Author Archives: Pat Louise

1A strives to find its own voice

by Pat Louise

Sixteen days before President Donald Trump opened his administration with his Inauguration speech that declared ‘From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” NPR’s newest radio show and podcast focused on the topic.’

Since Jan. 2 host Joshua Johnson leads discussion on 1A that mostly centers on daily topics with a connection to the First Amendment, which inspired the name of the show.

Now airing 9 to 11 a.m. on the radio, Johnson and 1A replaced the 37-year running Diane Rehm Show. The show airs from WAMU on the American University campus in Washington, D.C.

For those listening to radio via podcasts on their own timetable, the 1A version provides a show between 35 and 50 minutes. Depending on the length of the show, 1A offers one or two podcasts a day culled from the radio show. This review looks at the podcast.

1A started strong. On the Jan. 4 podcast titled “Is the Era of American Humanitarian Intervention Over?” the 47-minute show featured five guests. Before the discussion, the show opened with a montage of quotes and music from such notables as Martin Luther King Jr., Bart Simpson, Bruce Springsteen, Richard Nixon and Jimi Hendrix.

Rather than a round-table discussion with panelists taking an extreme view one way or the other, the show allowed the first two guests to explore the topic solo for seven to nine minutes each.

Up first was Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a Democrat who served two tours of duty in the Middle East. Gabbard made a strong case that Trump’s directive of America First made sense economically by redirecting U.S. resources to solving problems at home instead.

Giving a different viewpoint was St. Louis, Mo. schoolteacher Elvir Ahmetovic, a Bosnian who came to the United States in 2002 as a refugee. He spoke about the need for the United States to act as rescuers for families such as his.

The other three panelists, including Boston Globe columnist Stephen Kinzer, rounded out the show with a thoughtful and balanced outline of how Trump’s new direction could both benefit and hurt on a national and global level. At the end, listener comments praised the show for its give-and-take of both sides of the issue.

1A’s rating on iTunes for that show puts it at the sixth most popular podcast for Jan. 4, a fast jump from two days before when it debuted at No. 25.

Two days later 1A reached No. 3 with the first of its weekly Friday News Roundups, broken into one podcast for domestic news of the week and the other for international.

But since then, 1A has steadily dropped in listeners to No. 77 on Feb. 5 and falling to 95th the following week, to bump back up to 92nd to start the week of Feb. 12. Rankings are based on the number of downloads requested of the top 200 podcasts available through iTunes.

On iTunes, 1A ranked behind Sleep With Me, (59th), a podcast of boring stories to help people fall asleep; Car Talk, (67th), which is all reruns at least 10 years old, and Guys We F****D, (87th), which bills itself at the Anti-slut Shaming podcast.

Which is all a shame in itself, as 1A has some good offerings. Its Friday roundup usually brings it up a few rungs on the daily iTunes chart with a great blend of news and behind-the-scenes looks from journalists and others involved on the topics.

In the Jan. 13 domestic roundup, done one week before Trump took office, CBS News Chief White House correspondent Major Garrett made an astute observation about how journalists should cover the new president. He said journalists need to distinguish between what Trump says that is interesting and what he says that is important.

Since noon Friday, Jan. 20, that statement might well sum up the challenges facing the press corp these days.

Along with trying to drill down on important topics, 1A ventures into some topics of its own design. One show, the Politics of Laughing, looked at political-based humor with a trio of comedians. Another, Revisiting James Baldwin, examined why the author’s work is once again popular.

The show also tapped into the music industry with a couple of music-themed shows. In Do The Grammys Matter. Yes (asked and answered in the title as many listeners pointed out, eliminating the need to listen) the panelists of two NPR music journalists and Simon Vozick-Levinson from MTV, explain the relevance of the awards.

The Feb. 13 show Going Country: The Surprising Success Of Country Music, the podcast called itself a boot-scootin’ 1A. That show drew 67 comments on the 1A website around the question of what one country song would you choose to introduce someone to country music.

Whether venturing off the map of politics to boot scoot through the country music scene helps 1A keep and bring in listeners is unclear. With so much news hovering around the First Amendment and politics, these topics provide a respite – but a respite listener may well find too light to follow.

The single biggest factor for low ratings given by listeners on various review sites is that the 1A podcast does not provide the full two hours from the radio show.

Many listeners point out that Rehm’s full two hours was available as a podcast. Reviewers said they would prefer the full context of discussion rather than chunks of it.

Listeners give the second-most critical comments to Johnson’s style as a host. While some love his laid-back approach to let guests speak their minds, others say he lets too many statements go unchallenged. Other criticisms question whether the show can accept viewpoints not strictly in the liberal line of thinking and whether the choice of panelists shape a preordained thinking on a topic.

One of the biggest criticisms came from a Feb. 7 podcast, Sanford Now, taking an early five-year look back at Sanford, Fla., where Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighbor. Along with Matthew Peddie, assistant news director at WMFE in Orlando, the other panelist was Paul Butler, Georgetown University Law Center professor, former federal prosecutor and author of the forthcoming book “Chokehold: Policing Black Men.”

Listeners said Butler’s well-known viewpoint (he has spoken out about a number of incidents when a young black man has been shot, including Ferguson) brought nothing new to the discussion. Instead, the suggestion was to have included someone in authority from the Sanford community to explain changes over the five years.

