The national journalism museum in Washington, D.C., has 15 theaters, seven floors and a quarter million square feet of space. But it didn’t have room to display community newspapers in its daily exhibits of front pages from around the country. Until yesterday, when weekly editors got organized.
No statues were toppled and no public squares were occupied, but yesterday there was a revolution of a sort, this one staged by rural weekly newspaper editors from across the U.S.
The powers-that-be confronted by a band of mom-and-pop newspapers were holed up in the Newseum, the richly funded museum of the news industry in Washington, D.C. Every day, the Newseum collects pictures of front pages from over 900 newspapers around the country and the world. All of the papers in the display are metropolitan dailies, however. There were no rural weeklies
A few weeks ago, some weekly publishers and editors began to wonder why the Newseum didn’t include rural weeklies in its “Today’s Front Pages” exhibit. They began talking to each other through an Internet listserv set up by Al Cross at the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
The Newseum wasn’t exactly welcoming weeklies, so the rural journalists — members of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors — decided to make a point.
The editors all agreed to send their front pages to the Newseum on a single day. Yesterday.
“We are doing this because the Newseum has a terrible record on the topic of community journalism,” Chad Stebbins, executive director of the ISWNE, told Cross’ Rural Blog. The action even had a name, the Front Page Blitz and a Twitter address #frontpageblitz.
The initial reaction from the Newseum was barely polite. “We are not taking weekly publications at this time, however, I will hold on to your information in case our mandate ever changes,” wrote the Newseum’s Frank Mitchell at 8:31 A.M. (East Coast time), just 10 minutes after Missy Layfield, editor of the Island Sand Paper in Fort Myers, Florida, emailed her front page to Washington, D.C.
That didn’t stop others, who continued to sling their front pages against the walls of the Newseum.
And the editors wrote. Here is the note Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, Minnesota, attached to his front page:
For 10 years I served on the National Newspaper Association board of directors and was its president in 2011-12. Each year when we would come to Washington, DC, for our annual Government Affairs Conference, I would browse the newspapers on display along the sidewalk in front of the Newseum – one of many who would pause to view what was going on in the world and nation that day. It was a stop I always made after spending a day with my US Senators and Representative on The Hill talking about issues important to newspapers.
However, it was always a disappointment to see how little, if any, focus there was on community journalism outside the major metropolitan cities. It was also discouraging to see how little credit was given to the role community newspapers play in this country’s history inside among the Newseum’s many displays.
We would hope that the Newseum would reconsider this slight to community newspapers , and the historical and invaluable role we play in this nation’s Democracy.
The Blitz continued, with more than 130 front pages sent from rural newspaper offices. By late afternoon the Newseum folded like … well, like a newspaper.
Jonathan Thompson, a media relations guy at the Newseum told Barbara Selvin, a journalism professor at Stony Brook University, that the “mandate” had changed.
“We are going to change that policy,” Thompson wrote to Selvin, who wrote a story about the Blitz for Poynter Online. “We will begin including weeklies in that exhibit. It’s a conversation the Newseum has been having for quite a while.”
It appears that the Front Page Blitz sped up that “conversation.”
Selvin asked Thompson if the change in policy was maybe, just maybe caused by the weekly editor protest. “Absolutely,” Thompson replied. “When people get together like this and feel strongly about a specific issue, and mobilize and make specific arguments, it does have an impact.”
It does indeed.
“We have forced them to at least start considering weeklies as real, legitimate newspapers that should stand aside their daily counterparts,” Stebbins told Selvin.
This story comes with a P.S. At about the time weekly editors were bringing down the Newseum, journalists and family members were in a Whitesburg, Kentucky, church for the funeral of Pat Gish, one half of a husband-and-wife team (Pat’s husband Tom died in 2008) that put out one of the most fearless weekly newspapers in the country, The Mountain Eagle. (See Yonder story here.)
When the Gish family and array of former Eagle reporters heard that the Front Page Blitz took place on the day Pat was laid to rest, they cheered their colleagues — and figured the timing of the protest was no mere coincidence.
Wrote one former Eagle reporter: “Not to take anything away from Al’s listserv, but… Could it be that Tom & Pat have just been heard from?”
Bill Bishop is contributing editor and a founding co-editor of the Daily Yonder.