How events help local news organizations connect with their audience

Bedford Citizen managing editor Julie McCay Turner, right, takes a photo of students and staff from Shawsheen Tech along with Bedford Police Chief Robert Bongiorno.

Community events give local news organizations an opportunity to connect with their audience — and to expand their audience as well. With that in mind, I drove to Bedford, Massachusetts, on Saturday morning for Bedford Town Day in order to check in with The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website that combines paid and volunteer staff.

The Citizen, like about 100 other organizations, had set up a booth. Four or five volunteers rotated in and out while managing editor Julie McCay Turner and staff reporter Mike Rosenberg made their way through the crowd, which I’d estimate in the hundreds but could have been larger.

“We hope to get a few sign-ups,” said executive director Teri Morrow. She added that another goal was to get story ideas from community members. One person she had talked to, she said, had suggested profiles of interesting but relatively unknown people and organizations.

On the table were business cards and a larger sign with a QR code taking you to the Citizen’s website as well as free copies of the Citizen’s 2020 and 2021 Bedford Guide, a glossy publication that’s fill with ads and that serves as a fundraiser for the organization.

Turner was making her way through the fairgrounds, taking pictures and greeting people. She connected with Brian O’Donnell, a Bedford representative on the Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in nearby Billerica. O’Donnell introduced her to Allison Cammarata, the school’s brand-new director of community services and workforce development, who serves as the school’s public relations person.

Table sign with QR code

“We are relentlessly local,” Turner told Cammarata, explaining that she wants to run stories about Shawsheen in the Citizen but only if they feature Bedford students. Turner then called out “Bob! Bob!” Police Chief Robert Bongiorno, was walking by, and he stopped and chatted.

The Citizen competes with a Gannett weekly, the Bedford Minuteman, a once independent paper that now provides minimal coverage of the town. The Minuteman did not have a booth at Town Day, although it did send a photographer.

O’Donnell praised the Minuteman’s coverage of Shawsheen, saying that the school, which serves five towns, fits with the paper’s mission of reporting on regional news. “But in terms of what’s happening in Bedford — events, issues, discussions, exchanges — that’s happening in the Citizen now,” he said.

As I made the rounds and talked with people about where they get their local news, I found a high level of awareness about the Citizen, which was founded in 2012.

“The thing I like about the Citizen is that if there’s anything with the school committee or the select board or any issues that come up, they report on both sides of the issue,” said Alice Churella. “It seems to me to be totally unbiased.”

Others, though, said they got their news mainly through word of mouth, Facebook groups, the official town website and emails from the school department.

“I don’t read it regularly,” said Anna Smiechowski of the Citizen. “If I know something’s happening in town or I want to look something up, I’ll search it.”

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How one news outlet uses volunteer opinion writers to build civic engagement

Graue Mill, Hinsdale, Illinois. Photo (cc) by Lyle.

Now here’s an interesting idea for engaging the community in local news. The Hinsdalean, a free weekly paper in Chicago’s suburbs, has a stable of 10 local opinion writers who take on such weighty topics as Christmas memories, moving back to town after living abroad, and thoughts about the meaning of regret. And here’s the best part: they’re term-limited.

I learned about this recently in a conversation with Julie McCay Turner, managing editor of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website northwest of Boston. Julie is from Hinsdale, and she keeps up with her hometown through the paper’s lively website. She discovered this unique exercise in civic involvement through a column by the paper’s editor, Pamela Lannom, who was soliciting new writers to replace the five who were cycling out. One slot will be reserved for a high school senior. No politicians, please. And writers are not allowed to use these unpaid positions to tout their businesses or nonprofit organizations.

“Over the years I’ve come to think of many of these writers as my friends,” Lannom wrote. “I might not see most of them more than once a year, but the stories they share create a connection. Reading their columns each week is one of my favorite parts of my job.”

Local opinion can help drive interest in community news and help to overcome the polarization that characterizes national culture these days.

Several months ago I wrote a piece for GBH News about a study conducted by three scholars on what happened after The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, dropped from its opinion pages all syndicated columns and references to national politics for one month.

The researchers compared The Desert Sun’s readers to those of a control paper and found that polarization was less than what might otherwise have been expected. The numbers were small and didn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But, as the three observed, the effect was salutary regardless of the actual numbers since the experiment pushed the paper to pay more attention to what was taking place in its own backyard.