The other podcast from the Feb. 7 1A radio show was Rest In Power: How Trayvon Martin Transformed A Nation. His parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, co-authors of the book Rest In Power, were the only panelists and discussed their lives since their son was shot Feb. 26, 2012. They talked about their book, their son and a foundation set up in his name.

Most of that fell by the wayside. The 355 comments on the 1A website degenerated into name-calling and charges of racism among commenters.

It might be that in striving to give everyone an equal platform to exercise their First Amendment rights, 1A has overlooked finding its own voice in the discussion. While NPR certainly will not give Johnson the 37 years Rehm had to do so, the show’s hits outweigh its misses and should be granted time to grow and improve.

New-wave J-school curriculum

Pulling from some of the most interesting journalism classes offered in programs in the Midwest, these courses would make for a wonderful year for any college journalism student. These are actual course descriptions in the college catalogues.

Will Write for Food (and Wine): Focuses on food and wine writing in current U.S. culture. Come ready to create mouthwatering narrative and actively seek publishing your finished work. An emphasis will be placed on class participation and written critiques of peer-reviewed articles in class. University of Missouri

Digital Games, Sims and Apps: Storytelling, Play and Commerce: Introduction to academic study of video games, computer simulations/mobile game applications. Digital games as technology, mass communication industry, cultural form/set of design practices. University of Minnesota

            Sex in the Media: Explores the role and portrayal of sex and sexuality in media and examines in detail the potential social and psychological effects of exposure to sexual content in the media. Indiana University

The Googlization of America: Led by Google, technology companies are taking a more central role in the American media landscape every day. In this course, students learn how Google and its competitors are continuing to change journalism, the media business and U.S. culture. Northwestern University             

Sports and Electronic Media: Examines the practical, social, and economic relationships between two major areas of U.S. popular culture — the electronic media and sports. Combines aspects of announcing, production, sales and marketing, history, and policy. Ball State University

Arab Spring in Context: Media, Religion, and Geopolitics: Protest movements that started in Tunisia in 2011 and swept across North Africa and the Middle East transforming Arab and Islamic societies in radically different ways; function of social media, satellite television, communication technology; influence of religious leaders and groups on some protest outcomes; impact of wealth and geopolitics on social fabric of Islamic societies within and outside Arab countries. University of Iowa

Mass Communication and Political Behavior: Interrelationships of news media, political campaigning and the electorate. Considers the impact of media coverage and persuasive appeals on image and issue voting, political participation and socialization. University of Wisconsin

Outdoor/Nature Journalism: This course has a three-fold purpose: to acquaint new journalists and writers with the best works of those who have found inspiration for their prose from the outdoors; to familiarize student writers with journalism about nature sites in the Missouri and Midwest region; to encourage developing outdoor/nature writers to experiment with expository and advocacy journalism. Webster University

Critical Analysis of Media: Commercial mass media and alternative press in a global context; the ways media reinforce or challenge dominant or non-dominant paradigms. Class, gender, race, disability. Media investigation skills basic to democracy. St. Cloud University

Mass Media and the American Family: The impact of the mass media on family communication patterns, familial value structures, development of children, and orientation to news media. Examination of news, advertising, and entertainment content from educational, cultural and economic perspectives. Emphasis on empirical social science research which examines relationships between media and families. Marquette University

21st century j-schools: a personal look

If some high school student asked my advice about choosing a college journalism program, I of course would suggest the obvious criteria.

Classes offered. Majors available. Out-of-the-classroom opportunities to engage in journalism. Reputation. State of its technology.

After writing a story about the Class of 2020 for this issue of Gateway Journalism Review, I now would give them a question to ask their potential schools: What is your response when asked to discuss your school for a media magazine?

If the answers fall anywhere close to what I received in trying to do the story, my advice would be to move along and don’t look back.

We’re too busy. The semester just started. I can’t get anyone interested in talking to you. Not interested. We don’t have any information about the freshman class yet.

And the nominee for my favorite: No one in our department has 15 minutes to talk or answer questions on email about our program.

But maybe I am being too harsh. At least those people responded, however negative. Of the 23 inquiries made that turned me down, 10 did so by ignoring the request altogether. I hope these places do not preach what they practice. But instead, they are so busy and caught up in teaching today’s journalists that they cannot look up from their lecture lecterns to talk about themselves.

Actually, I don’t hope it, because I know it’s not true. What might be closer to the truth is that journalism schools have joined the ongoing parade of ignoring the media because they are afraid we won’t tell the story exactly the way they want. But keep doing that and here’s what the story might be in 20 years: Those schools will no longer exist.

40, 30, even 20 years ago, journalism students learned the same standards of the trade: writing, reporting, editing. Not much variation there; where you went to college served more as a door-opener after graduation than learning secrets not taught elsewhere. Students at Missouri and Northwestern and Columbia and Newhouse and Stanford learned the five W’s the same as did students at colleges with much smaller departments.

Now, as journalism continues to find new ways to tell a story, the five W’s and how have been reclassified. They’re now called the foundation upon which sexier and more cutting-edge journalism is taught.

Some schools are building impressive structures on those foundations. They have successfully blended the classic with what is trending. To be a student at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism facing the dilemma of whether to write for the award-winning Columbia Missourian or join the convergence Global Journalist show to cover world news and challenges to freedom of the press.

