PUBLISHER"S NOTEBOOK: Collective front page blitz
pays off for weekly newspapers
Thursday, April 24, 2014 8:12 AM
People from small towns across the United States last week showed that they can create change in Washington, D.C. No, it wasn't a major change in federal government and the issue won't have a great impact on your everyday life. Still, it was refreshing to see that a grass roots effort by people that may seem inconsequential outside their communities paid off.
The focus of a campaign by editors at weekly newspapers across the country was the Newseum, a 250,000-square-foot news museum in Washington, D.C., that blends news history with modern technology and hands-on exhibits. The non-profit Newseum Institute serves as a forum for First Amendment study, exploration and education.
The Newseum, in its Today's Front Pages exhibit, for several years has featured a daily roundup of front pages, both electronically and along its Pennsylvania Avenue exterior. The electronic archive includes PDFs sent in each day by hundreds of newspapers from the United States and other countries.
The ground-floor exhibit, visible to passersby, includes a newspaper from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and a dozen other countries. However, the Newseum's written policy limited participation to daily newspapers, a restriction that has irritated community weekly newspapers for years.
Weekly newspapers may seem a minor part of the news industry, but there are about 6,000 of them in the United States, more than four times as many as the 1,300 daily newspapers. However, most of them are small so they may seem unimportant to the world outside the targeted geographic area they cover.
Earlier in the month, several of them felt the need to change that perception, beginning with the Newseum. After all, their collective readership is greater than the dailies and the importance of their newspapers to readers is just as great, if not greater, than other news media.
Individually, though, they realized that each newspaper on its own lacked clout.
So, on Thursday, weekly newspapers decided to collectively make a statement. Organized through the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, nearly 200 weekly newspapers made a front page blitz, emailing their front pages to the Newseum.
"The major dramas of daily life in America are played out on the front pages of over 6,000 thriving community newspapers of this country," wrote Patric Hedlund, managing editor of The Mountain Enterprise and The New Mountain Pioneer in California when sending his pages. "But the Newseum's curatorial agenda has a blind spot. There is a lack of awareness of the amazing persistence of community newspapers-where intrepid journalism, meaningful public service, passionate debate and fiscal discipline have created an untold success story.
"This is where the real consequences of federal and state policies are explored and explained. Everything we write has consequences in the real lives of our readers. These are our neighbors. Their local newspaper gives them an immediate voice for their anguish and for their aspirations."
The blitz worked. The Newseum responded by removing the offending word "daily" from the FAQs on the exhibit site and "any general interest newspaper" can now email the museum for instructions on how to participate.
The change brought satisfaction to the editors involved in the blitz, but the momentum created by the blitz may not end with just a change in policy at the Newseum.
"For me, it was never really about the front pages. They were more the symptom than the sickness. The sickness, it seems to me, is the overall lack of appreciation for the work of the weekly news staff. It's that mindset, or culture, that must change," said Steve Thurston, who teaches community journalism at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., and helped coordinate the campaign.
In a follow-up, Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor of the Altamont Enterprise and Albany County Post in upstate New York, suggested to members of the society they work together, over the course of a year, on covering a single topic, "each in our own way, each with the depth of knowledge we bring to our own location" to create a worldwide view of a particular topic and offer varied solutions to its many parts.
"This would not just raise the profile of weeklies and stress our critical role in each of our communities but, more importantly, perform a worthwhile public service," she said.
It remains to be seen how that ambitious project will end up, but the lesson in this story isn't just for newspaper people.
Those of us living in small towns may feel like we have little say in what goes on in the world today or we can't make an impact on the world because we have such little clout in the overall scheme. Yet, reaching out to others with a similar interest, defining a goal and taking action can get results.
"When people get together like this and feel strongly about a specific issue, and mobilize and make specific arguments, it does have an impact," Jonathan Thompson, the Newseum's senior manager of media relations, said in a telephone interview to the newspaper trade publication, Editor & Publisher, following the front page blitz.