Covering naked and jogging college students is good community journalism

The GateHouse Media paper in Somerville made Romenesko today.

Jim Romenekso’s blog post deals with a story and video about an annual tradition at Tufts University — hundreds of students made naked laps around the quad early in the night (video at the bottom of this post).

Romenesko’s primary link to a blog post by a Jay Fizgerald, a blogger for a a rival newspaper site, I mention that because I find it terribly interesting that Fitzgerald seems comfortable snarking at our web policies while lacking enough savvy to link to the story on the site.

Dan Kennedy, a generally reasonable, savvy and experienced media commentator and journalism professor in Boston is more pointed in his criticism (seemingly calling me out along the way to weigh in myself, which is fine by me).

Still, posting pictures of drunken* students running around in their birthday suits is not the sort of thing a community newspaper ought to be doing. Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.

*(Are they drunk at this stage of the evening? How do we know? The run is pre-D.J.-hosted party.)

As for me, I think one of the reasons quality journalism is in retreat these days is because we haven’t spent enough time and effort truly covering our communities. We spend way too much time on he-said, she-said local political scandals and deadly dull town council meetings and not enough time really showing what people in our communities are doing.

We certainly don’t cover enough events attended by young people, unless those young people happen to be singing in the choir or collecting dimes to earn a Rotary trip to Ethiopia.

All of that, of course, is good important community news, but that isn’t all there is, and our failure to cover the rest is a big part of why we’re losing readership, especially among younger audiences, who are getting more and more accustomed to the uncensored web.

(The underlying point here, in case it isn’t obvious, is that audience=revenue, and newspapers are declining on both counts, and it takes revenue, and lots of it, to pay for the kind of journalism us ink-stained types love.)

This is no time for community journalism to be squeamish — and keep in mind, we’re talking about a video that shows, essentially, nothing. What it does capture is the spirit of the moment. What it does record for posterity is a real event, in a real community, that is seemingly important to a lot of people in that community.

Isn’t that an essential part of journalism’s role, even if offends some people’s sensibilities, even some of the participants (read the comments on the story)?

Should journalists really be in the role of hiding the truth of what really goes on in a community? I feel like that is what Dan Kennedy is suggesting.

To me, this story and this video (and it really isn’t much of a story without the video) are fundamentally good journalism because they capture some societal reality. In fact, the reactions to the video support that assertion — just read the 100+ comments on the story, or the comments on YouTube or on Dan Kennedy’s blog — the video is forcing some real debate about the state of our society, including journalism’s role in society. I think that debate is both healthy for the community and healthy for journalism. And it doesn’t happen, sometimes, unless reporters and editors are willing to take some chances and do some things that people in the community would rather they not do.

What ever happened to no fear, no favor in journalism?

There’s also a Facebook protest group now, which is highly amusing. Think about it — group of students throw privacy concerns to the wind by running around naked in public (even posting pictures to Flickr), and then get upset when that event is covered by a media outlet. How ironic.

And think of all the media coverage there has been recently about how open many students are on MySpace and Facebook about their private lives (example).

Obviously, these people are operating at a level that embraces some sort of double standard — as in, we can post our own drunken, irreverent pictures for all the world to see on the Web, but don’t let “the media” post anything about our shenanigans. Is that a double standard journalists should accept, meaning ignore, or cover it as part of a journalistic obligation to correctly reflect what’s going on in society?

One thing about GateHouse Media is that it is blessed with many great editors. One of them is Greg Reibman, the editor-in-chief ultimately responsible for coverage in Somerville. He left this comment on Kennedy’s post:

Ever since Community Newspaper Company was formed, the rub has been that a giant corporation was going to take unique papers and turn them into cookie cutter clones. Instead, we have scores of unique community publications and a management which recognizes that different communities have different standards.

None of this is meant to suggest that I think this story is bold journalism or making a strong social statement.

We covered it because it was fun — and funny — which I believe is the same reason why all those Tufts kids have been taking off all their clothes and running around in public for the past five years.

Yes, it is a fun story, but it also accurately reflects an element of what is going on in that community, and that deserves, to me, serious consideration by a news organization — and serious consideration means accurately covering the event. I would argue that video gives us a unique power to provide that accuracy that mere text doesn’t capture.

These are turbulent and fast-moving times — times that are comparable to the introduction of moveable type, when first-ever communication among a more more greatly dispersed strata of society forced rapid societal changes, even toppling church hierarchies and governments. It is in that context I say again, this is no time for journalism to become squeamish.

We must cover our communities as we really find them. We must use all available tools to reflect those communities back to our friends and neighbors in those communities. And then we must host the discussions that those reports encourage.

Good journalism, as always, and to again repeat myself, requires no fear and no favor.

UPDATE: Jay snarks back very nicely.

… it seems Howard Owens is upset with me for actually getting the Somerville Journal’s side in a very small controversy over its written and video coverage of the Tufts Naked Quad Run … I also know how to link to stories and posts on the Internet. I can even do Google searches. See my combined talents here and here and here. … Now that is snark. …

P.S. – I didn’t mind the Journal’s coverage. I also like what WickedLocal is doing on the web in general, though I could do without the hair-trigger self-righteousness at the slightest whiff of controversy. …

Here’s the controversial video: