Small towns and big ideas
I can’t get Sarah Palin’s gibes about “community organizer” out of my mind. I felt somewhat sick at how raucously the big crowd laughed at the phrase every time she said it. What kind of people are these, I wondered, who disrespect the idea of organizing a community to work on its own behalf? I know it’s just politics, but hey — it was ugly.
For me there’s not a huge jump between being mayor of a small town (population size unknown) and working as a community organizer in Chicago, one of the biggest cities in America. I’m saying I respect Palin’s two terms as the mayor/manager of Wasilla, Alaska, which apparently has more than 5,000 residents and fewer than 10,000, as best we can estimate. (It’s bigger than the Pennsylvania town I lived in until I was 13 — on the edge of town, a sign claimed a population of about 1,900.)
This led me to think about journalism — small town vs. big city.
Not many people get excited about the prospect of working for a small-town newspaper, and there are all kinds of reasons for that. But you know, not many journalists feel thrilled about the idea of getting a job at a community weekly in a big-city neighborhood either. There’s my hook to the mayor and the community organizer. I don’t think we should laugh and poke fun at either one of those jobs. There is value in each one.
There’s value in producing a news product that serves the needs of a small town or a city neighborhood, but a lot of journalists sneer and poke fun at reports of church suppers and Little League baseball teams. They roll their eyes and scoff at the notion that they would ever lower themselves to writing about such drivel.
I thought about this as I listened to an NPR story about Walsh, Colorado (pop. 700). The residents are so involved in their town that when the local grocery store was about to go out of business (and everyone would have needed to drive 30 minutes to the next town to buy milk and bread), the people formed a co-op, sold shares, and kept the store open.
The story about Walsh reminded me of Keith Graham’s Rural News Network project out in Montana. Keith and a bunch of journalism students helped the town of Dutton, Montana (pop. 357, July 2007) start an online-only newspaper to replace the one that had shut down. The Dutton Country Courier is full of church-supper-style news. It also tells us the Dutton Town Council approved two new businesses in August: a coffee roaster and a DVD rental shop. No professional journalists have to dirty their soft hands to put out the Dutton Country Courier — the townspeople run it themselves, with a bit of support from the town’s public library.
RNN’s second site, Crow News (serving the town of Crow Agency, Montana, and the Apsaalooke nation), isn’t showing as much promise as the Dutton venture, but that should not detract from the model visible in Dutton. Community news can be produced and distributed throughout a small population that cares about it, and the presence of a single vehicle for such news also provides a resource for the community where bigger ideas can be discussed as needed.
Which brings me to the Knight News Challenge grants.
About $5 million is on the table for “the development and distribution of neighborhood and community-focused projects, services, and programs.” You could get some of that $5 million for your own big idea in a small town or geographic community.
A lot of people miss the sharp focus of the KNC grants, so let me hammer on those:
- A project base using digital, open-source technology. Keys: (a) digital, so not print and not broadcast; (b) open source means you don’t own it, and it’s not proprietary.
- The public interest. A Dr. Who fan club is not going to cut it.
- Benefit to a specific geographic community. They are not interested in all hockey moms across the state of Alaska, or all disabled veterans across the U.S. They really want a focus on a town or a community.
LeRoy Collins, a former governor of Florida and later president of the National Association of Broadcasters, is credited with having said this about public-interest radio and TV:
Broadcasting to serve the public interest must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship, and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product.
This applies to governance as well as to journalism. Without any non-governmental vehicle or platform to serve the public interest, however, I think democracy falters, or even fails.