One of the very best things about my job is the Community Journalism Summer Roadshow.
Now in its 16th summer and having reached over 190 N.C. newspapers, the Roadshow takes me “From Murphy to Manteo” literally (the Cherokee Scout to the Outer Banks Sentinel).
Wherever I go I never fail to be impressed by the quality, the commitment and the staying power of the local press.
“Local News Isn’t Dead, We Just Need to Stop Killing It,” writes digital community newspaper pioneer Jim Brady, CEO of Philadelphia’s new mobile news site, Billy Penn.
And I second that emotion.
I have long said publicly, loudly and in print ad infinitum: “HOLD THAT OBIT! THEY AIN’T DEAD YET.”
My experiences on the Roadshow utterly convinces me that community journalism is surviving and will survive – this rallying assertation in spite of the doom and gloomers, the media professional mourners who seem gleefully to keen, rend their clothes and tear their hair over any perceived failure.
How I wish these folks could get out of their ivory-covered halls, their 40th floor offices and jump in the car with me as I hit those Blue Highways where I invariably find yet another of what I call The Best Little Paper You Never Heard Of.
On vacations too, I have this little game I play. It’s a litmus test really, a reality check for me. Be it Italy, Finland, Lithuania, India Ethiopia or Ireland — I make a point of finding the local paper, persusing its pages like one of Rick Steve’s “temporary locals.”
And if the paper knocks my socks off, as it often does, I’ll find its office and just pop in.
The Best Little Paper You Never Heard Of
So here I am on vacation in tiny Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and the weekly newspaper here, the Boothbay Harbor Register, is so wonderful that it makes me – a total outlander – want to chuck this teaching gig and join the obviously merry band that puts out this community-building institution, with a legacy dating back to 1876.
This time, before my ambush, I did the busy editor the courtesy of an advance warning — and much to my delight, Editor Kevin Burnham responded on the phone with an enthusiastic, “…I’ve read your book two, or three times…!”
Forgive the humble brag, but in my view, royalties don’t mean squat compared to such an unsolicited testimonial.
The first thing the out-of-towner notices about the Register is its physical size.
Holy Broadsheet, Batman! This is shades of the ‘60s, with a full 16 ½ x22 ¾ inch spread —just like the full wingspan-sized weeklies from Back in the Day. Except this is 2016. And then there’s the staff listing in the masthead. Editor Burnham has a stable of seven full-time reporters and a covey of freelancers. When’s the last time you saw a weekly with such a newsroom?
All this to say, the Register, and its sister paper in nearby Wiscasset, are not just surviving. They are thriving.
Here are the specs: Family-owned. Circulation of 4,200 paid. Single copy just went up to $1 from 50 cents with minimal outcry from readers. Subscriptions are $35 in county.
Page count runs 28-36 in the summer when the little town of 3,500 permanent residents swells upward to 45,000 with summer folks.
Location: a charming converted house right on the main drag in the middle of town — fully accessible to walk-ins and foot traffic. Lots of parking in the back of the house too.
All content is online without a pay wall. Largest advertisers are real estate and restaurants.
And Editor Burnham himself, a 30-year-vet, seems typical of the consistency and commitment embodied in the paper. He describes himself as “a townie who grew up a good Frisbee throw from (the office).”
He’s been the editor since 1987, after having worked as a reporter there for only six month, under the tutelage of 50-year veteran editor Mary Brewer, who retired in ’12, but as editor emerita, still writes her weekly column.
Again, I witness a direct link between consistency in the newsroom staff/low turnover and newspaper quality/staff morale.
“Morale is good here,” Kevin asserts, a feeling the first-time visitor picks up on right away — from the cheery greeting I received from the front-office folks to Kevin’s laid-back “dress code” of golf shirt and shorts. “A lot of (his reporters) care about what they write, and for the most part they grew up in Maine.”
I ask, why does that matter?
“Because Maine is such a small state (population-wise), they can connect with a source usually very quickly. It’s sort of an icebreaker if you can make some sort of connection. I’m a 7th generation (Mainer) and that has helped me in my job, people knowing my family. If one of my reporters is going into something (a story) cold, I tell them to say: ‘Kevin sent me.’”
What’s the best thing about his job?
“Keeping people informed of town doings,” he says, adding, “and praising kids, promoting schools and covering sports. I really believe that positive reinforcement helps kids strive to do better.”
Kevin sees his role as far more than just that of a paper-shuffler and copyeditor. “Being involved in the community is really important,” he asserts, “I cover meetings, listen to people, pay attention to feedback.” Little wonder that Kevin, who has served as present of the Maine Press Association, has piloted his paper to many state press association awards.
The toughest thing about the job?
The volume of email, and time and type management, he responds. “…and not being able to have those weekly BS sessions” (after the paper comes out) to debrief and hit the re-set button. Yes, that’s the challenge of being a weekly newspaper editor. “On Monday and Tuesday I basically a machine,” Kevin says ruefully.
Summer Readers Love It
Whatever Kevin and staff are doing is clearly working. A rank stranger like me can spend 30 minutes with the Boothbay Harbor Register and get an immersion into Mainer life and culture.
And I’m not the only newsie who feels that way.
During my visit to the Register newsroom, staff writer Matt Stilphen overheard that I was from Chapel Hill, and interjected that Dr. William E. Leuchtenburg and wife Jean Anne were long-time summer people here. Although I had never formally met the William Rand Kenan Professor Emeritus of History from UNC-Chapel Hill, I certainly knew his name!
And before the day was out, I had an email from Dr. Leuchtenburg, and the following morning there the four of us were — me and Lynne having breakfast at Mama D’s with Leuchtenburg, a hale and hearty 94, and his charming wife, Jean Anne — poring over the pages of the Register and wishing aloud that we in Chapel Hill had such a robust “relentlessly local” community newspaper.