Loose Emus and Much, Much More

[imgbelt img=img189.jpg] While newspapers in the big cities struggle, the small town press is finding things are going a bit better. People count on the local paper.


This is not to say that rural papers are simply going gangbusters. Rural newsrooms make for lean living and busy workweeks. Reporters have to wear many hats to put out a local paper, interviewing Eagle Scouts, snapping photos of the butter queen, writing editorials on the local rec center and stuffing supermarket circulars. And many of these papers are an advertiser or two away from red ink.

All of this is in the service of developing a relationship with the local readers that some people say that mainstream journalism has lost, a relationship with all the complications that intimacy and proximity bring. “You have only one day a week to beat the daily on timeliness,” wrote the editor and publisher Bruce M. Kennedy in his 1974 book Community Journalism. But “weeklies can add a personal touch,” he added. “There’s license to ‘visit’ more. You have time and space to be a small-town citizen talking with another about your community.”

“Emus Loose in Egnar”

“It is more than a little ironic that small-town papers have been thriving by practicing what the mainstream media are now preaching,” writes the broadcast journalist and USC professor Judy Muller in her new book, Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns (University of Nebraska Press).  

“’Hyper-localism,’ ‘Citizen Journalism,’ ‘Advocacy Journalism’ — these are some of the latest buzzwords of the profession. But the concepts, without the fancy names, have been around for ages in small-town newspapers.”

Inspired by the local weekly in the working-class Rocky Mountain town of Norwood, Colorado, Muller embarked on a lively, funny and engaging tour of small papers that took her across the country, from Concrete, Washington to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. 

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“If you’re in a chain and you have financial resources to support you,” says Al Cross, “you’re willing to take more risks, to lose an advertiser over coverage, to buy libel insurance and pay lawyer’s fees. But at same time, because chains are accountable to investor pressure, they can hamstring editorial operations.” 

Judy Muller says that she expected to hear complaints about chain ownership of rural and small town newspapers. “I expected to hear that only family owned multi-generational papers had high standards,” says Judy Muller, “but I did not find that. Either way, you can have weak unethical people working for corporations or weak unethical people who cave in to people from the bank.”

The Roundup and the Examiner are similar in form and content, each of them recently flush with color photographs of local events like the high school prom and graduation, horseshoe pitches, cattle brandings, and reader-submitted wildlife photos (which, in this region, are spectacular). 

And surely to the lasting pride of Mariah Strike’s parents, both papers published the full text of the Pinedale High School valedictorian’s address, a sign not only of hyper-local interest, but also of papers with ad pages to spare, positively groaning with legal announcements like foreclosure listings and regulatory filings, the kind that have long fattened newspapers in county seats like Pinedale. 

[imgcontainer left] [img:Ezzells.jpeg] Two generations of weekly newspapering: Laurie Ezzell Brown is the editor now of The Canadian Record. Her mother, Nancy Ezzell, still comes to work at the paper in the Texas Panhandle.

The newsrooms of both papers – which stand only 30 to 50 feet apart in an office complex made out of a former grocery store – are comprised of almost uniformly young reporters, like the 24 year-old editor of the Roundup, Casey Dean. The pay is low, says Dean, but it is supplemented by the free housing that the company offers. 

“One of my reporters, my intern and an Examiner reporter live in one house,” says Dean. “The ad director and one of the Examiner’s reporters live in company housing. Their office manager and myself live together, and that’s actually because she used to work for both offices.” 

At both papers, the staffs are small and efficiencies are everywhere. NewsMedia maintains their nearly identical websites, and the newspapers are laid out in South Dakota. “I’ve never seen her in person,” says Dean, “but I’m on iChat all day long with my designer.”

The editors take pride in their reporting on local issues, like the dam breach, federal redistricting, wolf management and the 800-pound gorilla of economic development, the natural gas industry.

Dean, the Roundup’s editor, grew up in Pinedale before going to college in North Carolina. She thinks the industry should disclose the chemicals they are using to extract gas through hydraulic fracturing, but she acknowledges the benefits that the boom has brought. “I’m with a lot of the community as far as understanding how much it has made possible economically,” she says. But the community also wants to be “very careful and monitoring it and protecting the things that make Wyoming what it is,” she adds, “because this boom won’t last forever. We don’t want to be a ghost town in 20 years.”

