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Home > Publications > Quill > For Love of Community



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Tuesday, February 7, 2012
For Love of Community

Dire predictions abound — most newspapers will cease printing in as little as five years, according to USC’s Annenberg School. In rural, small-town America, loyal readers and newspaper owners/editors haven’t gotten the memo.

By Mac McKerral

On a cool, windy day in June 2011, Becky Dickerson stood in the back of the office of The Community Current newspaper in St. John, Wash., and beamed with satisfaction. Completion of the 1,000 paid-circulation, mail-delivered “almost monthly” newspaper’s July issue remained weeks away.

But on that day, Dickerson, a self-described military brat, completed the ambitious task of ordering office supplies online — something a daily schedule with few moments of downtime kept her from doing for quite some time.

“I ordered paperclips,” she shouted with a smile, one she carries constantly and that reflects bottled-up energy that can explode almost any time and without warning. “Can you believe it? I ordered paperclips!”

Paperclips keep things attached.

READ: Mac McKerral on his six-week summer “vacation” stint reporting for The Community Current: “Reflections From Wheat Country

In the case of The Community Current — now in its 18th year, all profitable — Dickerson and many others who share her passion for small-town newspapers think “attachment” holds the key to their success in the face of major and ongoing changes in the print news business.

Even the name of Dickerson’s paper speaks to a formula she holds dear: “Community,” as in focusing content solely on St. John, and “Current,” as in the ebb and flow of life in her town.

John Mellencamp was born in a small town; Becky Dickerson was not.

She was born in 1970 on Lakenheath Air Force Base, England, one of four children and the first to get a college degree. Her family traveled throughout the world, but wherever they landed, they enjoyed home-delivered local newspapers and, of course, Stars and Stripes.

Dickerson, 41, started her first newspaper at age 6, reporting on the ebb and flow of her family in a newspaper she called The Wallace Times.

“I attended 11 elementary schools, and I don’t think I finished fourth grade before we moved to the next town,” she said. “My math skills stink, but writing, which came as natural as breathing, became my stalwart talent.”

In high school, she served as editor of Shadle Park High School’s Highlander Highlights in Spokane, Wash. Dickerson earned two bachelor’s degrees at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash., in mass communications and journalism. She did not work on a college newspaper but worked part time at a shopping center as a marketing assistant gathering ad copy.

She also dated a farmer.

“After graduation, I knew two things,” she said. “I really loved that farmer, and I never wanted to wear nylons and heels to work.”

In 1992 she married Todd Dickerson, 47, a fifth-generation farmer. His support for his wife’s newspaper life remains unfettered while he farms 2,100 acres, assists with his family’s cattle operation and helps raise three daughters: Gracie, 13; Glory, 11; and Roxy, 8.

Dickerson started The Community Current in her home in 1994 with a letter to businesses on the town’s main drag, Front Street, seeking their advertising support and a credit card to pay the printing bill. She bought the Vorba Building on Front Street in 1996 with a partner, where initially they ran a copy shop. She bought out her partner and now owns the building “free and clear.”

The circa 1920s building contributes to the ambiance of “downtown” St. John’s Rockwell-like look and puts The Community Current in touch, literally, with many of its advertisers.

The newspaper office also served and continues to serve as a day care center for the Dickerson daughters, the back portion filled with an assortment of kids’ stuff, an array of kids’ videos and a small kitchen area for preparing lunches — and dinners on late nights working.

Visitors drift in and out with town news, to buy and pay for ads, for counseling sessions with the editor or just to visit.

Dickerson published The Community Current monthly for several years, but a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis caused cutbacks. On any given day, it can stop her in her tracks. Now the paper publishes eight to 10 times a year.

“To counter the drop in frequency, I give my readers more pages,” she said.

Gone are the days of a 12-page tabloid, replaced by a 24-pager with a 50/50 news-editorial ratio.

But Dickerson’s formula for success has not changed, and as long as she owns the paper, it will not, she said.

It works like this: She does not print color. You can see some photos online and read short blurbs about certain stories that appear in the print edition, but that’s it for the Web.

“My online presence is minimal,” she said. “I want to give readers access to color (photos), since I cannot afford color (printing), and yes, that’s free. I provide links to the school board minutes, the sheriff’s office log and other links that I glean my news from. Mostly, I want someone to call and ask for the print edition.”

