The Zen of community journalism

My new Nikki Nielsen novella, Bury the Lede, reveals the all-too-familiar roots of Nikki’s career in journalism.

Frankly, neither of us ever trained for the work. We just sort of…fell into it.

I walked into a small town weekly newspaper office in 1986, with several magazine article publications under my belt, and asked whether they hired freelance writers. More than thirty years later, I can tell you that while the technology of community journalism has changed, readers really have not.

Reading newspapers

They still want accurate information about what’s happening in their neighborhoods. They still love to see their own names or their children’s names or their neighbors’ names and faces. They still care about what government does, and about crime, especially when both land in their backyards. They love community events, parades, and festivals.

If anything, people have become more attracted to the “small” – mom-and-pop stores, niche products, personalization – than ever before. The ability to peer into friends’ lives on social media, to build online conversations with neighbors, keeps us locally focused in our ever-expanding world.

It’s the best possible result, I think, because the more we connect with what is closest to us, the less we’ll fear what is far away. The 24-hour news cycle delivers the world to our doorstep, but it also lights up its deepest, darkest corners. So now we know, and we can’t un-know, and anything that helps us feel even the smallest sense of control calms the heart-fluttering anxiety of 21st-century life.

Zen

Community news can either increase or help relieve stress, and the temptation is always to do the former, because the more anxious you are, the more you read and the more you share what you’re reading. The way circulation makes or breaks print newspapers, page views rule online news, and everybody knows you need murders, mayhem, and crises to get big numbers.

But what if everybody’s wrong? What if the business of community journalism focused less on driving web traffic and more on the Zen of community journalism? Zen practice, as I understand it, is about turning inward, quieting the noise and chaos, connecting with our deepest selves, for our own benefit, and for the world. What if local journalists spent more time delving into the heart and soul of our communities and revealing what we learn?

What if, on that path, we also connected human hearts and souls?

Within the boundaries of accuracy and fairness lies room for personal and creative expression in pursuit of better told and more engaging stories. In fact, I believe the world would benefit from more enlightened journalists and journalism. But how would that work in practice?

Nonprofit news organizations are finding mission-based success, but will for-profits find advertisers to support the Zen approach over cold, hard metrics? Or might the Zen of community journalism boost numbers, and give us the best of both worlds?

My next novel, Bullet Point, will explore those questions. And I may right here as well.

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