Community journalism has a special place in the hearts of rural Americans. But it also plays a critical role in the identity, development, functionality and vibrancy of rural communities. And with that comes great responsibility — something we don’t take lightly.
In an an editor’s note a while back I wrote: “Journalism is a trade, the English language is our tool belt. Sometimes we choose the wrong tool, but here we will always work fiercely to hone our craft and correct our errors.” I continue to stand on this assurance.
A local blogger recently criticized an article printed by the Wallowa County Chieftain as crossing the line between objective and subjective reporting on a local public hearing. I am thankful for this individual’s concern for the credibility of this paper and appreciate the wisdom behind the critique.
Sometimes we have to report things that we’d prefer not. But there is a difference between reporting opinion and reporting facts that are negative but speak for themselves. There was no agenda behind the article. But if a line was blurred I hope this community accepts my sincere apology; improving the quality of both the journalistic integrity and public perception of this paper is my primary agenda.
National award winning community journalist, Samantha Swindler, once said: “I spent most of my career in small, rural newspaper and I consider it perhaps the highest form of journalism. You are truly accountable to the people you write about.”
The closeness to the people and issues we cover, whether positive or negative, provides potential for positive change but also demands a heightened levels of caution. Mistakes will be made just as our staff reporters and I will be criticized whether we deserve it or not. But the unique offerings that a local paper provides to a rural community transcends these discretions so long as we are all willing to forgive.
If Wallowa County residents could only resort to state and national news outlets, they would not only miss out on the local issues of the day, but also the voices of our neighbors. More than just a source of information, community journalism can help foster positive rural cultural and economic development, while at the same time protect the community’s identity and memorialize the nostalgia of its past.
Empirical evidence documents the positive impact between strong community journalism and strong civic engagement and community values. J-Source Innovation Editor, Robert Washburn argues, “it appears there is a larger economic imperative to have strong, vibrant news media, to assist community resiliency, which is defined as the ability of a community to withstand and adapt in the face of major changes.”
Today I offer both a question and starting point for a dialogue on what community journalism can do for Wallowa County.
So what can we do for you? We can keep the residents of Wallowa County informed on the health of our local economy by reporting on both new and failing industry. We can lift folks’ spirits by documenting citizens award banquets. We provide a venue for public discourse and engagement in the marketplace of ideas — and outlet for our neighbors to share their voices through letters to the editor. We can spread hope through a renewed commitment to honor the successes of our young people; our future. And we cover our local political institutions to safeguard the rule of law in our community.
I’ve made mistakes. Most of us have. Most of us will continue to do so. But mistakes don’t define this community. Resilience, understanding, determination and justice are the characteristics that define us. At the Wallowa County Chieftain we will strive harder to always serve as the institution that Wallowa County needs.