By: Joseph J. Kolb
The checkout line at the supermarket was particularly long; as long as the day I just had, running a community newspaper in a small town in northwest New Mexico. In the midst of a fatal accident that claimed the lives of two people, there were the issues of selling ads, finishing delivery of that week’s newspapers, and fixing a coin rack on the opposite side of town. Then there’s always interacting with readers.
“Do you remember me? I was in your paper six months ago,” said the woman in line next to me, who seemed more curious than agitated.
“No,” I replied, wondering what story she was involved in.
She appeared to be a housewife who may have been in one of our features about youth sports or the schools. She enlightened me that she had been arrested a few months prior and charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor when police reported that liquor was served at a party for teens. My paper had embedded her booking photo in the body of the story.
“Well, the charges I faced were dropped by the District Attorney,” she informed me.
“That’s great to hear,” I said, still trying to recognize the woman but not really giving it much thought.
“Yeah, but you’re still an asshole!” she exclaimed in the middle of the checkout line for all to hear.
With a pursed-lip grin, raised eyebrows, and shrugged shoulders, I bade the woman good day. So goes one of the joys of small-town newspapering: the inability to escape your readership and story subjects.
Standards to uphold
The National Newspaper Association reports a growing preference among readers for community newspapers — an estimated readership of 86 million from some 8,000 papers — because of the hyperlocal coverage they afford. Many large dailies have followed suit in an attempt to save dwindling circulation figures, but that’s where the similarities between the two types of publications end. Life in a community paper has its rewards but is not without unique challenges; challenges not always shared by our larger counterparts.
The personal consequences and responsibility of coverage can be much more profound, especially in a small town where anonymity is elusive, and criticism becomes more personal. Agitating a major advertiser could accelerate the paper to the brink of collapse. Multitasking extends beyond the story into the realm of sales, circulation, marketing, and collection. Rarely, if ever, would a reporter for a big-city daily be called upon to deliver the paper as well as sell ads. Before there was the MoJo (mobile journalism) sensation, community reporters typically took their own photos and even did their own layouts, in addition to writing the story. This may seem to tip-toe the line between editorial and business, but most community papers handle it with professionalism.
Editors and reporters have the inherent responsibility to their readers to provide unbiased and objective news. Just as the mantra coined by Adolph Ochs for The New York Times when he purchased it in the late 19th century goes, “We will report the news without fear or favor.” And that is the dictum all reporters strive for. But it’s a lot easier when you live in a city of 5 million rather than a rural town of 5,000, 10,000, or even 20,000 people, where you can rarely avoid the subjects of your stories. Community newspaper publishers are frequently looked upon as advocates, counselors, punching bags, walking encyclopedias, standard bearers, solvers of all problems, and friends to all.
During my participation in the Punch Sulzberger Program for executive leadership at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2009, we had to present a project for improving our respective products. There I was, in a room with executives from the New York Times, Associated Press, Houston Chronicle, Boston Globe, and People Magazine, discussing what I was doing with my 3,000-circulation paper and how I wore so many hats.
In contrast with the scope of the other projects presented, which would influence such bastions of journalism, I proudly stood before the class and discussed how I wanted to expand my circulation by 500 readers. Fortunately, their professionalism put the project in context; I am in one of the most rural areas of the country, so an extra 500 readers would be a substantial accomplishment.
“Wow, I wish I could do what you do,” said one of my colleagues from the New York Times, referring to the greater hands-on element at community newspapers.
“I have to be honest with you. I really wouldn’t mind not having to deliver the paper in the winter and concentrate just on reporting,” I replied.
When reporting in a small community, it can be difficult to balance hard-hitting reporting with peaceful coexistence, which puts reporters in the position of having to decide how aggressively to pursue a story or, sometimes, whether to pursue it at all. Some big-city colleagues may look at such an attitude with professional disdain, but things can and do get personal with very few places to turn. None of the small-town publishers I interviewed said they have backed off a story, just that they handled it a little differently.
