Differences of Community Newspaper Goals and Functions in Large Urban Areas

Article excerpt

The functions fulfilled by newspapers and other media are generally summed up in global terms such as keeping the public informed or providing a timely account of current affairs. Harold Lasswell's classic statement of basic communication functions included: surveillance of the environment, correlation of the parts of society in responding to its environment; and transmission of the cultural heritage.(1) Charles Wright added entertainment to the list, and journalists have been citing the set of four functions ever since.(2) More recently, Denis McQuail elaborated on what is involved in these functions and added one in a list of basic ideas about the purposes media serve for society:

1) information - providing information about events and conditions in society and the world; indicating relations of power; facilitating innovation, adaptation and progress;

2) correlation - explaining, interpreting and commenting on the meaning of events and information; providing support for established authority and norms; socializing; coordinating separate activities; consensus building; setting orders of priority and signaling relative status;

3) continuity - expressing the dominant culture and recognizing subcultures and new cultural developments; forging and maintaining commonality of values;

4) entertainment - providing amusement, diversion, the means of relaxation; reducing social tension;

5) mobilization - campaigning for societal objectives in the sphere of politics, war, economic development, work and sometimes religion.(3)

Seldom are these functions brought down to the community level, where journalists work and live.(4) Alan Rubin recently pointed to the link between traditional notions about media functions and the uses and gratifications literature.(5) The latter emphasizes audience perceptions of how the media serve them. It is a small step toward integrating the two themes by asking journalists how they serve the community. This article reports on a project that asked a national sample of neighborhood and community newspaper editors to assess their paper's goals for serving the community.

Most of the research and criticism of newspapers focuses on the commercial press that is the core of American print journalism. Seldom have researchers examined papers beyond the commercial dailies and weeklies; however, we get a better look at the extent to which newspaper functions are universally accepted by journalists and what influences these functions when we look at community papers with different origins and organizations. How are these functions related to the reasons that led to the creation of specific papers?

Methodology

More than 35 years ago, Kenneth Byerly noted that community newspapers were "burgeoning in big city and suburban areas" and had new strength in small cities and towns. He noted that the term small town was too limited a description for community newspapers, which focus on local news and are a "community's spark," whatever their context.(6) This study focuses on urban community newspapers in the 25 largest American cities, whose size and location insure considerable diversity. This excludes county weeklies and other small town papers from non-urban areas or more distant suburbs. While it would have been desirable to include those as well, they have been examined more often in the literature and are more similar in their origins and commercial organizations.

Since no sampling frame exists for neighborhood and community newspapers, a variety of sources.(7) and a set of procedures were used to compile a master list.(8) Many community papers are so small that they are easily overlooked. They also make frequent changes in staff, location, format and function as they grow. Since the goal was to obtain diversity of community papers, the study limited representation from newspaper chains where multiple papers emanated from a single office. …