Staying true to our identity

On the rectangular top of our dining-room table Linda and I constructed the pieces and parts of what would become this newspaper. It was 1998, the long hot summer was coming to an end, and Linda wanted to get back to work after a three-month sabbatical from the corporate world. She wasn’t going back; she wanted to work close to home; she wanted to do something for her community and since our kids were teenagers she wanted to keep a close eye on them. But can anyone really keep an eye on teenagers?

Linda talked it up around town and eventually, Bert Shoosmith, now deceased, told her she could do it. Bert was a kindly, old nurseryman, born and bred locally and he said a weekly newspaper would be something people here would accept and maybe come to embrace. Linda was on her way. We found a printer and in just a month or so, we produced the first Village News. Bert was on the second cover just behind “Stan the hotdog man.”

I didn’t quit my day business because who knew if the idea would float or sink to the bottom of Swift Creek. At that time, finding anything in writing about community newspapers was almost impossible; but I found a little known book written by a man in North Carolina who had lived his life putting stories of local people and their activities in his weekly newspaper. Ink ran through his veins; and he wrote he could never do anything else. “I will die behind this old Underwood,” he said.

His circulation was a couple of thousand less than ours and he warned that in the community newspaper business, you have to be careful of what or who you write about because you’re apt to run into that same person at the grocery store. “It’s small town stuff,” he quipped.

If you surpass his rule-of-thumb of remaining hyper local, by pushing your circulation so large that you lose the personal touch, you’re unable to reflect the importance of lives in your community.

If you become so large that you spread beyond covering area little league games, high school scholarships, features about the out of the ordinary accomplishments of local residents, civic clubs or projects, you are no longer a community newspaper. You are now a machine about making money – not offering a service, creating a sense of place or an outlet for personal stories. You can’t offer personal service to 320,000 people in 24 or 28 pages – half of which are advertisements.

The hero of the book I read so many years ago and refer to even today, is like the bible of local news. But as the years have gone by faster than a bullet train, daily newspapers have taken a hit and are having a difficult time of it. Why? Because they are not local, they’re too big to come down to the level of a local reader. Television covers regional and national news and can only offer an occasional local or hometown story. And, their coverage tends to be a car wreck, murder or some other disaster.

My guru of community news does not believe he owns his town. Leo Lerner, founder of Chicago’s erstwhile Lerner Newspapers, used to say, “A fistfight on Clark Street is more important to our readers than a war in Europe.”

According to “Toward a Measure of Community Journalism: Mass Communication & Society,” Wilson Lowery wrote: “If you want more of a definition, I’m afraid it’s like when someone asked Louie Armstrong for a definition of jazz. The great Satchmo is reputed to have replied something like this: ‘Man, if you have to ask, it won’t do me any good to try to explain.’ You know community journalism when you see it; it is the heartbeat of American journalism, journalism in its natural state.”

Want statistics? “In the United States, about 97 percent of newspapers are classified as “community” newspapers. The Alliance for Audited Media describes community newspapers at less than a circulation of 25,000. This is not a business where size matters, it’s about people – not a 70,000 plus circulation.

Herbert Altschull, “A Crisis of Conscience: Is Community Journalism the Answer?” wrote, “Community journalism would ideally reveal, or make individuals aware of, spaces, institutions, resources, events, and ideas that may be shared, and encourage such sharing. The practice should also facilitate the process of negotiating and making meaning about a community.

We’re always checking to see where the Village News fits in. From dining table to a shabby office rental on West Hundred Road, we feel like the little engine that could – though with a crowded market for advertising, which isn’t focused on hometown – the number of cars that little red engine pulls get just a little heavier; but don’t count us out, we’re here to stay.

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