by Mark Hertzberg
Director of Photography
Racine Journal Times

"So, what's the name of your newspaper?" a distant relative asked me tonight when we talked on the phone for the first time in years.

"You've never heard of it," I replied. I guarantee you that this Washington D.C. resident and his neighbors have never heard of the Racine Journal Times, though we country bumpkins in Racine have heard of the Washington Post.

I grew up in midtown Manhattan, with the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune delivered every day to our apartment. Now I'm the photo director of a 33,000 circulation daily in Racine, Wisconsin,  a city that's in a different time zone than the one much of the nation's business revolves around.

Why does any of this matter to readers of The Digital Journalist? I'm writing this essay this month because I've been pondering the question of "big time" vs. "small town" journalism for the last week since one of my colleagues in The Assignment Sheet 
e-mailed us about a possible theme for his own column. He was in a quandry. He had something to say, but he wasn't confident that this web site was the place to do it.

Six of us have just moved our journals from a highly successful web project produced in West Des Moines, Iowa, which had run its course after 30 months, to this one which is produced in Washington D.C. We've moved from a site produced by a very talented 
and successful, but relatively unknown independent video and multimedia consultant, to one produced by a man who covers the White House for Time magazine, who checks his e-mail from where ever the President of the United States might be at any given time. We've moved from a web site produced by a guy who drives a Dodge Caravan to one produced by a guy who flies on Air Force One. The first guy once fretted when he lost his keys to the Dodge in Racine; the second guy, well, he doesn't have to worry about where the keys to Air Force One are; that's someone else's responsibility.

Our colleague wondered why any readers of The Digital Journalist would care what he has to say about community photojournalism?  Why would any readers of The Digital Journalist care about his adventures at his summer internship in Idaho, which is even farther from Washington D.C. than Racine, Wisconsin, two time zones, in fact, away from Washington?

I've been on both sides of the street, in terms of geography. I'm the guy who, when asked by locals how he came to the Midwest, tells them he wanted to see life in a small town, so he went to Chicago to go to college.  I've gone from thinking big city metros were the only way to go, to having a career in smaller-town community journalism.

Our colleague should write what he wants to write, remembering the adage that "size doesn't matter." Not everything we do is Earth-shattering. Some of it seems vapid and even parochial to me at times. But, Joe, small-town journalism isn't any less significant than big-time, big-town journalism.

In 12 hours, for example, I'll be at a luncheon given by the state bar association, accepting two Golden Gavel Awards, and a certificate of commendation with our courts reporter, for some of our work from the last year. We entered three pieces, and we won three awards, awards given for work judged to be in the public interest. One piece was about a man jailed in Racine on a murder warrant from Texas, based on a case of mistaken identity. He was freed before being extradited to Texas, and we think our stories played a significant part in that.

As Jim Slosiarek, one of our photographers, pointed out to me, we often know our subjects. For example, last winter I was leaving the supermarket when I ran into Julia Burney, a police officer I know well, and she introduced me to her daughter, Vanessa Oliver. She proudly told me that Vanessa is a police officer, as well.

Burney is well known in Racine for her work with a children's reading program she started, and I suggested a story on Julia and Vanessa. We did the story, and I sent the story and  Liana Cooper's photo of Julia and Vanessa to the AP. The story got picked up nationally, and was noticed by someone at NBC's Today Show. Last month a crew from Today came to Racine to interview Julia and Vanessa, for a program scheduled to air in early July.

We just finished publishing a five-part series on race relations. A week ago we did a piece on a local man who was the first American soldier many people at Dachau saw when they were liberated. And yes, we also do the Cook of the Month.

Every piece any of us does impacts someone, somehow. Every piece is a record of history for a person, an organization, or a community of people. They are all pieces of a puzzle that fit together in the end. Frankly, a picture of whatever in a small community can sometimes have more direct impact on someone's life than a picture of the President in a national magazine might.

So write away, Joe, and don't fret about what you think your audience is looking for on this site. Write for yourself and for the readers who like your style and look for your journals on this web site every month.

A web site like this one is like a newspaper or a magazine, because it's a collection of a bit of something for everyone. You're part of the puzzle, and your pieces are just as important as anyone else's to some reader, somewhere.

Web sites have, however, irrevocably changed publishing. It doesn't matter who or where the producer is. Joe's summer neighbors in Idaho can now read the same edition of the Washington Post on-line as my relative reads at his breakfast table. And, conversely, my relative in Washington D.C., or anyone in Racine, Kalamazoo, or Timbuktu, and not just Joe's neighbors, can see Joe's work. And that means that community journalism is now a global product.

Mark Hertzberg

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