Reviewer James Broderick, Ph.D: James is an associate professor of English and journalism at New Jersey City University. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he is the author of six non-fiction books, and the novel Stalked. His latest book is Greatness Thrust Upon Them, a collection of interviews with Shakespearean actors across America. Follow Here To Listen To An Interview With James Broderick.
Author: Michael Shawn Smith
Author: Michael Shawn Smith
An old joke – apologies if you’ve heard it: if you laid all the economists in the world end to end, they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion.
What was once true of economists is now true of journalists: no two seem to be able to agree on just where journalism went wrong – or if it did – and what needs to happen to fix it. Nor is there any agreement on what the demise of the printed newspaper might mean to the profession – or our society – and whether news organizations should charge for content on line or keep giving it away for free. There’s also a wide-ranging debate about whether media companies should return to “serious news” – a la Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series “The Newsroom” – or continue to give readers the feather-weight, inoffensive, “info-tainment” that’s become a staple for many broadcasts and much of what passes for news these days.
There’s simply no consensus – well, almost no consensus. The only thing most people in the field can seem to agree on is the likely continued growth of “community journalism,” seen increasingly as perhaps the only bright spot in the ever-dimming landscape of profits and readership. While major metro daily newspapers continue to struggle, there is growth in the local sector, from long-standing community weeklies to hyper-local websites like Patch and other neighborhood-based spin-offs.
Given the importance of community journalism to the future of the information economy, it’s surprising that the field hasn’t garnered more attention from the various journalistic braintrusts. There are only a handful of genuinely useful, comprehensive guides to the practice of community journalism. Adding his voice to the hopefully growing genre is Michael Shawn Smith, with his Confessions of a Community Journalist.
Smith doesn’t claim that his book is the end all-be all of community journalism, but rather a collection of practical tips from someone who has been successful in the field for the past decade. Smith’s pragmatic approach, rooting his ideas in day-to-day practice, gives his book credibility. What he advises community journalists to do is, mostly, sound advice. The book, however, varies from most other texts in the field with its emphasis on design and photography, and a thoroughly underwhelming consideration of writing-related issues.
For example, the chapters on photography and design go deeply into specific techniques, from F-stops to the intricacies of layout programs like Quark. Smith gives pages and pages of technical advice on how to get the best pictures and how to lay out pages (though, God Bless him, he still advocates the old-fashioned use of hand-drawn page dummies – a man after my own heart). Yet his chapter on how to write news or features is almost laughable. Any community journalist looking for guidance regarding how to structure a lead, use transitions, incorporate quotes, follow various models like the so-called “inverted pyramid,” or any of the other nuts-and-bolts of building a story will be mostly on his own. Likewise his discussion of interviewing, which is a critically important skill that gets only passing consideration in the book. It seems pretty clear that Smith spends a lot more of his work day worrying about the look of his pages rather than their editorial content.
His discussion, however, of how to integrate social media into an overall approach to community reporting is superb. Any reporter struggling with Facebook and Twitter, wondering how to use these burgeoning tools to reach readers, will find much valuable advice from Smith. Valuable also are his tips on filing Freedom of Information requests, a potentially thorny area that Smith navigates with admirable clarity.
When Smith ventures into what might be termed “philosophical” areas, such as his discussion of “Community vs. Corporate” (which he frames as an undeclared battle between the honest and heartfelt reporting of civic-minded local reporters vs. the heartless grind of daily metro newspapers and hit-and-run television opportunists), he makes some points that many journalists will find objectionable. He seems to believe that community journalism is, somehow, more noble, or more conducive to serving the public. My experience in the field suggests the opposite is just as often the case: many community journalists are hamstrung in their ability to pursue the truth, unable (or unwilling) to report on scandal, corruption, or malfeasance due to their need to maintain friendly ties with their sources. To put it another way, you can’t run an expose about a ticket-writing scandal in the local police department and still expect the police chief to make time for you each week to go through the police blotter. If you’re a community journalist and you attack the local school board for approving no-show contracts, good luck getting the board secretary to return your phone calls. I wish Smith had addressed more thoughtfully this very real tension that almost all community journalists face. His version of the profession sometimes veers dangerously close to the distinctly dissimilar field of pubic relations.
Yet, it’s not philosophy that most community reporters need to worry about, and for those matters that will consume their day-to-day work life, Smith offers an abundance of useful information. This book will be helpful to anyone in the field. Given the rapid changes going on in journalism, no one is really sure what model will eventually emerge, but most likely the core mission – and the set of skills Smith addresses – will still play a role. As another old joke goes, “Why did God create economists?” Answer: “To make weather forecasters look good.” Hopefully, journalists will continue to have more credibility than that, and books like Smith’s should help ensure that’s the case.