Or to be taking classes at Indiana University’s Media School, in Franklin Hall, built in 1907. But thanks to its $21 million renovation over the past two years, the upgraded facility gives students tools that rank with those of any professional newsroom.

Journalism schools now serve as the farm team for the professional ranks. No longer will fresh-out-of-college journalists have the time, or an employer willing to spend that time, to train them over a few years. Hit the ground running or don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Successful journalism programs will teach students to jump right in, and also to have the skills and confidence to lead the way for the next four decades. The past 30 years already have shown that those who wouldn’t/couldn’t embrace the Internet and its ways to tell a story did not survive.

The same can be said about journalism schools. Because if you won’t tell your story, who will?

J-schools in transition

In her freshman year of high school in Lake Forest, Il., Sarah Verschoor signed up for a journalism class simply because it fit into her schedule.

She liked it enough to take all the journalism classes offered in the next four years and joined her high school newspaper, rising to editor-in-chief in her senior year. She led the paper’s move from a broadsheet to a news magazine.

Despite her initial love of journalism, after her junior year, her college choice and career path remained uncertain. That summer Verschoor attended the High School Journalism Institute at Indiana University, run by IU for the past 70 years. “Everything came together,” said Verschoor, who began her freshman year at Indiana this fall as an honors student in the Media School. “I am so passionate about wanting to be a journalist.”

This fall the journalism Class of 2020 began the four-year college march to graduation. When those students graduate, they will join the generation of media professionals whose work-life span carries into the last half of this century. These freshmen, said people involved in educating them, demand that journalism schools prepare them for a career in a profession that redefines itself at a rapid, non-stop pace. Even top-tier journalism schools, such as IU and the University of Missouri, have had to evolve to better prepare students for the unknown future of the profession.

Lynda Kraxberger, associate dean for undergraduate studies at the University of Missouri, said Missouri’s School of Journalism continues to teach the enduring values and principles of the profession. “What has been done here since 1908 when newspaper and advertising were offered for the first time remains,” Kraxberger said. “But what we also focus on now is teaching students how to learn all throughout their professional careers.’’

It’s a learning strategy that has been given a name — the Missouri Method. Students have a choice of six different newsrooms from traditional print with the award-winning Columbia Missourian to the Global Journalist, a convergence show that looks at worldwide issues and challenges to a free press.

Of Missouri’s approximately 25,000 undergraduate students, some 1,850 are in the School of Journalism. The freshman class numbers from 350 to 400 students.

Students at all levels work with professionals, many of whom are Missouri alumni. That mixture of hands-on with people in the profession helps students understand what will be expected of them, said Suzette Heiman, professor of strategic communication and director of planning and communications.

“Students develop critical thinking and writing skills, learn how to do research,” Heiman said. “These skills are needed in all careers. They are the floor of the foundation to do anything. The coaching the students receive from faculty and alumni mimics what they will get in the real world.”

To strengthen that connection from students to professional newsrooms, faculty chairs meet routinely with alumni to evaluate student portfolios. “It’s an ongoing conversation,” Kraxberger said, “on making sure students are as prepared as possible.”

Students also compete to pit their ideas against those from students at other colleges. One group created a computer application for journalists using the Apple Watch called Recordly. Students traveled to Apple’s headquarters and gave a presentation on how the app would allow journalists to record and then download the transcript to their computers. The university has provided seed money to help bring the app to market.

Working with the Hearst Company, another group developed software called Nearbuy, to help people identify real estate available in a community. And another group participated in a contest sponsored by Meredith in Des Moines to come up with a new, never done magazine.

Missouri students looked into online gaming, a growing hobby among people their age. According to Kraxberger, they realized all of the magazines on the topic were geared toward young men, missing the market for young women. “Fangirl” was pitched to Meredith’s top level people, who bought the prototype on the spot. “Some schools are known for one program,” Kraxberger stated. “We’re good at everything.”

Students this semester are working to create a policy on the use of drones in journalism. Missouri has six drones that students can use for various types of coverage.

“This is what we mean when we say they are taught to learn,” Kraxberger said. “They can put their hands on new technology and figure out the best use with the enduring themes of journalism.”

What is new at IU includes the concept of the Media School itself. In July 2014 IU merged its 100-year-old journalism program with other communication schools at the college and created the Media School. Of IU’s approximately 37,000 undergraduates, some 700 are in the Media School, with the freshman class comprising about 250 students.

Anne Kibbler, director of communications and media relations for the school, said the change puts everything under one roof so students have greater flexibility with their curriculum choices. “It’s a reflection of what’s happening in the industry,” she continued. “The media industry is merging platforms and technologies and so did we.”

IU changed more than the name on the outside of the building, changing what happens inside as well. “We can no longer train students to write for print only,” Kibbler said. “They need to do that as well as take video and photos.”

The Media School breaks down walls for students that had existed between the three former communication schools. “Before, students were limited to the number of classes they could take in another school,” Kibbler stated. “Now there is flexibility enough that each student is building their own degree.”

Regardless of what specialization a student chooses, everyone receives training in the fundamentals, Kibbler said. She continued, “Reporting, writing, editing, ethics and media law remain part of the training. That was one of the questions alumni had when we approached them with the Media School plan. They did not want those fundamentals watered down.”