“Local newspapers are uniquely positioned to unite communities around shared local identities, cultivated and emphasized through a distinctive home style, and provide a civil and regulated forum for debating solutions to local problems,” they wrote. “In Palm Springs, those local issues were architectural restoration, traffic patterns and environmental conservation. The issues will differ across communities, but a localized opinion page is more beneficial for newspapers and citizens than letters and op-eds speckled with national political vitriol.”

The Hinsdalean itself is a great story, and characteristic of what happens when the legacy news outlet falls victim to market failure. Hinsdale once had a paper called The Doings, which ended up getting absorbed by the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune was subjected to years of downsizing and bad ownership under Tribune Publishing — a situation that only grew worse recently when Tribune was sold to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

The Hinsdalean, meanwhile, was founded nearly five years ago and has established itself as an award-winning news source. Here’s how its About page begins:

The first issue of The Hinsdalean was published Sept. 28, 2006. This weekly newspaper is dedicated to covering Hinsdale, focusing on the people who live and work here. The founders built the newspaper around the philosophy of community journalism the way it was meant to be. That philosophy recalls simpler times when one newspaper covered one town. The Hinsdalean, which is delivered free each Thursday morning, is the only newspaper that delivers every issue to every home in Hinsdale.

Independent local news is succeeding in hundreds of communities across the country. We need more.

This post was adapted from the Media Nation Member Newsletter that went out last Thursday, July 1. If you would like to receive early exclusive Media Nation content sent to your inbox, please become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month.

Could the Globe do more to fill the local news gap?

The Globe’s YourTown site for Needham circa 2010

Last Thursday we had a terrific panel discussion at Northeastern’s School of Journalism about the local news crisis in Greater Boston. Our panelists were state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, the lead sponsor of a state commission on local news that was recently created; retired Boston Globe editorial page editor Ellen Clegg; Yawu Miller, senior editor of The Bay State Banner; Bill Forry, managing editor of The Dorchester Reporter; and Julie McCay Turner, co-founder and managing editor of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website that started as a volunteer project and that has gradually added paid journalism.

You can read Mihiro Shimano’s account at The Scope by clicking here. But I want to pick up on something that Ellen (my research partner on a book about local news) said about The Boston Globe’s role.

I was moderating and couldn’t take notes. But when I asked her about the Globe’s role in local news, she said the paper discovered about 20 years ago that it couldn’t make much of a dent at the hyperlocal level. Readers looked to their community weeklies and dailies for coverage of day-to-day life in their cities and towns. What the Globe could provide, she said, was regional coverage of issues that affected everyone — which is pretty much the mission statement for the paper in general.

As she also pointed out, the Globe now has a digital Rhode Island section, which is in keeping with the regional focus, and covers Newton through a partnership with Boston University. But could the paper do more?

Now that corporate-owned chains have decimated most of the once-strong community papers that circle Boston, I wonder if the Globe might be able to play more of a role. One idea would be to revive the YourTown websites that were unveiled during the last few years of New York Times Co. ownership. YourTown covered not just the Boston suburbs but neighborhoods within the city as well, which remains a crucial need. That was back in the days of the free web, and it proved impossible to sell ads for the sites. Now that everything is subscription-driven, though, would it be possible to try again?

There’s no substitute for independently owned community media, but a greater presence by the Globe — which itself is independently owned — might be the next best thing.

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Hyperlocal outrage at the violence in Washington

I thought it was interesting that the folks at The Bedford Citizen, a hyperlocal community news site that I track, decided to editorialize about the violent pro-Trump insurrection in Washington. The editorial reads in full:

A Message of Deep Concern from The Bedford Citizen

Although The Bedford Citizen does not ordinarily comment on events happening outside of Bedford, we, the Editorial Committee, feel compelled to express our shock and dismay at the threat to our democracy witnessed at the US Capitol yesterday.

Whatever your political views, and we respect and acknowledge a range of opinions among our readers, we hope you will join with us in condemning the mob violence that threatens our democratic institutions. How can we teach our children to uphold the rule of law when the very heart of our government was held hostage yesterday?

The Citizen is a nonprofit, mostly volunteer project founded in 2012.

Also, Grafton Common reports that the town’s select board issued a statement denouncing the violence in Washington. The statement begins:

The Select Board denounces in the strongest possible terms the violence and destruction that took place at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. today.

A house divided against itself cannot stand. If voting is the lifeblood of democracy then the peaceful transition of power is the beating heart of the republic. Without it, the principles upon which this nation are founded are destroyed.

Local journalism and community life can be powerful forces in overcoming the polarization that has brought the country to such a low point. There are times, though, when it’s impossible not to speak out about national events.

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