‘They Found The Community In Community Journalism’

More press associations are playing roles in preserving the impressive record of local journalism’s achievements during a pandemic.

Survival also is a big part of the stories.

The details make excellent topics for industry conferences and panel discussions because they can spotlight uplifting accounts about newspapers’ Relevance.

The latest entry comes from “the middle of the country” and is on the Poynter Institute’s website with this headline:

“The Essential Workers: Last year, two journalism professors started an oral history project to document the work of local newsrooms in mid-America. They found the community in community journalism.”

The project can be found here.

I spotted this overview published in the newsletter from the Kansas Press Association, one of the sponsors :

About 700 pages worth of interviews with journalists from North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana capture the challenges and opportunities faced by rural newspapers in the early days of the pandemic.

Journalism historian Teri Finneman of the University of Kansas said the project primarily examines the impact at locally owned and family owned weekly newspapers.

“I really believe that community newspapers are the heart of journalism in America,” said Finneman, who is publisher of a community newspaper in Kansas and worked in journalism in North Dakota and South Dakota. “And to see how this substantial moment in history is impacting the lifeblood of information in rural communities, we feel, is really important.”

The project has a long list of contributors, including the executive directors at state newspaper associations:

North Dakota: Steve Andrist, Jill Friesz, Kevin Schnepf, Cecile Wehrman, Amy Wobbema (and former Forum reporter Benny Polacca, now in Oklahoma).

South Dakota: Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle, Dave Bordewyk, Letti Lister, Jeremy Waltner

Nebraska: Bill Blauvelt, Dennis DeRossett, Amy Johnson, Carrie Pitzerk

Kansas: Emily Bradbury, Bonita Gooch, Cynthia Haynes, Matt Tait, Joey Young

Arkansas: Wes Brown, Lori Freeze, Jeannie Roberts, Ashley Wimberley

The Kansas news item added these details:

Historian Will Mari of Louisiana State University, who co-authored the project, said it was important to capture these stories while history was happening and memories were still fresh.

“Many of them were about survival and getting through just the day-to-day life of a small town or a small region’s newspaper,” he said. “But also a lot of really profound and interesting things as publishers and editors struggled with how to pay their bills and serve as a resource for their communities and take care of their news workers.”

Oral history allows for the capturing of history that would never otherwise make textbooks but is critical to preserve to tell a more accurate picture of the nation’s past, Finneman said. Materials collected in the project, including transcripts, audio, photos and examples of news coverage, are now housed in each state’s historical society, in addition to Poynter’s new site.

Finneman is also working on research papers related to the interviews to examine how journalistic routines more broadly were impacted, as well as newspapers’ business models.

“These rural community journalists have played just an essential role at this pivotal moment in U.S. history, and this project is about capturing their stories,” she said.

I asked the participating association directors for their insights. Here’s Emily Bradbury in Kansas:

“I wish I could take credit for the project but we were just lucky enough to have one of the project’s directors in our state. We work closely with Teri Finneman on many projects and gladly jumped on board when she brought this idea to us,” said Bradbury, who added that the association’s foundation paid for the transcription costs from the Kansas interviews.

“We picked our publishers based on various factors: gender, area of the state, age, ethnicity, and known changes due to pandemic. We really wanted diversity in all of the areas,” Bradbury wrote in an email. “We were so grateful that this project was presented to us because, as you know, we were fighting fires on behalf of ourselves and our members and not able to truly document what was happening in real time.”

In North Dakota, it was a similar story, except it represented one of the last projects for Steve Andrist before he retired as executive director.

“Teri Finneman clearly provided the passion for this project, but North Dakota Newspaper Association jumped at the chance to compile a historical perspective of newspapers dealing with a historical event,” Andrist told me in an email. “We provided sufficient funding for the project to cover the cost of doing interviews with North Dakota journalists, and we helped with suggestions of who in our state would be good interviewees. From our perspective, the primary purpose of the project was to support community journalism today and into the future. Believing that future is strong, while challenging, we agreed that documenting the impact of a pandemic on community newspapering would be not only interesting, but also useful for future community journalists.”

Among the interesting discoveries, according to the project authors:

  • *The pandemic caused weeklies to become daily news providers.
  • *Native and Black publications “served communities that no one else was.”
  • *Advertising tanked but digital traffic broke records.
  • *Some communities “discovered local news” during the pandemic.
  • *Revenue that disappeared caused publishers to fighter harder for replacement sources and news ways of serving readers.

The project, along with a similar effort in Kentucky, should inspire other associations to fill in the missing pieces.

It’s an important story to tell, learn from and preserve.

—TAS

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