Like a number of rural newspapers that target advertisers with niche-oriented supplements, the Roundup has a monthly section for the gas industry called “The Roughneck.” “We try to keep it positive for the industry,” says the publisher Jeff Robertson, “But if something more newsworthy comes out that’s against that, we won’t shy away from publishing it.” 

Ron Aiken, until recently the editor of the Examiner, took a more skeptical stance on the energy bonanza, focusing on the disruption to the large herds of mule deer, elk, moose, and bighorn sheep that have made Pinedale a magnet for hunters and adventure sports enthusiasts.

“People will say things like, ‘I never had a deer paying a local mortgage,’” he said. Aiken, who spent several years working at a daily newspaper and an alternative weekly in South Carolina, wrote a cheeky column on June 7 that lampooned the county’s boom in publicly-funded water parks, bowling alleys and agricultural halls. “So what is there left that, in keeping with the cautious nature of how oil and gas money has thus far been spent, would best serve Sublette County residents?” he asked, under the headline, “What Sublette County Needs is a Monorail.” 

Aiken says that small-town papers have more room to innovate, citing the Examiner’s popular column “Grins and Gripes,” which runs 150-word blind items submitted anonymously by residents. “It’s a way to let people who wouldn’t normally write letters to the editor into the paper,” he says.

Local papers have largely resisted the pressure to offer content free online, sometimes capitalizing on their virtual monopoly on local news. Despite the competition with each other and from the free website Pinedale Online!, both the Roundup and the Examiner limit most online stories to one or two paragraph teases for the print edition and paid electronic downloads. 

While they are careful to protect their core product from free online access, they still consider themselves open to new media. The Examiner uploads photographs to Facebook and often “tweets” news items before they appear in print. “These are things that the smallest papers can do just as effectively as larger newspapers,” says Aiken, “maybe more so.” 

Al Cross thinks that community newspapers need to embrace the web, in spite of the risks. He says that as rural workers commute farther and farther to work, they will have less time to read newspapers and will be more likely to read hometown news at work on their computers or smartphones. 

“One third of papers don’t have websites,” he says, expressing concern about the growth of online-only startups from hyperlocal sites like the Post in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to the over 700 franchise-based Patch sites being propagated by AOL. “None of this is major competition for local newspapers, but like worms eating at their shoes, they ignore it at their peril.” 

“Publishers in small and medium communities largely think they are safe from the readership and advertising declines that are eating away at most metro newspapers,” wrote the former publisher and media analyst Alan Mutter in a 2010 blog post. “Are they? Yes, no and maybe,” he concluded. 

Internet competition might be the least of the threats to local papers, he wrote, compared to the wider demographic shifts. Rural areas are aging faster than urban and suburban ones, and younger readers may be less likely to buy newspapers, even when they get older. For small papers, long-time subsidies may be at risk as well: as the U.S. Postal Service looks for ways to stem its growing losses, the generous subsidy provided by free in-county mail delivery has once again come under scrutiny, as well as mail delivery on Saturdays. 

Perhaps most worrisome of all, rural papers still live and die with local businesses; Wal-Mart, for example, has little use for newspaper advertising, says Al Cross, and most national chains prefer to advertise in national media.

Still, community papers are looking like a haven in the media storm. Near the end of Emus Loose in Egnar, Muller cites a remark by Benjy Hamm, editorial director of a Landmark Community Newspapers, based in Shelbyville, Kentucky: “He is seeing more and more resumés from eager, young editors and big-city journalists who have either been victims of downsizing or growing weary of wondering if they will be next.”

“As the number of journalism jobs in metro papers declines,” says Al Cross, “I think rural journalism will be an increasingly popular outlet for people who want to take it on as a career. The monetary rewards are not as great, but there’s a great deal of personal reward that can come with it, and also an opportunity to get in on the ownership side.”

Muller agrees, “The reason a weekly thrives is because no one else on Earth can cover what they cover, people will not know what’s going on in their town in any other way. They’ve got a monopoly, a little fiefdom, for as long as the advertiser needs the market.”

As for local readers, she adds, “as long as refrigerator magnets exist, there will be things to clip and put on refrigerator, if your son was on the high school football team, it’s going on the fridge.” 

Geoff McGhee is the creative director for media at the Rural West Initiative at Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center Center for the America West