All students are required to take a grammar test, something that was not done before, Kibbler said.

Alumni, and IU students who began their course work before the Media School’s first classes in 2015-16, say they regret they cannot take part in the new approach, Kibbler said. She contended, “For the Class of 2020, technology they are using today will be different in five years. We can’t teach them how to use that technology because we don’t know what will be out there. We can teach them to adapt to a continually changing environment and to rely on the fundamental skills as a constant. To bridge that need for old-school and new-school teaching, the Media School will hire more faculty members.”

As of mid-September IU advertised for six open positions. “We’re looking for more people who can broaden our current offerings,” Kibbler said. “A few years ago, for example, we would have advertised for a photojournalism professor. Now we’re looking for people who can go beyond that, someone who is a strong writer who can take photos and shoot video.”

Smaller universities also have switched their approaches. Associate Professor Gary Ford, chair of the Department of Communications and Journalism at Webster University in St. Louis, said the department has “evolved through the years to remain relevant in a world where delivery of news and information is rapidly changing.”

Webster admits some 3,000 students to its home campus, with about 475 students of all majors entering as the Class of 2020. Enrollment figures for those choosing the Department of Communications and Journalism were not available.

Webster also does what the programs at Missouri and Indiana are doing. “Our program emphasizes the underlying skill of basic storytelling using good writing and editing techniques,” Ford said. “We then provide training and experience on various delivery platforms.  In addition to traditional print and electronic media, we also emphasize multimedia and social media delivery platforms.”

Broadening the definition of storytelling, Ford said, is not an option for schools that want to continue to succeed. “Journalism programs today must adapt to changing needs of the industry to better prepare students for jobs in a new information age.”

Student journalism organizations outside of colleges and universities also adapt to what students want. College Media Association – formerly College Media Advisers – runs conventions in the spring and fall that attract hundreds of college student media members and advisers.

CMA President Kelley Callaway, director of student media at Rice University, said the options offered for students at the conventions include more digital and mobile media techniques. “We have them use their own phones to shoot video on site,” Callaway said. “It’s not the traditional print-only anymore. With convergence you do a little bit of everything. Gone are the days when you did the police beat and nothing else.”

Some new additions to conference topics include entertainment media and a film festival of student-made productions. Sessions about blogging also attract students.

Another topic student media want to discuss is diversity in newsrooms and television stations. “It’s a hot topic,” Callaway said.

At conventions, CMA has reduced, but not eliminated, the number of tracks offered for print-only topics. “Sessions on yearbook are now at 12, where 10 years ago we had 20,” she said. “We replace those with how to use your smartphone to edit video.” Keynote speakers who talk about their careers, dwindled in popularity in the last few years, Callaway said. “We’ve shifted to panel discussions of topical journalism,” she continued, describing how students reacted to a fall 2015 keynote talk in Houston that included a man wrongly incarcerated and the journalist whose work help free him.

“The line to meet them after was ridiculously long,” Callaway said. “The reviews from the students said we want more like this. The millennium generation wants to impact and change the world through journalism.” Heiman said that is what she hears repeatedly when she meets with prospective students and their parents. “By and large journalism today attracts students passionate about doing journalism. They have a sense of calling and want to serve people, however that story form takes.”

Heiman and Kraxberger told today’s journalism students come to college much like Verschoor, already with bylines earned and journalism classes taken. “They’ve already done well at this in high school and have high standards for themselves,” Heiman said.

Verschoor covers the IU Office of Multicultural Affairs as a campus beat reporter for the Indiana Daily Student. She said she loves what she is doing, despite the reaction received from people when she described her chosen college major.

“It frustrates me, that tone of voice when they would say, oh, really, you’re interested in that?” Verschoor asked. “There will always be a place to tell those stories in any form, even if not always in print. I want to tell those stories that matter and relay them back to people to make a difference.”

When you’re no longer a ‘new’ editor, you milk it for all it’s worth

In May I celebrated the 14th anniversary of becoming the 15th publisher of the Waterville Times in upstate New York.

In some ways my past lives at daily newspapers register on the memory meter only now and then, perhaps when breaking news falls between our weekly print cycles or, when for the 30th time in a day, people ask me about a hot topic in our community.

I have learned to hold off my laugher when someone starts to tell me about something they heard, and then stop in mid-sentence to say, Oh, wait, I read it in the Times.

For at least the first five years of owning the Times, people always called me the new editor. I wondered just how long someone had to do this job to no longer be new.

Slowly I learned names and titles, names of children and grandchildren, began to unravel the tangled family connections that come in a community where many families have their surnames on local roads and streets.

My mental Rolodex gained speed as I moved beyond names to people’s history when I saw them. Works at the hardware store. Daughter on the basketball team. Wrote the letter to the editor. Son was in our Baby edition.

Still, I would occasionally hear myself introduced as being new. But about five years ago I did something I now trot out as having firmly established my Waterville cred.

Three days of steady spring rains caused creeks to overflow. A bad storm knocked down trees and fences. I knew from listening to my scanner that morning the local fire department was out pumping flooded cellars. I soon left the house to take photos of the damage.