Annual mail subscriptions cost $15 for local mailing and $20 for outside St. John. That all translates to 500 subscribers in a town with a population based on 2009 Census data of 526 and another 500 subscribers scattered throughout the U.S.

Dickerson tracks non-St. John subscribers by placing pushpins on a U.S. map hanging on the wall behind her desk.

“I value the readers who support me at $15 and could just kiss the folks who give a little more,” she said. “Often, readers will send $25, $50 and occasionally, $100. My out-of-town readers love me, and they really love the community.”

And they love “their” newspaper.

WHY DOES IT WORK?

Judy Muller, a former broadcast journalist and now a faculty member in the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, thinks she knows why “community” newspapers survive and even thrive in the face of rapid decline in other sectors of the print industry. She spent a career reporting big news in big markets, but that career started at a weekly newspaper, an experience she calls “one of the most satisfying” within her distinguished career.

Muller, a regular contributor to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” transformed her love for small-town journalism into a book published in 2011, “Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories From Small Towns.”

The cover of the book depicts a row of small-town storefronts that look eerily similar to downtown St. John.

Inside, Muller paints a picture of what she sees as a print news success story.

“People are longing for good news about journalism,” Muller said.

It seems that good news is coming from small community newspapers like the one where Muller began her career.

“I started at a weekly newspaper in New Jersey,” she said. “We were uncovering things all the time. Of course, that’s not hard to do in New Jersey.”

The papers her book looks at are healthy financially, and the news coverage remains strong, even though the endeavor does not reap huge profits, she said.

“They work very hard for not very much money,” Muller said. “To see what they do is very gratifying. It’s very courageous. But you would never hear them say that.”

What they “do” is serve the community with what she calls the trilogy of small-town news: police, obits and high school sports. In a column Muller wrote for the Los Angeles Times about her research for the book, she noted that small-town papers have been thriving by practicing the mantra media experts preach: “hyperlocalism,” “citizen journalism” and “advocacy journalism.”

Data from a Pew Research Center report released in September 2011, “How People Learn About Their Local Community: The Role of Newspapers,” indicated that “newspapers play a far more complex role in the civic life of communities than many Americans believe” particularly with papers considered “local.”

The report stated: “On the surface, most people do not feel that their local newspaper is a key source that they rely on for local information. … Yet when asked about specific local topics and which sources they rely on for that information, it turns out that many adults are quite reliant on newspapers and their websites. Of the 16 specific local topics queried, newspapers ranked as the most, or tied as the most relied upon source for 11of the 16.

“This dependence on newspapers for so many local topics sets it apart from all other sources of local news. The Internet, which was cited as the most relied upon source for five of the 16 topics, was a distant second to newspapers in terms of widespread use and value.”

The Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Center for Advanced Social Research and the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism on behalf of the National Newspaper Association surveyed 7,000-plus non-dailies and drew this data:

• 73 percent of respondents read all or most of each paper.

• The most frequently read topic was local news.

• 60 percent of adults rely on community newspapers as their primary source for local news — four times greater than the next nearest medium and 10 times greater than the Internet.

And research by the Reynolds Institute showed this: In terms of motivation, 83.2 percent of respondents who read the local newspaper do so primarily for the news content, but 69.2 percent also agreed that it “provides valuable local shopping and advertising information.” The survey targeted 500 adults ages 18 and older living in areas served by newspapers with a circulation less than 15,000.

“You cannot get that kind of local news anywhere else,” Muller said about the 7,000 to 8,000 (depending on whose research you accept) small-circulation newspapers that embrace the concept that singularly local news keeps readers and keeps stories in print.

“As long as there are refrigerator magnets, there will be small newspapers,” Muller said, but she noted: “It wouldn’t sell in L.A.”

But a closer look at the business of small newspapers reveals more.

Al Cross, a past SPJ president and current director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, said there have been far fewer closings of small papers during the past five years, and when they do close they tend to fall into the “non-county seat” category or operate in counties just too small to sustain an advertising base.

“I’ve always thought the long-term future of the community newspapers is better than others,” he said.

They have a local news franchise that few competitors have invaded, Cross said. They do not rely as heavily on classified advertising that Craigslist and other free, online services chased from dailies. Many (40 percent of weeklies) are independently owned, making them less subject to the demands of creditors, corporate chain operators and Wall Street.

“They are more willing to take the peaks and valleys in terms of profit,” Cross said.

Chad Stebbins, executive director of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, echoed the short list of positives referenced by Cross.

