In her new book, award-winning broadcast journalist Judy Muller goes deep into the experiences of small-town and rural newspapers to draw lessons for anyone passionate about doing community journalism right.
While her book focuses on print weeklies, Muller’s subject matter is just as relevant for the growing number of online editors and independent publishers working to serve neighborhoods and towns — what’s now called hyperlocal news.
“Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns” takes us off the main highway — not just geographically, but away from the big-media conversation that dominates journalism discussion these days. And like physical journeys to new places, this one rewards us with insight and appreciation — for the sometimes-heroic, sometimes-flawed, always influential small-town news people and for Muller, our enthusiastic and honest tour guide.
Muller, a veteran television and radio journalist and associate professor at USC Annenberg, is a fan of these papers. She announces right away that journalism is “alive and kicking in small towns all across America thanks to the editors of weekly newspapers who, for very little money and a fair amount of aggravation, keep on telling it like it is.” Some 8,000 weeklies operate in the U.S., she reports, and “most of them are doing quite well,” with less disruption from Internet competition so far than national and metro dailies.
Whether or not that will last, the core of “Emus” isn’t about a publishing platform, it’s about the role local journalism and the people who produce it play in small towns and rural communities across America.
Online editor/publishers who have taken on the job of informing local communities might harvest many lessons from the rich traditions of weekly newspapers: How do you report on conflict as well as community events? How do you handle stories of high interest but intensely intimate subject matter, especially when someone begs you not to publish their name? What makes it fun?
Being journalistically honest in a community takes courage, which Muller details in stories of steel-spined leaders such as W. Horace Carter, whose Tabor City Tribune in North Carolina campaigned against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s. Carter persisted in the face of death threats, eventually turning the tide of local opinion, helping bring prosecution of dozens of Klansmen and sharing the first Pulitzer Prize (with the Washington, N.C., News Reporter) ever awarded to a weekly paper. She features several others equally admirable for gutsy, unwavering willingness to expose local corruption.
Muller also recognizes the everyday heroism that will resonate, too, with online community editors who are writing, editing, posting photos and videos, selling ads and going to community events. Publishing through good times and hard times takes constancy, which she describes in editor/owners who rarely vacation, do most jobs themselves and who sometimes are just one or two advertising accounts away from losing money.
While she doesn’t dig deep into the flaws and harm that less-ethical community papers can bring, Muller doesn’t ignore the rough edges of these institutions. With a keen eye and a light hand, she traces the complex journalism story behind a conflict in eastern Montana that got national coverage when the town of Hardin offered to house prisoners from Guantanamo Bay at a new detention facility that was unoccupied. One of the players was a seasoned daily journalist, newly arrived as editor of one of three community papers, who ended up crosswise not just with local political leaders but also his own colleagues.
Who was right? Muller lets you decide, but she shares her own questions in untangling the ego conflicts, viewpoint clashes and competing alliances in this case, a classic illustration of how personal community journalism can be to those who practice it and those who read it.
“Emus” explores the lighter side, too — the eternal appeal of funny police blotter items, the unapologetic styles of curmudgeonly editors and the tactful omissions of the local obituary. Behind all this, Muller shows us, is journalism informed heavily by geographic proximity — not the view from nowhere, but the view from where the community lives.
She mentions “Harold Starr of the Herald-Star,” the fictional small town weekly editor in Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” and his motto: “I have to live here, too, you know.” Muller’s book, however, is better than fiction because it is deeply, richly reported.
The author visited many of her subjects personally and interviewed townfolk, other journalists and multiple sources to tell each paper’s story. Her characters are flesh and bone, real people, the kind of people many of us would like to know.
Like oh-so-many other journalists, I started my professional career at a small-town paper and learned how influential a local editor and publisher could be in a tiny community. I took pictures of a tomato that resembled Abraham Lincoln, rode around all night with local sheriff’s deputies and suffered when a story I wrote, featuring a rape victim who wanted her story told, was killed by an editor. With two daily journalism internships under my belt, I was certain the paper was wrong. In reading Muller’s book, I’m reminded that such decisions aren’t simple.
“Emus” demonstrates that the best local journalism begins with community connection and knowledge — not just with a dateline — and is heavily dependent on those who lead it. No matter what the platform, journalism at this level can serve communities powerfully or fail them significantly. Muller makes us glad for the “hyperlocal” stalwarts who do things right.
“Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns,”246 pages, University of Nebraska Press.