Local Media Know the Problems; How About Helping Communities Get to Solutions?

In Vale, Oregon, everyone was concerned about the community college, but no one was talking about it. The local paper took a chance by producing an event to get the conversation started. An editor argues that, in some cases, the media's job goes beyond just reporting news to helping prompt discussion that could lead to action.

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VALE, Oregon — Community journalism might help get the country back on the path to civility in public affairs.

At the moment, we’re behaving nationally as two people in a conversation talking past each other. Neither side hears the other. Volume substitutes for reason.

Local journalists have the tools to change that, but the step ahead may be scary for some.

At small-town newspapers and radio stations, performance is standard. They report the news – last night’s city council meeting, the hospital bond election results. They give voice to local opinions and views – letters to the editor, guest columns, public affairs programming.

And then they call it “job done.”

Not quite.

Community journalists are uniquely poised to serve as more than billboards for local information. They have an opportunity to pull segments of a community together, focusing them on an issue of importance, whether it’s how to drive down local poverty or replace a dangerously aging school.

The need is significant for solution-aimed conversations, to get people talking.

In rural town after rural town, the same handful of leaders is tapped for civic matters. You know the type. They say yes as often as they can and they are asked because they are connected, have leadership skills, or know where the wallets are. But true leaders, those who can mold and meld community direction, are always in short supply.

Community journalists are uniquely poised to serve as more than billboards for local information. They have an opportunity to pull segments of a community together, focusing them on an issue of importance, whether it’s how to drive down local poverty or replace a dangerously aging school.

Organizations such as schools, Lions Clubs, or business organizations often are too bogged down in day-to-day issues to lead big conversations. They need to raise money to pay bills. Or there is the weekend Easter Egg hunt short of volunteers.

Community journalists are well suited to do more to address local topics, beyond reporting and providing a platform for others’ opinions.

Local journalists know their communities. They go to more meetings on more topics and get handed more reports than just about anyone in town.

They move through the community, across all sectors, and can be an effective monitor for what’s truly setting people abuzz.

If they are doing their jobs, community journalists can sense what’s troubling a community and see across the local landscape what challenges touch the most people.

They can act on that deep knowledge and sensitivity to that community vibe.

Let me share an example of what I’m talking about.

After I took over not long ago as publisher of a small rural weekly in Oregon (Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon), I was struck by the chatter about the local community college. Enrollment was declining, taking the budget with it. The faculty and college administrators were hardly on speaking terms. The community seemed to look the other way, like ignoring a couple arguing at the next table at a restaurant.

Wait a minute, I thought. This community college is vital to this poor county. For some kids, this will be their only chance of education after high school. For others, this could be the place to get training for local jobs needed to keep industry humming and draw in more. What does the community think ought to happen with their college?

Let’s find out, I decided. I put the Malheur Enterprise on the line to organize, host and moderate a public town hall. You can imagine the challenge of getting busy people – students, teachers, business leaders and more – to show up for yet one more meeting. Some college officials were leery, fearing it was going to be a forum to bash the struggling college.

A student speaks at a town hall sponsored by the Malheur Enterprise.
A student speaks at the community college forum. Stakeholders had different concerns but hadn’t been able to share them with each other formally before the forum.

We worked through the obstacles. When we opened the doors recently for the town hall, we were anxious. Would anyone show besides the speakers and the Enterprise staff? We got our answer quickly. People started flowing in. The 100 chairs set up soon were full. We added another row. And then another. We ended up with 125 or so attending. That’s a big turnout in a sprawling rural county with 30,000 people.

Speakers from the college gave tight, scripted presentations about the college – its history, finances and enrollment. Then, we opened the floor for comments. I asked people to be civil, not conduct personnel reviews, and respect the clock. One after another, people did that. College students, business leaders, parents and more stood to make thoughtful comments.

Themes emerged over two hours about what the college could do to better serve students and the community. Just as important, people heard what they could do to help the college.

To me, the success of a meeting is measured by what happens after it ends. What people do when the microphones are off says a lot. Too often, a room clears out in minutes. People can’t wait to get away. Not at this town hall, though. All around the room, people gathered in knots. They stayed and talked. They finally had to be shooed out so we could close up.

That told me everything I needed to know. We had hit a ripe topic. We had motivated people. And we had energized them enough that they wanted to keep talking.

What happens from here remains to be seen, but college officials themselves were surprised and they promised to keep the conversation going.

The next morning, the chair of the college board sent me a note.

“I could not be happier with the outcome,” wrote Mark Wettstein, a local farmer. “It brought the college together – faculty, staff, students, administration, employees and the board.  It brought the community together and gave them an opportunity to make comments.”

Bringing the community together – that’s what community journalists can and should do. This is not easy, and perhaps moves people out of their comfort zones. The benefit for journalists? We earn credibility for not only writing about a community’s troubles but exhibiting leadership to help fix them in a way that doesn’t talk down to people, but with people.

The biggest benefit, though, is we all learn again how civic affairs works, that we can find shared visions and shared solutions for what we all agree are issues of the day. Local journalists can help communities divert energy from mindless, endless fights into those shared visions. Let’s start there. If we can demonstrate that we can find common ground, odds are down the road we’ll find ways to tackle even the most vexing, divisive issues.

Les Zaitz is publisher and editor of the Malheur Enterprise and a retired senior investigative reporter. Email: [email protected]. In case you thought Zaitz got his newspaper to produce a community forum because he has “nothing better to do,” take a look at his recent investigative pieces on a murder suspect who pretended to be mentally ill for 20 years to escape prosecution.

 

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