“The weekly newspaper owners are content with a 10 percent return on their investment,” he said. “They want to make a comfortable living. They don’t want to get rich.”

But Stebbins pointed to another success factor: improved editorial content and strong editorial pages.

“They take a leadership role in the community,” Stebbins said about International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors’ 260-member papers.

Dickerson said that leadership role in columns, editorials and news coverage is a no-brainer, even though she and others recognize that it comes with potential problems.

“Why not take the lead to promote your community?” she said. “By no means should a local paper become the Sunshine News. But if (the news staff) believes enough in the community to invest cash and treasured time into towns, I think we should let that passion come through in our editorials.”

Dickerson said small-town editors can make big statements with their editorial content.

“Over the years, I have tackled two subjects that can cripple our town’s leadership: gossip and closed government,” she said of her Community Current paper in rural Washington.

This has not always made her “Miss Popular” around town, she said.

“Publishing a newspaper in a town of 500 does have its drawbacks,” she said. “I cannot hide from readers, and sometimes the good people of St. John find it hard to distinguish between the messenger and the message.”

A similar perspective comes from someone who started his career before Dickerson was even born. Al Smith, 85, chronicled his long and at times turbulent career in journalism in his recently released book “WordSmith: My Life in Journalism.”

Smith made his mark early in his career as a police reporter for what at the time was the largest paper in the South, The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, after he dropped out of Vanderbilt University and left for the Big Easy with “$100 in my pocket and a pint of whiskey.”

It was the pint of whiskey that led him to working for and ownership of small-town papers in Kentucky.

“I drank my way out of News Orleans,” Smith said, who received a chip from Alcoholics Anonymous in 2011 celebrating his 49 years of sobriety. (SPJ named Smith a Fellow of the Society, one of the highest honors the organization bestows on a journalist, in 2008.)

He spent 30 days in a Veterans Administration hospital back then and when he got out, it was small towns that embraced him, cared for him and essentially gave him a second chance at life, he said. He went to work as editor of the News-Democrat in Russellville, Ky., in 1958. He bought a 10 percent interest in the paper in December 1963 and became sole owner in 1968 until 1980, when he became co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission, a position President Jimmy Carter asked him to take.

But he purchased the London (Ky.) Sentinel-Echo in May 1981 and moved from Washington, D.C., to London. He resigned from the Appalachian Regional Commission in October 1982. He sold the London paper and two others he had acquired in Russellville and Leitchfield, Ky., in 1985.

What Smith found in these towns and how newspapers served them 25 years ago speaks to their success today — coming face to face with the community and his readers every day, he said.

“My papers were exciting,” he said. “I was backing a cause for 52 weeks a year for something.”

Townspeople who disagreed would come to the newspaper office and confront Smith. As they unloaded on him, he would unload on his typewriter keys until the visitor stopped talking.

“I’d pull the paper out of my typewriter and hand it to them and say, ‘Is this what you said?’ They would say, ‘Yes.’ And I would say, ‘Then sign it.’ And those would be my letters to the editor.”

Local, independent ownership remains key, he said.

“Editors have to know enough about the community you serve to know what’s good and what’s bad in it, and you have to report the good and the bad,” Smith said.

Smith knew and knows many small-town editors who would back down from no one. He recalled Larry Craig, a Baptist preacher and publisher of the Green River Republican in Morgantown, Ky., and the uncle of Ryan Craig, the publisher and editor of the Todd County Standard in Elkton, Ky.

“Larry was killer smart,” Smith said about Craig, who died in January 2011. “He was afraid of nobody. He drove around with a shotgun in his gun rack and a pistol in his glove box. And he knew what good journalism was about.”

And the “good journalism” in small-town newspapers often extends beyond the editorial pages to the news pages.

The National Newspaper Association survey cited above showed that 69 percent of respondents believe their community newspaper’s accuracy is good to excellent, and 73 percent said their community newspaper’s coverage of local news is good to excellent.

READ: Mac McKerral on his six-week summer “vacation” stint reporting for The Community Current: “Reflections From Wheat Country

“Our member papers, I would put them up against anyone,” Stebbins said. “You and I both know some community newspapers can be a joke. (International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors) papers are top-notch, especially in the area of ethics.”

Muller’s book focuses on some of the compelling work done by small-town newspapers. She writes about Tom and Pat Gish, who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years.

The Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism is given by Cross’ Institute for Rural Journalism. The award honors Tom Gish, who died in 2008, and his wife, Pat.

