As fate would have it, I’m writing this piece from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I’m doing a photo shoot for the Christian Children’s Fund.
An African Third World country might seem a strange jumping off point for a commentary on community journalism. But in such a place where the government controls the media, one can’t help but appreciate the vital watchdog role played by the local press back home.
So I find myself thinking about Scott McLeod’s feisty regional free tab weekly, the Smoky Mountain News up in the Southern Appalachians of North Carolina. One of my state’s many independent weeklies, the Smoky Mountain News is a fearless voice that has made a name for itself with vigorous investigative in-depth reporting of Western North Carolina issues.
Then I’m thinking of another crusading weekly paper on the other end of the state, the little Spring Hope Enterprise (circ. 2,200), with a newsroom of three (depending on how you’re counting). Veteran owner-editor Ken Ripley won’t let a single issue go to bed without one of his lively editorials. Many is the time over the past 20-some years that Ripley has fallen asleep at the keyboard on a Tuesday night fulfilling what he considers to be that sacred calling.
Then there’s David Woronoff’s Pilot of Southern Pines, a roughly 15,000 tri-weekly that prints not just an editorial page but also an entire separate editorial section.
Shame on anyone who denigrates the “non-daily.” It’s my humble prediction that as the newspaper shake-out evolves, we’ll see a whole lot more of those — that is to say, mid-sized dailies returning to their all-local roots — as weekly, semi and tri-weeklies.
These are times of churn and change in our business. I know that firsthand. Each summer I roam my home state delivering free, on-site workshops at community newspapers in the belief that enlightened local media empower strong community. In the past eight summers, I’ve reached 130 newspapers, affording me a unique perspective on the community press.
So here are few conclusions from this past summer’s journalism roadshow:
• Two-newspaper towns are not extinct. By my reckoning, there are at least 30 smaller towns in my state served by multiple community newspapers. Who knew?
• Independent weeklies (including twice and trice-weeklies) are alive and well. In fact, when you look at who wins North Carolina’s annual top press awards, it’s the indies. One can only hope that as the big chains divest themselves of their smaller properties, local investors will snap them up.
• Start-ups still happen. In the past three years in North Carolina, I count at least six start-ups, including one “taking-names and kicking-butt” indie daily up in Andy Griffith’s hometown of Mount Airy where the upstart Surry Messenger is in fierce competition with the incumbent chain daily. I’m also thinking about successful start-up weeklies in exurban locales, such as Laura and Tim Long’s Mint Hill Times just outside Charlotte. This sister-brother team covers their burgeoning town in a way that the big Charlotte Observer just can’t.
So there is much to feel good about in the area of community journalism. One publisher who will remain unnamed candidly admitted this summer to having just completed a “record year.” And I for one firmly believe that community papers will weather the current economic crisis. Journalism students take note: Your future can be found here.
Flying home from Africa, we found ourselves seated beside a university professor from Sudan. Once she found out my profession, she wanted to know what I thought: What is the future of newspapers?
How’s that for a full circle? The $64,000 question from someone from a Third World country where they have no such thing as a First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of the press.
I tried to explain to her that many people in American believe newspapers, especially hyper-local community newspapers, have a real future, whether it is hold-and-fold, ink-on-paper or Web-based.
Also, I told her that many of us “newsies” take as gospel what Walter Lippmann said back in 1925, that “a free press is not a privilege, but an organic necessity for a great society.”
So here’s to all the late-night strivers putting their weeklies to bed, to the good newspaperfolk out there in the so-called boonies trying to uplift their communities, and to the Ken Ripleys of our industry who may be exhausted on deadline night, but by God, won’t call it a day until that tell-it-like-it-is editorial about the shenanigans of the town council is written.
Jock Lauterer is the director of the Carolina Community Media Project and a lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.