Take back leadership in your community


Newspapers continue to decline because they have the wrong understanding of what business they are in. We are not in the business of news or marketing. Then what business are we in?

I learned it on my first day as a reporter for the Phillips County Review, a small-town weekly newspaper in Phillipsburg, Kansas.

I showed up early that first morning, and the editor/publisher/owner told me we were going out for coffee. It turned out to be a six-hour coffee break. The owner was McDill “Huck” Boyd, who owned several Kansas newspapers. He took me to Martha’s Café, where we spent time with community members over coffee. I must have met 200 people that day — maybe more. As we returned to the office that afternoon, Huck asked me what I thought we had done all day. I replied that I thought we were networking so I would have news sources.

He shook his head and said he was trying to teach me a lesson. That lesson was that my job was to watch over and protect the people in the community and ensure the community was healthy economically, that people were treated fairly and that they knew what they needed to know to live better lives. He taught me that those people needed me to care about them and that the newspaper’s priority should be the quality of their lives. I later learned from him that sometimes that meant alternately being a booster, a critic, a cynic and a cheerleader. He taught me that a newspaper could do that and be respected if people believed it cared about them more than any other master.

I only stayed a year in Phillipsburg and then went on to other jobs and communities. But I never approached the success of Huck Boyd. Huck was beloved. His community loved him as much as he loved them. Huck had a saying that “Community service is the rent you pay for the privilege of living on this earth.” That might explain why the Review had 4,200 subscribers in a county with 8,000 residents. Virtually every household was a subscriber.

What would it look like today to have the success of Huck Boyd? Today is a cynical time, and trust is challenging for all media. Newspapers have lost most of their revenue. I contend that beyond technology and lifestyle, focusing on the dollars and not the community accelerated those losses.

But what if you could rebuild the trust in the community toward your newspaper, including all the diverse parts of the community that most media didn’t care enough about in the past? I believe you can if you think like Huck Boyd. Show that you are dedicated to love where you live and that the quality of life of all the diverse communities within your larger community matters.

Here are five steps that I think will begin to get you there. These will allow you to own the news agenda and help guide the community conversation once again.

Commission an independent and annual Quality of Life survey. Share the results with everyone. Mason Dixon Polling specializes in such a study for many communities. It will run about $25,000 a year.  But you could likely arrange a survey utilizing a state university's behavioral science department at a more nominal cost. These are standard questions that identify the priorities of community members. You do it every year and report trend lines on what is improving and what work still needs to be done. You put a spotlight with your news coverage on the priorities all year long. An example is Pensacola’s most recent Quality of Life survey results.

Create a community dashboard. The dashboard should be visible and accessible to all. An excellent example can be found on the Studer Community Institute website, a nonprofit in Pensacola, Florida. The dashboard’s contents are gathered from state, federal and other reliable sources that show critical data points. When you see the 17 metrics, you will immediately understand it tells you where some people are struggling and where the community is making progress. Focus time and energy on those struggling and encourage the progress being made.

Commit to lifting the “Civic IQ.” That means contributing to an informed community by starting a community best-practice speaker series. You bring in nonpolitical experts to share what has worked and what has not worked in communities around the country on topics ranging from urban planning to education to law enforcement to diversity, inclusion, equity, bias and many other issues. Check out CivicCon, which stands for Civic Conversations. It is a great model to follow and is the work of the Pensacola News Journal with a local nonprofit. The speaker events are free and open to all. The newspaper or local donors can pay for the speakers, and the topics are selected based on what you learn from the Quality-of-Life Survey and the Community Dashboard. The aim is to share best practices so the community can have informed dialogue and community engagement around solving community challenges. This feeds citizen-powered change rather than politician-driven change. It raises the Civic IQ, so community members oversee the future.

Take ownership of bringing the community together. You do that with the speaker series and by understanding the Seven Pillars. The pillars are things that virtually everyone in the community has agreement about. You need to help community members know that they agree on far more than they disagree.

Launch a weekly poll. It will establish you as the thought leader. Do it in partnership with a local television station and a university. You and the television station share the poll results with the community every Monday. The university helps conduct the poll, and its expert faculty comments about the results and topic. The topics come from the local quality of life survey results, the local community dashboard, and a community panel that meets with you and leaders from the TV station and university.

You will set the agenda for what people discuss in your community. They will begin to look to you (your website and your print edition) for the questions and answers that are important to them personally and to their neighbors, who share many of the same concerns.

Any local newspaper in the country can do this. It won't break the bank. It will reconnect you to community members who gave up on you long ago.

Love your community first and above all. No one else is doing this where you live. Once again, become the agenda setter and the conversation starter, and you will find a way to make money because you have made the community value what you do.

Terry Horne is the executive director of the Center for Civic Engagement.

The Center for Civic Engagement is a 501(c)(4) in Pensacola, Florida, with the mission to create informed public dialogue and community engagement. Its public-facing name is CivicCon, which stands for civic conversations. The goal of CivicCon has been to shape an informed community engaged in civic conversations that improve the quality of life for all its members. You can reach Terry Horne, the executive director, at to set up a call to discuss these ideas and more.


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