Walking to Find Out if Papers Are on the Run

By: Jennifer Saba

Most publishers, when they retire, take to a life of golf and relaxation. Not so with Jim Hopson. When he punched out for the final time after 33 years as life as a newspaper executive ? most recently as publisher of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison and vice president of publishing at Lee Enterprises ? he decided to take on a project that few younger journos would dare entertain. Hopson, 61, is seeking to find out if the woes of big metro papers are affecting their small-town peers by walking across America and visiting newspapers along the way.

If it sounds like a bad punch line to a 1980s joke ? Hands Across America, anyone? ? it isn’t. Hopson started his journey on the American Discovery Trail in Lewes, Del., on April 30 and has a blog at Poynter.org about his adventures.

“It’s been a vague notion for a number of years,” Hopson tells E&P from the trail in mid-May. It was a short conversation, since he needed to conserve juice for his cell phone as he wouldn’t be near a plug for several days.

“Obviously, there was no way to do this with a full-time job,” he adds. “When I announced my retirement, I started to get serious about it.” His wife, Julie, has been supportive, although she believes he’s a little nuts for doing it.

She’s a good editor, too, judging by some of Hopson’s posts. He submits entries to his blog “Little Papers, Big Country” by borrowing computers either at friends’ homes or hotels at which he stays along the trail, when he’s not camping. He stopped complaining about his aching feet after his wife admonished in a post, “The Poynter site is for journalists, and they want you to write about newspapers. If you want to write about your feet, post to a chiropodists’ Web site.”

Early in his trek, Hopson wrote about his visits with, among others, Chuck Peterson, editor of the Granville (Ohio) Sentinel. “What I’m finding is that small papers continue to do pretty well with their audience and advertisers,” Hopson says. “They don’t have competitors that can get underneath them.”

Hopson carries an iPod and a radio, but says he doesn’t mind the silence: “I find I’m comfortable with whatever is going on inside my head.”

He’s come across wildlife like snapping turtles and blue heron, and stumbled upon the not-so-natural, like empty beer cans and discarded diapers. The weirdest thing he’s encountered? “Honestly, I haven’t found anything particularly weird,” he says. On second thought, he offers, “Except for one publisher who refused to meet me for breakfast, because he’s not a morning person.”

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