Why Go Back to Community Journalism?

Greeneville, Tennessee (Courtesy Casey Nicholson, Wikimedia Commons)

Greeneville, Tennessee (Courtesy Casey Nicholson, Wikimedia Commons)

The news is public now: in three weeks Julie, Jesse, Miles, and I will be headed back to Tennessee. I’ve accepted a job with The Greeneville Sun, a daily newspaper in northeast Tennessee, not too far from the Tri-Cities. I’ll become the paper’s assistant managing editor.

We’ve been telling our friends here in Colorado. Though no one has said it, I’ve figured some have wondered, Why go back to community journalism in small-town Tennessee? It’s a fair question, and I think the reasons are interesting and proof of things God has been teaching me.

First, I should say working at Summit Ministries has been a non-stop learning experience for me. I owe much to folks like John Stonestreet and Jeff Myers, who brought me to Summit, and who have been committed to helping me become a better thinker. Writing Summit’s content for the last two years has stretched my mind to better recognize and analyze cultural trends, to become a more understanding disciple, and to more clearly see how our faith influences all aspects of life. Jeff and John are brilliant in their own rights, but since working at Summit I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter or become friends with people like Rod Dreher, Eric Metaxas, Matthew Lee Anderson, Eric Teetsel, Scott Klusendorf, Warren Cole Smith, Marvin Olasky, and many other top-tier thinkers. I’ve had opportunities to independently contribute work to Mere Orthodoxy, WORLD Magazine, and the Colson Center, among other outlets. All this comes because of my time at Summit.

So why leave?

I wasn’t expecting to get a call from Jones Media, the parent organization of The Greeneville Sun, and the same company I worked for with The Herald-News in Dayton, Tennessee. But the timing was fortuitous. I’ve spent much of the last two years studying conservatism. It’s been in the last two years I’ve studied Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and Alexis de Tocqueville. The role of mediating institutions — “little platoons,” as Burke called them — has been illuminated for me thanks to the work of the men I mentioned above. And when I read Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (I even wrote a review of it for Mere Orthodoxy), I realized the practical implications of so much theory: local communities matter. Not only do they matter, real culture is created in the midst of them. Ruthie Leming’s life — and Rod’s subsequent decision to move back to the community of his childhood — put flesh to social theory worthy of fleshing out. (I should note here that Rod has gone to great lengths to emphasize his message is not that everyone should move to small towns.) In pieces like this one (and follow-ups like this) from Jake Meador, Christian thinkers have been wrestling with the role small communities hold. Big cities have rightfully gotten a lot of press the last few years, but culture will always be created in fly-over country too. As cities struggle with how to attract more families — the ones that want to struggle, at least — our small towns are already turning out to be worthy alternatives for families with young children. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan said at an event I attended this spring, “The human project is all about the baby. Culture is simply humanity’s best effort to protect the baby, the mother and the father.”

My work at Summit has driven me to think more on the role of the local community in culture at large. This year we’ve put on a series of conferences — “Engage” — encouraging and equipping attendees to work in small (or big) ways to change things for the better in their local communities: their cities, towns, neighborhoods, and school districts. My friend from New Zealand, Greg Fleming, said as much last year when I interviewed him for a piece I wrote for a WORLD on Campus website:

Scripture tells us, and reality confirms, that sometimes the best way to “engage culture,” “change the world” and all those other platitudes is to stop looking so far off. National politics is sexy. It’s flashy. It’s seemingly everywhere. But our gazes should be fixed closer to home, at the local level.

“When I look at the teachings of Christ, he nearly always takes his stories and his instructions down to the level of your neighbor, to the person right beside you,” Fleming said. “He seldom escalates it to the levels of government. Yes, engaging with [federal] government is important; we would be remiss not to be engaged with that machine. But I do not think for one moment that that is the primary outworking of the Gospel.”

I wish I had taken as much time to think on the importance of our small communities when I was actually living in one for a few years. But I’ve spent the last two years learning why I never should have discounted small-town America in the first place. And now this opportunity has fallen in my lap to go and live in a small community. And not just live in one — to become a vital part of an institution crucial to the health of small communities: the local newspaper.

The Greeneville Sun (Courtesy ZoomGuy, Wikimedia Commons)

The Greeneville Sun (Courtesy ZoomGuy, Wikimedia Commons)

Not only does the Greeneville opportunity present a new opportunity for learning and participating in a small community; it presents an opportunity to be on the front lines of culture creation. Summit is about equipping and educating. While most of our ministry focuses on teaching via classroom and curriculum, I’ve gotten to focus on teaching via media and content creation, and I’ve loved doing that. But for the most part, I’ve been part of equipping and educating people about important cultural, theological, political, economic, and social issues. I’ve not necessarily been on the front lines. In doing that, I’ve come to realize I am made for a front-line life. When I think back to the times I’ve thrived most, it’s been in those pressure situations of consequence. Most examples that come to mind are from my days at the Dayton newspaper, though I can think of others too. Local journalism is an integral part of local culture. Local journalists have the responsibility to steer conversations about local public policy, arts, and the economy. This creates an intimacy with their readers unlike the intimacy of other types of writing.  I linked to this the other day, but I again commend to you this piece from Gracy Olmstead of The American Conservative on community journalism in which she says:

While writing for a local Idaho paper, I grew close to my readers and community. The work transcended mere reporting and writing: every article was intimately tied to the daily lives of my neighbors. Obituaries and high school senior profiles, while not glamorous, were incredibly important. Stories on a hot local topic meant hours on the phone with concerned or interested readers the next day. Though I did not fully realize it at the time, it was deeply meaningful work.

For a writer fascinated by conservatism and the life of communities, this is the front line. To take advantage of the things I’ve learned from the likes of Jeff Myers and John Stonestreet at Summit is to take this opportunity. I’m grateful for the time I’ve spent as an equipper at Summit. We need equippers and educators. But it’s time to be a doer of the things I’ve learned. Orthodoxy isn’t worth much without orthopraxy.

My vocational passion will always be writing; I don’t think that will ever change. Aside from the daily practice of journalism as an editor, I’m looking forward to all that living in a blue-collar town in the Appalachians — and my home state — can do to inform a young wannabe writer whose aspirations are naively bigger than they ought to be. I’ve been afforded wonderful opportunities for freelance writing, which I plan to continue as I can (and with the blessing of my new boss), but I hope to try some new things too in the coming years.

This is by no means an exhaustive explanation for why Julie and I would pack up our family and leave a special place like Summit Ministries, or a terrific church like Westside Church, filled with so many lifelong friends, or the great American West, unmatched in natural beauty. But it’s a look at the philosophical underpinnings of such a career change for me. God willing, we’ll be in Greeneville one month from now, beginning a new part of our lives. I hope to regularly write about the transition and the journey East itself, in early November. I hope you’ll check back.

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7 thoughts on “Why Go Back to Community Journalism?

  1. Pingback: Going Back to Community Journalism | Notes from Mere O

  2. Pingback: Obituaries & Funerals | The Young Journalist Goes Home – The American Conservative

  3. I’m excited for you guys. Great to hear some of the thoughts behind it. I appreciate how you’re seeking to live what you believe.

  4. Pingback: ‘Tennessee’ | Michael Reneau

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