Community newspapers and their Web sites take a lot of lumps these days.

Tom Stites made a keynote speech at the WeMedia conference in Miami in early March. He is founder of the Banyan Project and received the Game Changer Award, which honors “people, projects, ideas and organizations leading change and inspiring a better world through media.”

As he explained the mission of his about-to-launch project, he asked the audience what journalism problems need to be solved.  Stites posted the speech on banyanproject.com.  In it, he asked the WeMedia audience:  

“Anybody think it would be good for democracy if we could find ways to neutralize the great flood of commercial, political and religious deception and propaganda that poisons our culture – and our journalism?”

He also asked:

“And would it be good for democracy if we could do journalism in ways that strengthen civic adhesion?”

I wholeheartedly agree that good journalism strengthens democracy and civic involvement.

Rapidly evolving media tools are distributing important journalism in new ways to new readers. And many of those tools are designed specifically to engage readers in the collection and dissemination of information.

Media companies that have been around awhile don’t get much credit for embracing – or inventing – those new tools.

I want to protest that.

Community news organizations continue to provide leadership and high-quality journalism. Together, those create content of high value.

In the Community Publishing Division of Gannett, two of the top priorities for newsrooms in 2010 are to enhance watchdog reporting and serve as thoughtful community leaders.

Let me share a few examples of these goals put into practice across Gannett. These were pulled from the Best of Gannett annual competition, which is judged by journalists from outside Gannett.  In each case, new digital tools were used to deliver important information across platforms.

The News Journal at Wilmington, Delaware, published “Shut out of Social Security,” a nationwide examination of disparities in how Social Security disability benefits are decided. This work showed that even workers who had paid Social Security benefits for decades were denied benefits when they needed them most.

Judges’ comments: “This was a most ambitious topic. The online search engine was really powerful. The scope of the work was great. The wide range of disabilities presented was a true strength.”

In Salem, Oregon, the Statesman Journal analyzed the impact of teacher experience on student achievement. The project highlighted the importance of watchdog-level journalism in a report that included thorough print reports and exclusive digital content. The digital report used mapping mashups with databases to put together a searchable, interactive report. Readers could use interactive graphics to recognize trends or drill deeper into data.

Judges’ comments:  “Wow! This is a parent’s dream. This was carefully crafted and made points powerfully. This project was designed for the Web. The quality of the video was impressive. This was first-class, professional education reporting.”

And The Indianapolis Star created “Reporter of the Future,” a digital dashboard that connects IndyStar.com readers with journalists across social media platforms. This work has allowed the Star to gain page views, increase audience involvement and reporter support for participating in social media.

Judges’ comments: “This newspaper figured out how to aggregate social media dashboards. This is scalable. All newspapers should do this tomorrow. This leverages Facebook users to benefit our brand. As one judge said, ‘If I worked at a newspaper, I would put this in place.’”

In his Miami speech, Stites said, “The future-of-journalism discourse is urgent and intense because journalism’s crisis is so wrenching and the stakes are so high. As everybody here knows from lived experience, the discourse is charged with tension between the world views of old-line journalists on one side and of bloggers and citizen journalism advocates on the other.”

That is a sweeping condemnation of old-line journalists that I believe is unfair.

It’s true of some, sure.  But most journalists in our newsrooms today know that we must deliver high-quality journalism and facilitate civic conversation.

Great content is being produced by non-profit organizations and bloggers and citizen journalists. 

But it’s also being produced by professional journalists who are partnering with readers in very creative new ways.

The Gannett Co. and the Banyan Project are not so far apart in our goals.