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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Small-town press

While most of the country’s bigger newspapers groan about loss of ad revenue, declining readership and circulation woes, there’s a segment of the industry experiencing a boom of sorts – the small-town community newspaper.

Proof of that is found in great little story in today’s LA Times. It details the efforts of the tiny town of Atwater, Minn., at running its own weekly newspaper.

Once a thriving agricultural town, Atwater began to gray (literally) as its young people headed toward the big cities. But today the town has rallied with a librarian/photographer, teachers, an editor and local businessmen pulling together to cover the town (population 1,047).

It’s almost cliché to say reporters dream of retiring from a big newsroom to edit or publish a small community newspaper. There’s a reason for that: It’s a chance to apply your expertise on a small scale in a way to matters to people. Small community papers will cover the small electrical fire, the high school football scores and the changes in the church service schedule.

Community newspapers are the essence of local news. And in these days of shrinking newspapers, local news appears to be what readers want. Reading this story reminded me of the days before secure newsrooms when anyone would wander in off the streets, whether it was the local gadfly, the homeless or the crazy conspiracy theorist with his latest tale.

Every day, people stop by to gab and gossip in the newsroom — three desks, two computers and a coffee maker set up in an old butcher shop. Over the months, residents also left envelopes stuffed with donations, mostly in dollar bills and personal checks, totaling more than $20,000. The money, which has kept the paper financially afloat, has continued to pour in since the broadsheet published its first issue in October.

What's happening in Atwater is reflective of one of the newspaper industry's few bright spots — a slow but steady rise in small suburban and rural newspapers. In the 1960s, there were about 5,500 weekly community newspapers in the U.S., according to Brian Steffens, executive director of the National Newspaper Assn. Today, there are more than 8,000; more than one-fourth have a circulation of 1,500 or less.

The Managing Editor of The Wiregrass Farmer in Ashburn, Ga., about 75 miles south of Macon, e-mailed me recently in response to an SPJ awareness campaign, saying that what works for the dailies doesn’t work for his 2,800-circulation weekly. And yet while daily circ declines, his is growing. “One of us is doing something right,” he wrote.

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