By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
Judy Muller spoke to the annual convention of the National Newspaper Association because she is the author of Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns. She started her career at a weekly paper in New Jersey, but writing the book after leaving ABC News and joining the journalism faculty at the University of Southern California gave her a much greater appreciation of “that too-close-for-comfort feeling” that her audience knows well.
But not as great as the appreciation she gained when she wrote about how local media in and around Norwood, Colo., where she has a home, handled a sensational bullying case at a high school where “the average graduating class is about 12,” and which had “torn the town apart,” she told the editors and publishers, who mainly run weeklies.
"I have been aware the whole time of how concerned I am about how the local editor there will react -- the article is somewhat critical of her coverage -- but she is a friend,” Muller said. "And the piece is not a flattering picture of the local school, and yet I hope more young families will move to the community -- after all, I have a home there, and property values are important."
But in reporting the story, which she has sold to The Atlantic magazine, being local worked to Muller’s advantage. Parents of two boys charged in the case gave her exclusive interviews because, as they said, “You live up there on Deer Mesa and you gave the commencement address last year.”
And, for first time in her career, Muller sent interviewees their quotes in context, to show them how they would appear in the story. Asked what she would have done if the people decided they didn't want to be quoted at all, Muller simply said she would have talked them into it.
The trust required in such situations takes time to develop, and that’s why Patch.com, the national network of online local news sites, “won’t get much cooperation,” Muller said.
Some weeklies are reluctant to embrace the digital world, but some noted for their good journalism are using social media to make sure they maintain the local-news franchise that is the secret to their status as the healthiest part of the newspaper business.
Muller said her friend Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle is using all sorts of social media, which appeals to younger people. She quoted Brown: "Those who may have viewed the paper as too staid or serious are finding that it is much more friendly and approachable."
Meanwhile, though, the paper has also expanded its efforts in a more traditional way, cultivating two non-staff columnists whom Laurie says have developed their own followings.
Muller sees a good future for printed community papers, because they provide local news, often of deep personal interest worth clipping, that is unavailable anywhere else. "They have a captive audience,” she said. “As long as there are refrigerator magnets there will be weekly newspapers."
But Muller concluded with exhortations about the most important reason for community newspapers: covering local officials and holding them accountable. "Try to remember why you got into it in the first place,” she said. “It's more important now than ever."