Driving along our local highway just north of the village, I spotted a flash of color that jumped out in the rain and gloom. It was the orange and white of a Guernsey cow, huddled knee deep in a flooded ditch on the shoulder of the highway. I looked at the cow and the tumblers fell into place. Guernsey. Baldwin farm. Denny. Fire chief. Pumping cellars. I knew the cow that had escaped the field and crossed the highway to stand in the flooding ditch belonged to our local fire chief.

I pulled over and called Village Hall, asking the clerk to radio the fire chief to say one of his cows was standing on the side of Route 12. After snapping the cow’s photo, I drove off to take more photos.

Two days later a note came in the mail. ‘Thanks,’ it read. ‘She is one of our best milkers.’

The next time someone started to call me new, I stopped him. “No,’’ I said. “I don’t just know people or their kids or their grandkids or even their dogs. I know their cows.’’

In my rural farming community, there can be no better way to show you belong.

And the view from the editor’s catbird seat…

Hollywood — and perhaps journalists daydreaming about a better life — create an image of the community publisher that may be overly romanticized.

Cheryl Wormley, publisher and co-owner of the Woodstock Independent, used to grocery-shop at 6 a.m. “It was the only way I would get out of there in less than an hour,’’ she said, recalling shopping later in the morning when she’d be sure to run into any number of local residents eager to discuss items that had run – or “should” run – in “their” newspaper.

On Tuesday evenings Bill Miller Jr., general manager of the Washington Missourian, gives tours to Boy Scouts needing their Media badge. Tuesdays is when the press operates. “I take them on the pressroom floor so they can look through the windows and see the press running,’’ Miller said. “It’s still a thrill to see their eyes light up.’’

For Tim Lyke, publisher of the Ripon Commonwealth Press, it can be a struggle not to say anything sarcastic when some people come in and request their news be published. “They say ‘Will you put this in the paper,’’’ Lyke said. “Then ask, ‘What does day does it come out? I don’t read it.’”

“I look at them, because here they just came in to ask for a favor and admitted they don’t buy the paper. Sometimes they get embarrassed and say, I guess I should subscribe. What I want to say is how can you live in a community and not read the local paper? You are taking democracy for granted.’’

Mike Dalton wears the title of editor of the Cannon Falls Beacon, the paper his family has owned since 1880. The job description differs greatly from that of an editor at a larger paper.

“I take care of financials, business decisions, updating our webpage, writing general news stories, writing all of our sports stories and just really whatever needs to be done.’’

At the Eldon Advertiser, Publisher Trevor Vernon operates the press most weeks. “The amount of physical labor it takes to print and insert a newspaper normally surprises people.’’

During college Vernon worked part-time in the press room. His father told him if he was thinking of coming back to work in Eldon, he had to know how to run the press.

“My dad never knew how to run the press. He said when the pressmen would tell him that something wouldn’t work, he never knew if they were afraid to try it or it was something mechanical that really was not possible,’’ Vernon said.

Mary Ungs-Sogaard, publisher of the Cascade Pioneer and Dyersville Commercial in eastern Iowa, had a brief appearance in the movie ‘Field of Dreams’, filmed in Dyersville. “Third extra in the last shot,’’ she said.

The first thing and the last thing she does each day is check emails. “You are a publisher 24/7,’’ she said. “People don’t want to wait till I am at the office.’’

Once when her reporter was on vacation, Ungs-Sogaard took the call about a church on fire. She grabbed her camera and drove to the fire.

“I started shooting as I got to the church,’’ she said. “One of my pictures won a state award. I got a lot of mileage out of that with my staff, letting them know I still could get down in the trenches.’’

Bill Miller Sr. has done it all – over and over again

In columns this year, Bill Miller Sr. has shared his thoughts with readers of the Washington Missourian on Winston Churchill, Brian Williams, pride in America, the family unit in shambles and a local road construction project.

Twice a week, Miller, 85, in his role as editor and publisher, writes most of the editorials that appear in the Missourian. Formally, Miller’s career spans 62 years, beginning when he was discharged from the Army after the Korean War in 1953. But well before that, he wrote sports while in high school and college for the paper his father, James Miller, purchased in 1937.

James Miller bought the Washington Missourian after reporting for newspapers in Kansas and then purchasing a weekly paper in Iowa. With the help of his four sons who worked with him, Miller turned the Missourian into an award-winning twice-weekly publication. In 1991 he joined Joseph Pulitzer and eight others as members of the inaugural class of the Missouri Press Association Hall of Fame.

Bill Miller joined his father with that honor in 2003; James Miller’s son Tom was inducted in 2012. Today the Missourian is also the name of the family-owned papers in St. Clair and Union. The Missourian Publishing Co. also publishes a Warren County weekly, a senior citizens magazine and runs a commercial print business.

Publisher Miller works with his son, Bill Miller Jr., who is general manager, and two daughters who are editors.

Miller started out as the sports editor. “The community was growing in the mid-1950s. We bought out a competitor and went to twice a week.’’

His father’s formula was simple, Miller said. “He was a pioneer in Missouri when it came to carrying local photos. We still do that, running over 100 pictures a week in both publications.’’

The Missourian runs school honor rolls and lunch menus, all sorts of local sports, weddings, engagements, births and deaths. “It’s why we will survive,’’ Miller said. “We’ve not changed a whole lot in what has worked all these years.’’

