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by Keith Anderson, director of news, ECM Publishers, Coon Rapids, Minnesota
There are hundreds of beautiful towns in the United States. And each of them has a claim to fame. Whether it’s the Fire Hydrant Capital of the world in Albertville, Alabama, the giant statue of Paul Bunyan welcoming visitors to Brainerd, Minnesota, or the giant ice cream sundae statue in LeMars, Iowa, every city has a desire to be known for something.
It’s part of what makes living in a community so special. Everyone wants to have a sense of home, a place where they can be involved and where getting to know neighbors is a blessing, not something to be avoided.
It does take some effort to create a sense of community, though. It doesn’t happen without the investment of people who care. And it’s always more difficult when there isn’t a unifying bond, that one source that will always be there to offer a place to share ideas, offer constructive criticism, examine difficult topics, share accomplishments, remember loved ones, experience setbacks and revel in victories.
Community journalism has played this role for decades. And in the places where it exists, you will most certainly find people who care about others and are willing to invest their time and talents to improve their communities.
A few years ago a Lions club in a small town in rural Minnesota decided it would cover the expense to send any World War II veterans from the area, who were interested, to the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. The one-day trip to the memorial did not cost the 100+ veterans a dime. But the planning and fund-raising for this trip took months of effort and involved hundreds of people, including school children, local businesses, parents, churches, an airline, a hospital and dozens of volunteers. It was the community’s way of thanking those proud, fragile veterans for the tremendous sacrifices performed so long ago.
The local newspaper covered the event; from the moment the idea was announced, through all the fund-raising efforts, to the day veterans boarded buses for the airport. The paper was there during the eerie silence on the airplane during the journey to our nation’s Capitol, and finally at the memorial, where old men wept, and leaned on thick slabs of granite where names of fallen soldiers were etched. A lifetime of captured emotion flowed that day as men were reduced to children and silent pride was replaced with protected tears. It was the type of story that few reporters ever have a chance to share or experience, but more importantly, it was the kind of story that parents, school children, volunteers, businesses owners, doctors and nurses and perhaps most importantly, those veterans, wanted to share.
They needed a way to experience this event that crossed generations and created strong bonds. Veterans may not have realized they needed to share their stories and accept the appreciation of an entire region — until that day. It was a perfect moment in time where a community was able to reach out and change the finals days of life for tired men who had given so much and asked for so little.
The paper was naturally the place where a community turned to share its stories, to announce its fundraisers, to share goals that had been met, to list the names of those making the trip, to thank donors, to detail travel plans, to seek volunteers, to plan welcome home events and finally to share the event through photos, letters and messages.
Newspapers have a tremendous role in small and large communities across this country. We hold elected officials accountable so they truly represent the best interests of our communities. We demand transparency in a time when often it seems much easier for some decision-makers to operate in the margins. We offer insight on political races and we seek advice from local experts who can share experience with our readers. We report on and lead discussions that seek to improve our schools and we share stories of selfless leaders who otherwise go unnoticed. We are a target when it’s necessary and a beacon in darkness. It is a tremendous responsibility, but one that journalists embrace because we know there is so much at stake when it comes to our communities.
Community journalism isn’t about paper and ink or websites and unique visitors. It’s not about awards for writing or quotes that sting.
Community journalism is a living, breathing, shared connection of people that propels us to take chances, to realize that life is not always safe, clean and tidy, but that through our connection there is plenty to celebrate and adventures to explore.
There are challenges ahead, just as there have been obstacles in the past. But there is also tremendous opportunity just waiting to be shared.
Together, we are community.