In 2011, Stanley Nelson and the weekly newspaper he edits, the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La., received the award for investigating an unsolved murder from the Civil Rights era. In January 2011, the paper named a living suspect in the 1964 killing of African-American businessman Frank Morris — in the face of reader resistance.

The 2010 Gish Award recipient, Samantha Swindler, was recognized for her work as managing editor of the daily Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky., circulation 6,000. Swindler led an investigation of the Whitley County sheriff that helped lead to his defeat for re-election and his subsequent indictment on 18 charges of abuse of public trust and three counts of tampering with physical evidence.

Despite Cross’ connection to the award, he tempers his comments about improved quality. He acknowledged improvement but said, “I am not quite sure what the credit is there,” and he said overall editorial quality “is not very strong” across the board.

“But at the ones we exalt, it is excellent,” he said.

WHAT IS A COMMUNITY NEWSPAPER?

The words “community newspaper” mean different things to different people. They can reference size or geography or even a nation.

Tim Giago, 77, founder of the Native American Journalists Association, was born, raised and schooled on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He started his career in the 1970s with the Wasaga, a Native American newspaper in the San Francisco area. But he returned to Pine Ridge and founded the Lakota Times in 1981. Within five years it netted 15,000 paid subscribers.

“I remember the first guy who came in to buy a subscription,” Giago said. “He only wanted a six-month subscription because he said we would not last any longer than that.”

Now, 30 years later and called Indian Country Today, the former Lakota Times continues to serve the Native American community.

Giago started the Native Sun News in 2009. He calls himself “retired,” but the term fits loosely.

“I’ve turned the paper over to a young bunch,” he said. “But I still do some consulting. I am helping them get their feet on the ground.”

Giago’s Native American “community” stretches from coast to coast, but he believes small, rural newspapers do and will serve it best.

“A community newspaper is exactly what it says,” he said. “It serves a very specific population in the community. You are not going to find that coverage in certain other places. But we (Native Americans) are a national community. When something happens in Washington, D.C., that’s going to help or hurt Native Americans, that’s a story. Our papers are critical to our community. Without it, Native Americans would have no voice at all.”

He said that throughout “Indian Country,” many newspapers do the same thing and thrive.

“There are a lot of other papers doing really well, expanding and doing great news, like the paper in Mitchell, S.D., the Mitchell Daily News,” he said. “They publish five days a week, and they are growing and expanding. And they have some great young reporters.”

But the people these places serve have fallen way behind on the technology curve, Giago said.

“In places like Rosebud and Pine Ridge, on many reservations, there is a lot of poverty,” Giago said. “You are not going to find a lot of homes where people have computers. I would say upward of 70 percent do not have access to the Web.”

Those reservations are not alone in terms of tech hurdles.

In rural America, only 60 percent of households use broadband Internet service, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce report. That is 10 percent less than urban households. Overall, 28 percent of Americans do not use the Internet at all, the report stated.

And a recent Federal Communications Commission report estimated that nearly 2 million U.S. households can’t get any in-state television stations via satellite, and satellite TV remains a mainstay in rural areas. That causes a local news drought.

Giago, an Oglala Lakota and president of Unity South Dakota, wrote in a column for the Huffington Post in summer 2011: “(Newspapers) survived radio and television, and I believe that if they go back to their roots, they will survive the Internet.”

The FCC’s report on the “Future of the Media” and “The Information Needs of Communities” alludes to that “survival,” noting that: “As radio grew in popularity in the 1930s, newspapers lost significant audience to the airwaves. Along with readers went advertisers. Between 1929 and 1941, newspaper ad revenue dropped 28 percent overall and national advertising fell 42 percent.” Still, print remains a draw in small communities.

After Denver’s Rocky Mountain News folded, the paper’s Washington correspondent, M.E. Sprengelmeyer, bought a paper in the small town of Santa Rosa, N.M., the Guadalupe County Communicator.

Sprengelmeyer told Muller for her book: “In Santa Rosa, the future of print is print.”

Giago said that if anything, the Native Sun he started in 2009 might look at skipping a generation of technology with its news content delivery — laptops and desktops — and go to direct delivery of news to handhelds.

“We would be interested in seeing if someone like (Amazon’s) Kindle would be willing to deliver our news if we could make money doing it,” he said.

That idea comes with merit. Pew Center research shows:

• 47 percent of people get at least some local news and information via their smart phones or tablets.