The emphasis is on local news, with Associated Press stories included mainly for state news. The March 5 edition carried a front page story about a new fire truck, an inside story about a loan program that helped a woman become a first-time homeowner, four pages of local sports, a Milestones page and several photos of elementary students receiving recognitions.

Another constant through the almost 80 years of family ownership is striving to maintain credibility in the community. “We have worked hard to keep the respect and trust of our readers,’’ Miller said.

That is not to say the paper backs away from controversial issues. In the Wednesday publications – the paper also comes out on Saturdays – the Missourian carries three editorial pages. Along with Miller’s column and five or six syndicated columnists, the Missourian frequently includes a dozen or more letters to the editor.

“We’ve had some nasty fights with local government,’’ Miller said. “There was a mayor we fought with for years. He used a city-owned grader to build a horse riding ring on his farm for personal use.’’

The Missourian’s editorial pages have paved the way for changes in the community. “We pushed for a city administrator to be hired,’’ Miller said. “Now it’s a model for other cities in Missouri to follow.’’

The paper does selective political endorsements in some races, Miller said. The Missourian used to be Democratic – James Miller knew Harry Truman well – but now is independent.

“We promote the community and also criticize it,’’ Miller said. “We led a grassroots fund raiser for a statue of George Washington, who the town is named after. Also for a proper gravesite for a local Medal of Honor winner.’’

Miller has a long involvement in the Missouri Press Association and the National Newspaper Association. He also serves or has served on a number of community boards and organizations, including as chairman of the hospital board.

In that capacity, he opposed a move by doctors regarding ownership of the hospital. “It was bitter. The doctors fought like hell,’’ he said. “Eight or nine years later, the hospital bought them out. That fight was over, so you look for another one,’’ he laughed.

As long as conflicts are explained to readers, Miller said, community involvement benefits both the community and paper. “I believe in public service,’’ he said. “People want to know you care about things.’’

Through his career from sports editor to editor and publisher, Miller covered every beat at the paper. “Train derailments, crashes, tornadoes … One of the advantages of a small paper is you have a wide variety of news events you get to cover. A large daily gives a reporter just a narrow patch to learn.’’

Large daily newspapers, especially those owned by chains, have done more damage than anything else to journalism, Miller said. “Editors are in and out. Nobody puts down roots because they’re aiming for the next big jump.

“The bottom line is all they care about. Hell, if I was interested in the bottom line I’d be in another line of business.’’






Community newspapers surviving – and thriving

Twenty-nine years ago the Woodstock Sentinel, the daily newspaper in Woodstock, Illinois, merged with another daily, leaving the city of 25,000 an hour north of Chicago without its own newspaper.

At the time, Cheryl Wormley and a friend worked for the local school district. Neither had any journalism experience.

Still, they quit their jobs, took second mortgages on their homes and launched a weekly newspaper, the Woodstock Independent, in April 1987.

“We were accidental journalists,’’ said Wormley, the paper’s publisher and co-owner. “We had had a daily here for 100-plus years and felt we needed our own newspaper. The door opened and we walked through it.’’

For its coverage of the community in 2014, the Independent won the David Kramer Memorial Trophy from the Illinois Press Association this year after receiving the most top awards in its category. For the past several years, the IPA’s winners have contained numerous entries from the Independent

Where a daily failed, a weekly succeeded. And across the country, the story of the Independent follows a pattern repeated by community weekly newspapers: They not only survive but thrive.

While the constant retreat of large daily newspapers in coverage, content and circulation creates a belief that newspapers no longer matter and journalism is dying, community papers continue to be a solid presence in their communities.

“Community papers are healthier than metro papers,’’ said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “They have a narrower mission, to provide local news and in most markets no one is challenging that franchise. A greater share of them (38 percent) are independently owned (compared to 20 percent of dailies.) In most cases their staffs have networks that reach broadly and deeply into the communities they serve.’’

Cross said the problems with large newspapers tarnish the image of the industry overall. “Many in the general public and even in the media business believe newspapers are in worse shape than they are. That has probably made more difficult community papers’ selling job.’’

In a 2010 study, the National Newspaper Association found that the 7,000-plus non-daily newspapers in the United States have a combined circulation of 65.5 million compared to 45.5 million for the then-1,408 daily newspapers. About 70 percent of those non-dailies have a circulation under 15,000.

Wormley’s paper has 3,000 subscribers. Combining that with 5,000 connections through Facebook and a monthly newspaper published for a nearby town, total market penetration is close to 16,000, she said. In 2005 she and her son bought out the other original co-owner.

Most of her staff lives in the community, she said. “We’re a variety of ages,’’ Wormley said, noting that a longtime columnist, Don Peasley, known as Mr. Woodstock, had written and photographed his community for newspapers since 1947. He worked for the Independent up to his death last year at the age of 90.

Wormley credits the Independent’s first hire, a journalism graduate with two years’ experience at a weekly, as guiding the neophytes through the early years. “She was our first reporter/editor,’’ Wormley said. “She held our toes to the fire. She was strict about attribution and accuracy.’’

Also, the timing of the enterprise helped, she said. “We started this just when computers were starting. We were ahead of the curve because we didn’t have to transition from any other system or retrain people.’’