“I’ve been chased by people in cars and with guns,” said Don Jaramillo, publisher of The Cibola Beacon in Grants, N.M. “And rarely is there a time when I go shopping where I don’t see a subject of one of our stories in the parking lot.”
Jaramillo said he has not altered his everyday routine because of what he does, but it does cross his mind when his paper covers a hard-hitting story.
Shane Scoggins, publisher of the Franklin County Citizen in Lavonia, Ga., said there is a definite difference between big- and small-town reporting, and he has found a balance to accommodate his 4,500 readers. “We don’t soften our coverage, but we also don’t sensationalize it either, which I see in many large dailies,” he said.
In the farm lands of Nebraska, the 2,300-circulation Albion News conducts business in a similar fashion. “I try to be understanding of feelings more than a daily may, because we have a more intimate relationship with our readers,” said Jim Dickerson, who co-publishes the paper with his wife, Julie. “You do say things differently in a community paper in a small town.”
None of the publishers said they would shirk from a story. They agreed the best way to cover news is through the basic facts, without commentary or flamboyance. For example, they would report that a resident died of a gunshot wound in his home, but maybe not that he was found in a compromising position. The publishers agreed that the way hard news is presented is dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
H.J. “Hop” David, publisher of the 2,100-circulation Ajo Copper News in Arizona, said he has seen the consequences of too much editorial flamboyance. “Some heated controversies you just can’t avoid, but how it is presented can lead to community polarization and destroy the possibility for dialogue,” he said. “The temptation in big-city reporting is to milk a story for entertainment value.”
Small town, big competition
These small-town publishers agree that having to wear multiple hats is what truly distinguishes their products from the bigger guys. Journalism is journalism, but when it is mixed with every other facet of the business on a near simultaneous and daily basis, the experience can seem daunting to the faint or elitist of heart.
Like their larger counterparts, smaller community papers are facing challenges to the bottom line.
David said that in the absence of major community advertisers such as car dealerships, 40 percent of his revenue comes from publication of legal notices. He said due to the size of his operation, he has been able to underbid the larger papers in his market. However, for the past few years he said there has been a looming legislative movement for municipalities to stop paying for legal notices, which would be devastating to his business.
“We have a niche, and we’re able to capitalize on this, but who knows what the legislature is going to do,” he said.
He’s also finding it increasingly challenging to compete in social media, as larger papers struggled when Web pages emerged. “Sometimes we just couldn’t break the news fast enough,” David said. “We’re making changes but have to see how it will affect revenues.
Jim and Julie Dickerson said they are struggling with the competition from a shopper paper in their community that has attracted many of their advertisers because of its coverage.
“These small towns tend to be mom-and-pop businesses, and when the Walmarts come to the region they typically squeeze those businesses while also placing their inserts more frequently in the shoppers,” Jim Dickerson said. Scoggins said he sees a similar phenomenon in rural Georgia.
Jim Dickerson agreed with David that his biggest digital challenge is finding a way to monetize the various social networks. Dickerson also sees this taking away from the print edition and said he needs to evaluate his strategy.
Keep the gunk on your shoes
With staffs of 10, even as few as five in some cases, the experience of doing everything that needs to be done while keeping expenses down in an already geographically tight market is daunting.
“Our two biggest challenges are time and bodies,” Scoggins said. “With the size of our staff we can’t always get around to cover the news.”
Scoggins described the typical community newspaper, where dedicated beats are few and far between, and a reporter may cover a fatal accident one minute then move on to a church bake sale that same night. “I think this kind of diversity makes for better reporters,” Scoggins said. “People who have one beat may follow Georgia football their whole life, but I get to see all of the schools in our area, which keeps me closer to our readers.”
Scoggins tells a story in his thick Southern drawl that epitomizes community newspapering: “I was covering a story where I had to get into a pigpen to take a photo. After the assignment I then had to cover a swanky Republican Party fundraiser, which I went to still with gunk on my shoes.”
Joseph J. Kolb is publisher of the Gallup (N.M.) Herald.