The GPS told me it was going to take 5 hours, 30 minutes to make it home to Duluth from the International Society of Weekly News Editors’ conference in Green Bay, Wisc.
But as I crawled out of town through the construction and congestion on the four-lane highway, the thought of following the computer’s recommended path held no appeal.
I glanced at an approaching exit sign and, on a whim, I got off. The GPS took evasive action.
“Recalculating! Recalculating!” it shouted.
I set the GPS to “mute” and drove farther away from the major artery.
What had beckoned me off the main road was a sign for the village of Pulaski, Wisc. Just the day before I had learned about the newspaper in this town, the Pulaski News, touted as the oldest community newspaper in the country produced by students at the high school. It claims as one of its alumnae the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jacqui Banaszynski.
I didn’t stay in Pulaski long. I drove down the main street, glanced at the town park with the sign reading “Home of Pulaski Polka Days” and headed out of town, content that I could now match the student journalists I had met with the community where they work.
The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors began in 1955 when a group of “country journalists” and educators met at Southern Illinois University to discuss the power of the editorial voice of the weekly newspaper.
In the first issue of the organization’s journal, Grassroots Editor, published in 1960, the group defined its mission: “The object of this organization shall be to encourage and promote wise and independent editorial comment and leadership in weekly newspapers throughout the world; to facilitate the exchange of ideas and viewpoints of weekly newspaper editors in order that they and their readers may become better informed; to help in the development of the weekly newspaper press as an instrument of mutual understanding and world peace and to foster freedom of the press in all nations.”
Author Vickie Canfield Peters, who has chronicled the history of ISWNE in a newly released book, “Watchdogs, Town Criers, Historians: The People and Newspapers of ISWNE,” notes that the group’s summer conferences have been attended by some of the great community journalists in our nation’s history: Houston Waring, one of the group’s founders, from Littleton, Colo.; Henry Beetle Hough, editor of the famous Vineyard Gazette on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.; and Hazel Brannon Smith, winner of the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing on issues of civil rights in her Mississippi newspaper, the Lexington Advertiser.
I had come away from the annual convention — my first one — struck by how this event felt more like a family reunion than a conference. Journalists returned even after they had sold their papers and retired. On the last day, a slideshow was accompanied by stories of the editors who had died in recent years. And a newcomer was made to feel welcome.
What this family of community journalists from the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia share is a desire to produce journalism that is important to their communities. They do this by balancing an intimate community connection with an obligation to be tough and courageous. They take editorial stands, knowing that they will be held personally accountable for what they write.
Just outside of Pulaski, I looked at my GPS. It was highlighting in purple a new route that would get me back on the main road and safely to Duluth. Instead, I entered in the name of another small Wisconsin community, Abbotsford, population 2,316, and home of The Tribune-Phonograph newspaper.
Billed as the oldest city in Wisconsin, Abbotsford is where, in 1971, J.A. O’Leary and his wife, Carol, purchased the community newspaper. Today, Carol, her daughter, Kris, and son-in-law Kevin Flink, run the newspapers in this and a few neighboring communities.
On the night of the ISWNE editorial awards, the editors at the family’s community papers stood several times to receive honors for their work.
The family’s newspaper group won, for the second time in three years, the top award, The Golden Quill. Peter Weinschenk’s editorial challenged county leaders in his community for their plans to lure young professionals to Marathon County, Wisc.: “The general idea is to turn Marathon County — land of paper mills, dairy farms and the Sunday polka jamboree — into a mecca of urban cool, a magnet for lifestyle-oriented, upwardly mobile, laptop-carrying Generation XYZers with college degrees by the dozen.”
I had ulterior motives in coming to Abbotsford; I had been told that I couldn’t pass through town without stopping by the Hawkeye Dairy Store for a scoop of Wisconsin-made ice cream.
With my heaping of strawberry ice cream dripping into my lap as I drove through the quiet, historic downtown, I headed north to the city of Medford, where another paper, The Star-News, is owned by O’Leary family.
Editor Brian Wilson, a graduate of Northwestern University and a New Jersey transplant, has won awards for his editorial writing in 2008, 2009 and again in 2013. This time, the award was for an editorial criticizing the city council for backing down on a community improvement project.
“The city council’s lukewarm reception to those who have worked hard to make this project a reality is disappointing,” Wilson wrote. “If the city treats those who would donate their time, energies and financial resources this way, it won’t be long before no one wants to work with the city in any capacity.”
The day was getting late and I finally gave in to the GPS and followed the purple line back home, more than five hours behind the computer’s initial ETA. I tried to think about what it was that made these communities special. At first glance, they were like any of the other small Wisconsin farming communities I passed through that day.
But each of them – perhaps without truly appreciating it – were home to independently owned newspapers produced by editors who had the courage to write strong editorials, taking a stand on the issues important to their community. I asked myself a question I’ve been asking ever since I began working as a community journalist myself 21 years ago: Is it the community or the journalist that makes these situations happen?
Could a journalist with the drive and the desire plop down in any small town in America and start producing strong, independent journalism? Or is there something about these communities and their residents that encourages or even requires this as one of the elements of that community’s character?
I’m not sure I’ll ever come close to an answer to the question, but I intend to keep asking it and to keep visiting small towns across the world and asking the same question.
Next year the, ISWNE conference is in Durango, Colo. I wonder how long it will take me to get there.
John Hatcher is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota Duluth.