• 31 percent said they used those mobile devices to find local restaurants or local businesses.

• 25 percent said they used those mobile devices to get news about their local community.

• 20 percent said they used those mobile devices to check local sports scores and get updates.

• 16 percent said they used those mobile devices to get or use coupons for discounts at local stores.

But most small-market publishers think both print and online can work. A good example of that may be in Rhode Island.

The Phoenix-Times Publishing Co. sold the Newport This Week newspaper to Lynne Tungett, its former editor-at-large, and Tom Shevlin, its staff reporter for two years. The Providence Business News interviewed Shevlin, who said he plans to marry the online and print edition with the website Tungett created, Newport Now. But the two outlets will maintain separate identities.

“I think it’s a model that more and more papers are going to gravitate toward, and when the opportunity presented itself to acquire Newport This Week, which is an over-35-year-old brand in the community, we couldn’t say ‘No,’” he said.

Despite the opportunities and prospects for a robust digital future, Dickerson in St. John, Wash., is sticking to print.

“It’s likely that if I had the budget to publish online, I would choose, instead, to channel the money to my print edition,” she said. “Crisper design, splurge on electro-bright newsprint and quality color for photos that deserve it.”

CRYSTAL BALL READING

Trying to predict the “future of news” and its delivery involves looking at a crystal ball as cloudy as a winter day on the windswept bluffs in Giago’s “Indian Country.”

By some accounts, the outcome for print could be just as cold.

Folks who have spent time working at and examining small-market newspapers do not operate with blinders.

Muller of the Annenberg School sees threats to print coming from changing postal rates, laws shifting legal ads to online and local versions of Craigslist that would drain advertising.

Research shows that the “hyperlocal news” franchise comes with complications, too.

Pew Center research speaks to this:

“The problem for newspapers is that many of these (local news) topics are followed by a relatively small percentage of the public. … Generational preferences add yet another layer of complexity. For adults under age 40, newspapers do not hold nearly the same appeal.”

Others talk about shrinking small-town populations and a lack of jobs, and social and cultural experiences drawing young folks away to larger population centers.

Stebbins said that ISWNE editors sometimes joke that they can cut the press run by one paper for every obit they run.

Cross acknowledged concern about the lack of “picking up the paper reading habit” among younger people.

But research he presented at the Newspapers and Community Building Symposium of the National Newspaper Association convention in 2011 troubles him more.

The research on rural newspapers in Kentucky and West Virginia by Cross and UK doctoral students Bill Bissett and Heather Arrowsmith showed that more educated and wealthier people are not as likely to read the paper as those less educated and not as well off financially.

(Correction: The above paragraph has been corrected to reflect the researchers' names. It originally cited Cross and Liz Hansen.)

“That’s exactly the opposite of what the industry always expected,” Cross said. “Why? I don’t know — yet.”

The FCC’s report on the “Future of the Media” spoke of “expansion of hyperlocal websites, the development of mobile advertising that targets phones based on geography, the extension of websites such as Craigslist into smaller cities and towns, and the advancement of strategies by search engines to capture local advertisers.”

And data based on 10 years of studies by the Annenberg School’s Center for the Digital Future predicts most printed newspapers will disappear in five years.

The good news?

“We believe that the only print newspapers that will survive will be at the extremes of the medium — the largest and the smallest,” said Jeffrey Cole, director of the center.

SMALLER WINDOW

The window Dickerson looks through is much smaller than five years. She holds no illusions about how her multiple sclerosis will affect her life and knows health issues are more likely to get worse than better.

Her growing daughters need more of her attention. No illusions come with that, either.

“They’ve got farming to do,” she said about the prospect that one of them might catch the newspaper bug.

And heading into the 18th year of publishing The Community Current pretty much on her own, she seeks a light at the end of the tunnel.

“I can remember working 36 hours straight to put out a monthly product,” she said. “I just can’t pull that off anymore. This disappoints me. But hell, I’m just one woman.”

Nevertheless, a divorce from The Community Current would come with a lot of heartaches.

“When readers get the Current in the mail, I want that moment to be a shared experience between me and the community. I like to walk through town in the evening following my delivery day and consider the families reading the paper at the same time as their neighbors. That makes print newspapers relevant.”

Mac McKerral, a past national SPJ president, is an associate professor and News-Editorial coordinator in the School of Journalism and Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University. Reach him at mac.mckerral@wku.edu.

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