The Texas Center for Community Journalism: helping Texas newspapers cope with changing media realities

Wayne Gretzky, arguably the best hockey player ever, expressed his philosophy of the game like this:  “I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”

And though Fort Worth isn’t exactly what you’d call a hockey town, the Texas Center for Community Journalism at TCU has informally adopted Gretzky’s mantra as our own mission statement.   While we never want to lose sight of what made Texas community journalism great, we want to keep an eye on where the field is heading and help Texas newspapers deal with changing media realities.

The Center was founded in 2009, following a decade of work with community newspapers by the TCU Schieffer School of Journalism.  I stepped down as director of the school, and the university decided to let me found the Center I had been lobbying for.

In the three years since our founding, we have become one of the nation’s leading advocates for community journalism.  Here’s what we do:

1.     The Center conducts workshops that deal with the primary issues facing community newspapers.  We have held workshops on writing and editing, circulation, advertising sales, photojournalism, page design, new media, developing a social media presence, sportswriting, newspaper management, investigative reporting, Texas FOI, energy reporting, court and police reporting, and web video.

2.     We consult with newspapers that have problems ranging from production issues to legal problems to advertising questions.  Texas journalists can send questions to our Ask an Expert website or just pick up the phone and call the Center.  We specialize on quick turnaround of questions or connecting journalists with the resources they need.   Our group of consultants includes experts in digital journalism, postal issues, law, ethics, writing and editing, design, FOI and the problems of community newspaper publishing.

3.     We are the eyes and ears of Texas newspapers.  The Center monitors more than 200 websites and periodicals for news of the industry and passes along the most important information on our website or our Facebook page.

4.     We encourage scholarly research on community journalism by operating the nation’s only scholarly journal devoted exclusively to community journalism.

5.     We work cooperatively with the Texas Press Association, regional associations and other community journalism organizations throughout the nation.

While community newspapers are undoubtedly the healthiest part of American newspaper journalism, we realize that significant changes are just over the horizon.  Just over 44 percent of 45-to- 54-year-olds read a newspaper every day, but only 23 percent of 18-to-34’s do.  Newspapers in smaller towns have been more insulated from the changes bedeviling their metro cousins, but the issue is not if ink-on-paper readership is declining.  It’s how fast.

But Texas newspapers are indeed adapting to digital realities.  Dynamic websites are now common.  Newspapers are carrying on conversations with their readers through social media.  And the old idea of holding news until the paper’s publication day is dying out – newspapers now see themselves as news sources, not just newspapers.  They may be weeklies in print, but they are dailies online.

These are difficult changes, especially for publishers and editors who grew up in a time when the newspaper was unchallenged as a primary news source.  But that’s our job at the Center.  We want to support Texas newspapers while helping them to develop their inevitable future, the digital product.  Like The Great One, we are trying to skate where the puck is going.  And in a changing digital world, that “puck” is increasingly hard to follow.


About the Author

Dr. Thomason has taught journalism at five universities and has been at TCU since 1984. In 1987, he was one of the winners of a national Teaching Award in Journalism Ethics from the Poynter Institute of Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. Thomason began his career in journalism in the early 1970s with the Associated Press, working as a sportswriter in Arkadelphia and Little Rock, Ark. He has also worked in public relations in Dallas and as a copyeditor for several regional magazines. He has been one of the nation's most active researchers on the media's treatment of crime victims. His research has been presented at both regional and national symposia and has cited in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, Presstime and the Columbia Journalism Review. He maintains an interest in writing at all academic levels, and frequently speaks to elementary school teachers about writing workshops for children. He is the author of More than a Writing Teacher: How to Become a Teacher Who Writes, Writer to Writer: How to Conference Young Authors, Write On Target: How to Prepare Young Writers for Success on Writing Achievement Tests, Absolutely Write: Teaching the Craft Elements of Writing, Writeaerobics: 40 Exercises to Improve Your Writing Teaching and Tools, not Rules: Teaching Grammar in the Writing Classroom. He and Amiso George of the Schieffer School have co-authored a new textbook to be released in 2012, Race, Gender, and Stereotypes in the Media: A Reader for Professional Communicators. He is also the author of one picture book for children, O is for Oil.

Dr. Tommy Thomason