Future of Journalism: Judy Muller says small newspapers doing fine

09/20/11 Dawn Morgan
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Judy Muller is a journalist and Associate Professor of Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.

Her new book, Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns, tells of the current success of small weekly newspapers during a time when larger city daily papers struggle.

WMNF’s Dawn Morgan interviewed Muller for our series Future of Journalism:

They’re not just surviving, but in many cases they’re thriving. Not in all cases, the recession hit everyone hard. If advertisers are feeling the pain, they’re not going to advertise and some weeklies have felt that pinch.

But not nearly to the degree of big city dailies. That’s really what I was trying to say, because they were hyperlocal before that term was even invented, they were in a good position to hold on to their audience. Their readers can’t get their news anywhere else. So that’s a captive audience, they have fairly captive advertisers who really, that’s the best way to reach that audience so far.

And a lot of them have leaned a lesson by watching what happened to the big papers. They’re not giving it away on the internet. Some of them are, but many of the weeklies I talked to are charging, like $25 a year to subscribe. And most people who are from a small town who have moved away, will pay that.

What kind of news is it?

It depends on the paper. There are 8,000 weekly newspapers out there of populations serving 30,000 or fewer. I was really looking at even smaller, populations of towns with 5 – 10,000 or fewer. I think that most papers are more interested in serving community news and what I call the Holy Trinity of local news: high school sports, obits and the police blotter, which we all love.

Talk about a couple of memorable ones.

The Canadian Record in Canadian, Texas which is along the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle. The editor now is Laurie Ezzell Brown, she’s a second-generation owner, publisher and editor of this paper, her father started it. She has won A Courage in Journalism award. She’s had bullets shot through her office and her car for the things she writes. She’s very brave and highly respected but she’s lost friends because that’s what happens when you write about the people who live next to you in an honest way. Some people will turn on you and you have to have thick skin and she does.

There’s one, this fellow is up in Washington State, right now it’s still a monthly he started it about a year ago and would like to make it a weekly eventually, but it’s called the Concrete Herald, in the little town of Concrete, Washington. And their slogan is Concrete: Cementing the Future for a Hundred Years.

Beautiful place in the Cascade Mountains, but very isolated. And these folks haven’t had a newspaper there in 19 years. And this young fella came to town and thought, ‘Gee what these folks need is a newspaper.’ And he started it up, resurrected the title of the old paper, and people just love him for it. It is the glue that binds the community.

They had no way of really knowing what was happening just up the valley or who was doing what or what kind of kids were winning awards at the high school. So it’s incredibly important to them. They’ll say, this is my paper. It’s very, very proprietary.

Anything else you wanted to add Judy?

Just that I think it’s really a good place for young people to get into journalism. And even though you don’t get paid much, you get a love of the craft. You learn how important the written word is, how important news is to people at a real personal level. So I would encourage the young people who are looking at going into journalism to look at the weeklies. It’s a good place to start.

For the next installment of the Future of Journalism series, Dawn talks with Patrick Manteiga, editor of Ybor City’s own 89 year-old weekly newspaper La Gaceta.

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