She joined NNA, the Illinois Press Association and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. “I’ve found newspaper people, at least at this level, to be very sharing. We learned a lot from others.’’ Over the years, the Independent’s editorial voice has grown stronger, she said. “I think if you ask readers, they would say we’ve established ourselves as a paper for the people.’’

Tonda Rush, executive director of NNA, said daily newspapers sometimes falsely sound the death knell for all of journalism. “It’s so frustrating to have readers believe we’ve died or are dying, particularly when they read it in newspapers,’’ Rush said.

“Community newspapers are not as visible on the national scene,’’ Rush said. “But come on, guys, don’t take us down with you.’’

Rush outlined why community papers have not felt the same financial woes as have dailies, especially after the recession that began eight years ago:

  • Large group-owned newspapers faced a credit crunch for significant debt. For the most part, community family-owned or independent papers do not get that heavily into debt, she said. “Right off the bat the recession was different for our guys.”
  • Revenue streams that large papers relied on dried up, but did not have the same effect on small papers. “They tend not to have a lot of department-store advertising. Their retail is all local or mom-and-pop inserts.’’
  • Classified advertising, which found a new and free home on such Internet sites as craigslist, does not contribute as much to the revenue picture for small papers, Rush said. “Weeklies tend to run garage sale ads,’’ she said. “The digital disruption was not as devastating a blow as it was to larger papers.’’
  • The federal bailout for the big-three auto makers caused car dealerships to close or consolidate. “That had a big effect on large papers,’’ she said. “Not so much for small ones.’’
  • Consolidation of national banks also cut advertising from large papers. “In small communities the bank is often locally owned.’’

This is not to say community papers went through the recession untouched. “It was a good time to have local staffers who did not fight cost controls to keep their papers going,’’ she said. In 2013 publishers started to see the upturn, Rush said. Their papers also had to deal with a new form of competition.

The downsizing of large papers caused many unemployed journalists to hit the Internet to provide local news, sometimes competing with community papers. “No one found a model to make digital journalism operations self-sustaining,’’ Rush said. “They tend to last as long as the severance check does.’’

One looming issue for community papers, whose subscribers for the most part receive their paper through the mail, is the ongoing financial troubles of the U.S. Postal Service. “More and more the postal service is having trouble getting papers delivered on time. Weekly papers are sometimes arriving bundled with three or four issues at once. We’ve been lobbying Congress to make this a legislative issue to address.’’

NNA postal consultant Max Heath said community newspapers provide a valuable avenue of commerce for local businesses. “There is still a good bit of auto and real estate still in community newspapers, especially when compared to metros,’’ he said.

Bill Miller Jr., general manager of the Washington Missourian, represents the third generation of his family to run the twice-weekly publication. His grandfather, James Miller Sr., started the paper and his father, Bill Miller Sr., serves as editor and publisher.

The Missourian Publishing Co. includes three other weekly papers, a magazine and a commercial print operation. “We have about 120 employees with part-timers,’’ Miller said.

About an hour outside of St. Louis, the coverage area has seen significant growth, he said. That allowed the company to expand in 2008 and purchase a new press. Still, when it comes to what goes in the paper, the Millers point to their founder. “We run a lot of pictures and cover local events,’’ Miller said. “It’s similar to how my grandfather did it. The formula has not changed much. We’re still a viable part of the community.’’

While some chain-owned newspapers define themselves as hyper-local, Miller refuses to use that term. “We just cover the community,’’ he said. “That perception of going local comes from dailies. It’s what we’ve always done.’’

A few years ago the local school district surveyed people on how they learned news about their schools. “Over 90 percent said it was by reading the Missourian,’’ Miller said.

The Missourian still employs proofreaders and Miller’s father, Bill Miller Sr., 85, checks every press run. “We’re doing things we used to do 20, 30 years ago because we were doing it right then and it still works,’’ Miller said.

Tim Lyke, publisher of the Ripon Commonwealth Press in Wisconsin, also follows a trusted family formula. He came home in 1990 when his dad called to see if he wanted to join the family business. His parents purchased the Press in 1962.

He takes exception to the gloom and doom stories about newspapers and journalism. “The large papers forgot what brought us to the dance,’’ Lyke said. “Let’s pay attention to the product. They are so focused on cutting costs they do so at the expense of readers by providing less product. That causes them to lose even more readers, who find there is not enough content to make it worth their while. It’s a death spiral, but we are not part of it.”

His reporters shoot their own photos for stories and his editor writes a weekly column. He and the editor update the paper’s Facebook page each day; the Press just launched its first Twitter account. “We are aggressive in providing news as it happens,’’ he said. “The editor and I are each in a service club.’’

Paid subscribers receive an electronic newsletter the day before publication. “It gives them excerpts of stories before it hits the streets,’’ he said. The paper still prints weddings and engagements free of charge.

“Those are reasons people buy the paper,’’ Lyke said. “It’s their keepsake.’’

Bill Miller Sr., editor and publisher of the Missourian, said that sort of coverage sneered at by large dailies will drive the growth of community papers. “People are starting to realize we are the only ones who cover local news,’’ Miller Sr., said. “Patch and some of the web upstarts are not surviving.’’

