How one university is taking over a small-town newspaper

Nov 7, 2021

Students at the University of Georgia are taking over a community newspaper. Not just for a semester, but for good.

I wrote about this new project for Poynter, and I wanted to flag it for you because I think it’s such an interesting and promising development.

For me, it’s compelling because the death of local papers means not only news deserts, but an irreplaceable loss of institutional knowledge about the newspaper business and community, which we all soaked up as young journalists. Where would most of us be without the Grizzled Old Veterans™ who taught us the ropes?

Take them away and the learning curve becomes steep and riddled with potential landmines.

At The Oglethorpe Echo, not too far from the University of Georgia, there are people who’ve been working at and running the paper for a long time — people who truly understand the community.

The editor and publisher has been there for 40 years, while others had put in decades as well. A delivery man has worked at The Oglethorpe Echo for 64 years, with a brief pause while he served in Vietnam.

“So you just couldn’t let that die,” said Dink NeSmith, the mastermind behind the plan to start a nonprofit to run the paper and staff it with UGA journalism students.

UGA journalism department head Janice Hume said, “We live so near the Atlanta media market, and sometimes our students think that if they’re not going to work in Atlanta, or they’re not going to work in New York, or D.C., there are no opportunities for them. And you know, those of us who’ve worked in the industry know how fulfilling community journalism local journalism is, and I want to light the fire in them for the importance of that work.”

NeSmith wholeheartedly agrees. “In this model, maybe we might inspire some students to consider community journalism as a launching pad for their future career,” he said.

When I was interviewing NeSmith, I asked what all good journalists should ask — some version of “What else do you want to add? What have I failed to ask you about? What do you want people to know?”

His response?

“You didn’t ask, ‘Where can I send my check?’ It’s P.O. Box 268, Lexington, Georgia,  30648.

“If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

If you send this new effort a check, be sure to put Alma Matters in the memo. 🙂

Last week I listed some podcasts and asked for your suggestions. I heard back from a few of you, and I wanted to pass these along.

Mark Simon wrote of his podcast “The Journalism Salute,” “I spotlight interesting and important journalists and journalism organizations with an emphasis on showing that journalists are not the enemy and that there are so many great career possibilities for aspiring journalists.” He said he places a special emphasis on highlighting journalists who are from underrepresented demographics. He recommends his most recent cast with April Alonso of the Cicero Independiente, and recent episodes with César Rodríguez and Farnoush Amiri.

Jenna Spinelle recommended Simon’s podcast and also noted that she uses in class NewsGuest from LION Publishers, which offers, “Practical advice from entrepreneurs changing the news business.”

Regular readers know I’m a huge fan of collaborations, so I wanted to pass on this Project Manager Playbook from the Center for Cooperative Media from Montclair State University. Reading the introductory pages will give you a good sense of how significant collaborations have become to the American journalism landscape (think about the Facebook Papers story, referred to by that group as a “consortium”). And the rest of the playbook might help you consider how a collaboration could be born or bettered at your own school.

ProPublica’s “Poison in the Air” presents a great opportunity for localization, especially if your school is in a danger zone.

Just a quick plug for my own school.

The Poynter Institute’s Celebration of Journalism is a virtual fundraiser supporting our nonprofit institute. This year, we are honoring Lesley Stahl of CBS News and “60 Minutes.” The virtual gala is free and open to the public, and will also feature auctions and giveaways. It might be a fun extra credit assignment for you to have your students tune in and listen to our exclusive interview with Stahl.

  • Florida Bars State Professors From Testifying in Voting Rights Case (New York Times)
  • Dear UC Santa Barbara: Don’t let a petulant billionaire build a prison dorm on your campus (Los Angeles Times)
  • Georgetown College president fired after sexual assault allegation, other ‘inappropriate behavior’ (LEX18, Kentucky)
  • The Stunning Grandeur of Soviet-Era Metros (photos and text, New York Times)
  • Babies Are Dying of Syphilis. It’s 100% Preventable. (investigation, ProPublica)
  • The Attack | The Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol was neither a spontaneous act nor an isolated event. (multimedia, Washington Post)
  • The Demand for Money Behind Many Police Traffic Stops (investigation, New York Times)
  • Legacy of domestic violence handed from one generation to the next (Cincinnati Enquirer)

One valuable way that you can reinforce diversity, equity and inclusion in your classroom is by sharing journalism about, by and for diverse communities — not just stories that are predominantly by and about cisgender white people. Consider ways in which you could use these stories in your curriculum. Here are a few examples I saw this week. I also include headlines about DEI news and issues.

  • Stop Telling Kids They’ll Die From Climate Change (Wired) (And yes, age is a diversity topic!)
  • How is a HBCU Pioneering a Shift in Competitive Cycling (Canyon)

This week marked the start of a monthlong look at doing ethics in scholastic and collegiate journalism, and we kicked it off with “Student journalists are challenging the industry’s traditional ethics.” Subscribe to The Lead, Poynter’s weekly newsletter for student journalists, and encourage your students to do the same.

  • Get access to a growing library of case studies — Professor’s Press Pass
  • Hands-on Fact-checking: A Short Course (Webinar) — Start Anytime
  • Join us for our virtual Celebration of Journalism honoring Lesley Stahl on Nov. 10 at  7 p.m. Eastern — Tickets.
  • Trans in Sport (webinar) — Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. Eastern. Learn how to thoughtfully, accurately and ethically report stories about gender and sports on the local level.

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