We talk a lot – in the journalism profession, in SPJ, in the pages of this magazine every month – about how journalism is supposed to be practiced. We talk about ethics codes. We talk about a professional detachment from our sources. We look at challenges in the profession, and how journalists are dealing with those challenges.
But it recently occurred to me that these discussions usually focus on the actions of larger papers. How does the coverage in The New York Times compare to The Washington Post? What kind of decisions did the San Francisco Chronicle make while covering a certain story? How does The Salt Lake Tribune handle a particular ethical dilemma?
Such examinations are important, and we can learn a lot from them. But I think we tend to ignore a large segment of the journalism population: small-town papers. The Newspaper Association of America reports that approximately 85 percent of U.S. newspapers have circulations below 50,000. These are papers with fewer resources that serve smaller communities. Many of them aren’t published daily, and you probably won’t find too many high-profile awards on their walls. Some days, the biggest news might be a local high school play or a little league game.
For the communities they serve, though, these papers are a vital link to local events. They are often the only source for local news; while readers in New York can go to any number of places for information, readers in rural Tennessee don’t have as many options. This makes the work of small-town papers that much more important.
Perhaps one reason we don’t talk about smaller papers as often is because the circumstances of those papers varies much more than those of larger papers. The Dallas Morning News and The Miami Herald have different-sized staffs, different circulation numbers, and they cover very different communities. But it wouldn’t be so difficult to compare their coverage on a given story, because the sheer sizes of those papers – and the communities they serve – make those differences less important.
But with small papers, those differences make comparisons difficult. Rural communities are not usually as diverse as large cities, and that means that each paper has a very specific – and unique – readership. The resources in a small newsroom are obviously more limited, and fewer resources amplifies the differences between one paper and another; a difference of six reporters is not great in a newsroom of 50 or so, but it’s hard to compare a newsroom of 12 to a newsroom of six. It’s also difficult to compare the coverage of smaller papers, because many community papers limit their coverage strictly to local issues that other papers wouldn’t cover.
Because small papers tend to operate under a unique set of circumstances, each paper finds its own niche in the community it covers. The practical often trumps the theoretical in these newsrooms, and the accepted journalism standards of large newsrooms are sometimes put on the shelf as these papers work to find the best role they can play in their communities. In some cases, community involvement is valued more than professional detachment; others work to keep some distance between themselves and the people they cover. These values vary, depending on the role each paper has identified for itself.
On Page 16, we look at how journalism ethics should – or shouldn’t – differ for large papers and small papers. Despite working under very different circumstances, should small-town journalists try to follow the same ethical standards as their colleagues at larger publications? As you read, you’ll find that different editors give different answers to this question. Because the circumstances at each paper are so different, it’s difficult to say who is right and who is wrong – but the explanations each editor gives are interesting ones.
Publications of all sizes have faced a struggling national economy in the past months, but financial woes can hit small papers especially hard. As a result, many editors have had to find creative ways to cut costs and continue production. On Page 20, read about how the economy has affected several small-town papers. Different papers have been affected in different ways, and they’ve all found unique ways to deal with the problem.
I hope this issue is a first step toward a larger discussion about the issues faced by small-town journalists. Some of these issues are difficult to talk about, because the problems of one newsroom are not necessarily the problems of another. But the journalism that comes out of these smaller newsrooms is just as important – if not more so – than the work that comes from their big-city counterparts, and it’s important that we talk about both.
Jeff Mohl is the editor of Quill.