How Two Veteran Journalists in Opposing Media Encouraged a Sense of Community in a Georgia Town

Article excerpt

In the latter half of the twentieth century, a print and a broadcast journalist collectively reported on the people and events in Savannah, Georgia, for more than 100 years. As exceptional as their record of longevity, however, was the way in which they went about their jobs. Newspaperman Tom Coffey and TV anchor Doug Weathers practiced "community journalism," not only reporting upon their audiences but forming a mutually beneficial relationship with them. It is an approach whose beginnings date to the earliest days of American journalism but whose practice is becoming increasingly rare today. This article explores how these two men defined their daily work in a distinctive manner and the impact their efforts had on the community as they worked with the people of Savannah rather than trying significantly to alter things.

Journalism historians traditionally have focused their research on national media outlets and their employees. Studies of men and women breaking stories at the New York Times or the Washington Post have been common while small-market print journalists, on the other hand, have received limited attention. "The common misconception is that the community paper is a small version of the big-city daily," observed Jock Lauterer in 2000.1 Metropolitan and small-market newspapers share a basic form, but the philosophy that has guided day-to-day activities in each is dissimilar. The same difference has been evident in local television news. "Little has been written about the history of local television, unless the station has had some national significance or a national personality attached to it," noted Michael Murray in 1997.2

Some of these oversights can be attributed to the assumptions that journalism in smaller markets has not made a significant impact or has not been well done. Both assumptions reflect an uninformed perspective. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were 9,698 newspapers in the United States, of which 9,451 (97 percent) could be classified "community newspapers." Those were papers with circulations of less than 50,000.3 Phyllis Kaniss pointed out in 1991 that "although long overshadowed by the national media, local news has always played an important role in the way a city and region understand its problems, its opportunities, and its sense of local identity."4 When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the U.S. in 1831-32, he was struck by how Americans in small towns participated in journalism: "They [local newspapers] permit many people to think the same thoughts and to feel the same feelings, simultaneously."5

This led practitioners of this segment of journalism to refer to themselves as "community journalists." One of America's more distinguished editors in the first half of the twentieth century, William Alen White of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette, was a small-town journalist. He believed his job, in a community of less than 10,000, was to report "the sweet, intimate story of life."6 Lauterer, a former community journalist and now an academic, has labeled this level of activity "small j" journalism. It is where a local newspaper, or less commonly a broadcast station, has played an integral role in the livelihood of its community and where the citizens have reciprocated with a heightened level of connectedness and allegiance. Despite the size of the media in these markets, added Lauterer, "their impact [has been] large."7

Several books have dealt with community journalism, but they have largely been devoted to how to practice the craft. While the authors utilized historical examples of distinctive activities, a definitive history of community journalism has not been produced. This is not surprising, given the broad range of community journalism outlets that have existed and the diversity and limited lifespan of many of them. In 1961, Kenneth Byerly wrote apparently the first book on the topic; in 1996, the staff of the Hartford Connecticut) Courant produced a text that outlined the unique strategies for producing community journalism; and Lauterer adopted a similar approach in 2000. …