's interesting that very little time is spent discussing whether or not there are fundamental differences between big city/east coast journalism, the kind that is associated with places like CBS and the New York Times, and the small town variety of journalism that makes up a significant – if unheralded – portion of the media universe.

A story Monday in the Boston Phoenix by Mark Jurkowitz shined some light on the issue. It's the tale of a reporter named Margaret Menge, who had contributed to U.S. News & World Report, the New York Press, and the New York Observer, and who took a job a few months ago at the Union Leader, in Manchester, New Hampshire. Eight weeks later, she was asked to resign. She told Jurkowitz that the managing editor for news told her that she came to the paper "with a New York attitude. We do community journalism here."

Now, this story isn't a perfect test case, and the details suggest the situation is more complex than it first appears. But terms like "New York attitude" and "community journalism" provide an opening to explore some of the philosophical conflicts that exist between different factions of the media.

"I do think there is more tension than is generally acknowledged," says New York University Associate Professor of Journalism Jay Rosen, who authors Pressthink.

Rosen points to an essay from Howard M. Ziff called "Practicing Responsible Journalism: Cosmopolitan versus Provincial Models." (Stay with me here for a second – we'll depart the realm of academia shortly.) "It's interesting because he didn't use provincial in the negative sense," says Rosen. "There are different ethics here depending on whether you're working in a 'small town newspaper' vs. the cosmopolitan press. It has to do with the fact that small town journalism is based on the idea that there is a common membership that the journalist and the users or readers all accept and celebrate. In the cosmopolitan press, it's assumed there are a lot of competing beliefs and memberships."

In a small town, of course, you are much more likely to run into the people you cover in the supermarket than you are in a big city. Randy Hammer, executive editor of the Pensacola News Journal (circulation 63,257 morning, 80,317 Sunday), says that fact "prevents you from taking cheap shots. You have to be able to sit down at breakfast the next morning and be able to face the person you wrote about and defend what you wrote about. It doesn't make you back off of doing tough stories…It makes you think hard about being fair."

Jurkowitz started at a small paper called the Brookline-Newton Tab, where as a young editor, he recalls, he got excited about "an investigative foray into a little extracurricular gambling at a local VFW Post." Instead of congratulations for the piece, however, he got dirty looks. "Not everybody wants '60 Minutes' style reporting in their backyards," he says.

Do they instead want more in the way of positive stories – the good news that some critics say Americans don't get enough of? Hammer says that in Pensacola "we really stress people doing positive things" – a community member becoming a teacher of the year, for example, could be a front page story. Many cosmopolitan journalists, of course, would disagree, turning up their noses at the notion that such a story is front page news.

Does that mean the old model for success and competence in journalism – go to a small newspaper, learn the basics, and start climbing up the food chain, hopefully encountering a few crusty, knowledgeable editors along the way – is in some sense flawed? After all, the values of the small town media outlet, which sees itself as part of the community it serves, don't much square with the impulses of the ambitious green reporter who wants more than anything to afflict the comfortable.

Hammer, for one, has learned he doesn't have much use for the latter. He used to recruit from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, which he says produces "great young journalists," but stopped because many saw his newspaper as a stepping stone to their next job and not ultimately a part of a community they could call home. "A lot of community newspapers end up with people who really don't care about the community they're in," he says.

Spending some time at a small town media outlet might, if nothing else, temper in an ambitious reporter some of the condescension that Rosen says infects the cosmopolitan media. "Elite journalists want to believe that their counterparts in Des Moines or Oxford, Ohio are under pressure to print good news," he says. But Rosen says it's more complicated than that. He dismisses such an attitude as the "sentimental, self-flattering view of the elite."

"In somewhere like Birmingham or whatever it's hard to think of yourself as not a part of the community," he says. "When you are in that situation the journalism you do and can do and want to do is just different. And to describe that as good news versus bad news or boosterism versus truthtelling is just a load of crap."

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