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.

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2 thoughts on “Community journalism: What's the job and what's your life”

  1. That’s a good blog entry, quite inspiring. I am originally from London but have been working as editor of a trade magazine in Australia. The mag has just been closed due to the Global Economic Blah Blah, so I’m heading home in two weeks. I’ve been wondering what to do, and I think the local paper where I’m from is a great, if badly paid, idea..

    Thanks for sharing that…

  2. Thanks for the kind words, and I think you might find a great deal of enjoyment covering what affects you most closely. Transparency is key, but no one can report on your neighborhood better than you. Keep reading and keep us posted. Best of luck.

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