Community journalism: What's the job and what's your life

I live in Frankford, an old neighborhood in lower Northeast Philadelphia. Community journalism – the important and perhaps least paying element of the craft – is something I cherish and, as I understand it, begins, funny enough, in your own community.

So when I moved here back in November, I was excited to discover and learn and experience a new neighborhood. My interests reached beyond the professional, I wanted to help and learn and develop with Frankford, like I would wherever I lived. So, I reached out to my legislators – State Rep. Tony Payton and Councilwoman Maria Sanchez. I went to the first neighborhood meeting I found and began what I hope will be a monthly habit, sitting in on the Frankford Civic Association meeting earlier this month.

As life will do, I learned plenty doing just that, a lesson I think every journalist, freelance or otherwise, should recognize.

Any journalist, any real journalist, is a commodity for people, those with stories to tell and information to give. That can be a wonderful asset because, well, journalists like very much to tell stories and collect information. I was a bit naive about that when I walked into St. Joachim’s Church in lower Frankford the first week of February, for that town hall meeting.

I thought I was going to a little meeting of an old neighborhood. I figured it would be mostly boring but that I could meet some of my neighbors and let them know I wanted to join them in making Frankford better. I went as Christopher Wink the resident.

See, looking back even now, just a couple weeks later, that seems so silly. Because, of course, if you do right by your profession, you never go anywhere without being the journalist.

I met the neighborhood residents behind the Frankford Gazette, a community blog I discovered earlier. Turns out they found me, too, and we took a liking to each other.

In no uncertain terms, I am a commodity – not because I have any great skill or knowledge, really this has nothing to do with who I am, it is what I do that is important.

As it turned out, that town hall meeting and the ensuing civic association meeting turned out to be awfully interesting. Interesting enough that I pitched and wrote a story covering their focus – addiction recovery homes in Frankford – to Philadelphia Weekly, a neighborhood story that will be told to the weekly’s 100,000 readers throughout the region on Wednesday.

Soon after I sent the story in, I realized this recovery house business isn’t over. That’s the challenge and thrill about real, true community journalism. I am not going anywhere. Many journalists – myself often included – write a story from afar or genuinely disconnected from the community or story we cover.

I remember walking into the home of a grieving family for one of my earliest clips for the Inquirer – more than 30 Nigerian immigrants packed into the family room of a tiny Mayfair rowhome, sobbing, crying and clinging. I got my quote, my facts and ran. I never felt their pain, never knew what happened to Mayfair that day. That isn’t community journalism, that was paper of record, gotta get the story buried in the B-section so we can justify calling ourselves the Philadelphia Inquirer.

It is something different here in Frankford, as I have always felt about other neighborhoods or communities I have covered and called home. Still, there is an important line to draw.

Not all stories in Frankford are worth citywide or, really, even neighborhood-wide consumption. What affects my block doesn’t necessarily affect the city – but it may. It’s my job as a community journalist, particularly a freelance journalist, to decide that.

I’m going to keep going to those town hall and civic meetings because I am a resident, but you know my pad, and camera and recorder will always be ready. They should be for you, too.

If you’re a journalist and you aren’t active in your community, well, why not? Those are the stories you can tell best, my friends. Be there because you’re a resident, be honest and transparent with your neighbors and legislators, but never hesitate to also tell those stories broadly when they need to be told.

Photo from Phillytrolley.org.