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Heroic journalism = Community change

“The idea of journalists that the purpose of the story is the story itself invites a terrible kind of journalistic amorality. Trying to do the story just for itself invites cynicism. It doesn’t invite a kind of heroic approach to journalism at all. It invites compromises and corruptions that deaden the enterprise at its heart.” — Ervin S. Duggan, president, US Public Broadcasting Service.

Ottawa, Illinois: Soon to be home

800px-Ottawa_Il_Washington_Park_Historic_District_Lincoln-Douglas_Statues1Waterfall in Starved Rock State Park

Ottawa, IL is a community of 18,300 residents in North Central Illinois’ LaSalle County. It’s the county seat, the site of the first Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and an important stop on the Underground Railroad. That’s Downtown Ottawa in the header picture.

Unlike the flatlands surrounding Chicago, Ottawa is geographically blessed, sitting on the shore of the Illinois River and just a few miles from Starved Rock State Park (Pictured). This is something I’m particularly excited about.  I’ve been missing the outdoors since leaving New England 20 years ago and yearning to get some big nature back in my life.

From an industry standpoint, the area is best known for its sand, which has long been used in glass and abrasives manufacturing. But overall, the town has a mixed and not terribly healthy economy. A number of large, vacant storefronts spoil the landscape, and priority one will be getting these eyesores put back to productive use.

Judging from reader comments on the current town paper’s Web site, the community seems to be having trouble accommodating diversity, and, as in most places, crime, drugs and the economy weigh heavy on residents’ minds. Family and Little League matter. I like that.

At this point, my No. 1 priority is getting to know the people, learn what matters to them and gain their trust. It’s always a challenge to get past the “outsider” stigma in any community, especially when you’re assuming the role of arbiter of their news. All I have to go on is the integrity and concern I’ve brought to every audience in my career, patience, and trust earned through quality work.

Should journalists have new titles?

The journey begins

Yesterday I accepted a job with a start-up media company determined to reinvent the way local news is delivered at the community level. In short, I’ll be the editor of a small-town paper, a more-or-less secret dream of mine for years. That, of course, is an over simplification.

Since we’re still in pre-launch mode, I can’t talk about a lot of details. But basically we’re bringing Web and digital printing technology that I didn’t even know existed to local audiences in small towns, combining the real-time coverage, social media and customizable capabilities of Web 2.0 with good old print newspapers and other media.  In a communications environment eviscerated by content cuts and dependence on amateur journalists willing to write for free, we’re heavily investing in quality content with four staff reporters in addition to me. These reporters will have the rare opportunity to develop as community journalists first, Web savvy communicators second. While our daily coverage will be rooted on the Web, we’ll be using cutting edge printing, mobile and TV technologies to keep our community connected and informed on the issues that matter to them, and delivering it the way… any way… they want to receive it.

Some of my friends in media think it sounds a wee bit nuts… and I have to admit it took a lot of consideration. But I’m an optimist, and I choose to see this move as a big “Yes!” in the face of scowling faces bemoaning the death of journalism. I think the whole thing is as retro cool, and visionary, as it gets.

Some of my best days were spent at a 15,000 circulation daily newspaper. It’s where I learned, and I’ve always said that the insight that fueled my success as a B-t0-B journalist was my focus on my audience as a community and applying the fundamentals of community journalism to every audience I served. Thoughout those years in B-to-B and online media, I’ve learned a lot more about media, audience builing and the information business… the opportunity to bring that  insight back to community journalism is a real treat, and one I never expected.

The opportunity to work with smart people focused on saving community journalism, reinvigorating small-town engagement and reinventing the local news business is a thrill.