At the Eldon Advertiser in Eldon, Missouri, the Vernon family has owned the weekly since 1948. Publisher Trevor Vernon represents the third generation of his family to run the Advertiser. Vernon Publishing owns five weekly newspapers in Missouri. “We like to say we only print stories with local ties,’’ Vernon said. “We also live by ‘everyone has a story’. At times we have randomly sent reporters to sit in restaurants, street corners and had them talk to the next person who came by.’’

About 10 years ago the Advertiser tried a website where all content was available. “Our subscriptions took a hit and people were telling us, ‘Thank you for putting all your content on the web for free, now I don’t have to buy a newspaper.’ We stopped doing that immediately. We now put the first paragraph for free and subscribers can read the rest,’’ Vernon said.

The Vernons illustrate one of the aspects of family owned community weeklies: working with family. Vernon works with his father, who is president of the company and publisher of three of the weeklies; his grandfather, though retired, goes to the post office and bank every day for the office.

“My father and I have a great relationship,’’ Vernon said. “At times employees say we resemble American Choppers, without throwing things at each other. We never take it personally and normally good ideas come from our conversations. We are both passionate about the communities we serve.’

For community newspapers without a family lineage, a new business model is finding success in eastern Iowa. The Cascade Pioneer, a community fixture since 1876, is owned by the Woodward Company. Pioneer Publisher Mary Ungs-Sogaard described Woodward as ‘the anti-Gannett’ — a company that is majority-owned, about 97 percent, by its 500 media employees. “It’s participatory management,’’ she said.

That arrangement allows for a number of efficiencies, such as sharing editors and reporters among her two papers. Ungs-Sogaard also serves as publisher of another Woodward-owned weekly paper in nearby Dyersville. Recently the Pioneer took home a number of awards from the Iowa Press Association’s annual contest for 2014 coverage. “Sharing resources makes it doable,’’ Ungs-Sogaard said. “The ROI on the place is tremendous and that is not typical.’’

During the recession, the company did not lay anyone off, she said. “We didn’t always hire at the full-time level or replace people, but we found other ways to save money.’’

Employees of a Woodward-owned newspaper – the company has five weekly newspapers along with a print division, six radio stations and the daily newspaper in Dubuque – become vested after five years. They accrue stock; shares have shown a consistent growth rate over the years.

“It’s false to say newspapers can’t make a profit,’’ Ungs-Sogaard said. “We have open- book management and everybody has a stake in making the business profitable.’’

Cascade and Dyersville share news and sports editors and aspects of production. Between the two papers 25 people are employed.

Publishers and newspaper association directors repeatedly said the health of community papers reflects that of their community. Doug Crews, executive director of the Missouri Press Association, said he is worried more about the future of Main Street America than he is about weekly newspapers.

“As more everyday purchases are made via the Internet, community brick-and-mortar businesses will come under more pressure,’’ Crews said. “Local communities’ tax bases will suffer and city and county services will suffer. Main Street businesses in some towns are being challenged economically today.’’

If Main Street is doing well in a community, generally so is the local newspaper, he said. “Weeklies have always been able to weather the economic storms better than larger newspapers. The smaller newspapers simply have learned to operate in a smaller universe, so their highs are not as high, their lows are not as low, as larger newspapers.” Plus, despite what has been reported, people want to read an ink-on-paper edition, Crews said. “They still want to clip out the photos and local news items and the cheese cake recipe – refrigerator journalism.’’

Weekly newspapers need to pay better attention to their penetration rates rather than just circulation, Cross said. “This data will be used against them by one of the industry’s main adversaries, local governments that are asking state legislatures to repeal or reduce the requirements for public-notice advertising.” Such advertising, known as legals, accounts for about 8 percent of a community newspaper’s revenue, but can go as high as 20 percent, Cross said.

Another problem for rural newspapers is their inability to pay salaries that attract qualified journalists, Cross said. “When we surveyed rural weeklies eight years ago, the average starting salary for a beginning reporter with a bachelor’s degree was only $21,000.’’

He also mentioned the connection to a strong business community. “Many rural communities are in economic distress or are losing population to the extent they can no longer support a newspaper focused only on their community.’’

Cannon Falls, Minnesota, population 4,000, has seen its downtown suffer as people choose to take the 35-mile drive north to the Twin Cities to spend their money. Mike Dalton, editor of the Cannon Falls Beacon, said the paper has lost about 1,000 subscribers in the last 10 to 15 years. “I wish I knew why,’’ Dalton said. “We’ve also seen our average weekly page count drop from 22 or 24 down to 18. Part of that happened when we started doing a better job paginating, but at the same time advertising went down so we cut down on our news coverage.’’

Some of the other changes for the Beacon include dropping some coverage of events that have been staples for the past couple of decades and reducing picture sizes. “We don’t cover as many meetings as we used to; we used to hit all the surrounding townships but we’ve gone to just the three or four larger ones,’’ Dalton said.

Dalton is also a director with the Minnesota Press Association. “Weekly newspapers statewide are struggling right now. Our Main Streets are drying up, which means we don’t always have a strong ad base. But at the same time, I haven’t heard too many publishers/editors who are giving up. The consensus seems to be that community newspapers will survive, while some of the mid-size dailies might not make it,’’ he said.

Local coverage that cannot be found elsewhere remains the golden ticket for readership. “There will always be a market for a newspaper like ours, where you can learn about the bake sale and who got arrested in the same issue,’’ Dalton added.