July 08, 2011

Loose Emus - good report on state of rural journalism

Geoff McGheee uses a review of Judy Muller's new book, "Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns," to launch a discourse on rural journalism - which, not surprisingly, he finds to be a lot healthier than the general j-meme (although, as he also notes, many are "an advertiser or two away from red ink"). But he also notes that too many also are failing to deal with digital well.

"I think the holy trinity of the small town paper is obituaries, the police blotter, and high school sports," says Muller. "That's what people care about. The police blotter is where you find out who's doing what to whom. The school superintendent beating his wife, from there it gets blown into a bigger story. The high school sports thing is so huge, I can't even explain it to a person who doesn't live in a small town. And births, not just obits, tend to dominate. If you leave town, and you subscribe online, those are the things, 'Oh my God, old Pete just died' — that might seem insignificant to someone outside of a small town, but every single birth and death means something." 

Muller takes us to the town of Hardin, Montana, which built a $27 million jail complex on spec, then launched a doomed campaign to house Guantanamo Bay inmates. The issue touches off a furious wrestling match among the local paper, the Big Horn County News, the local gossip sheet, the Original Briefs, and the Crow tribe's newspaper, the Apsáalooke Nation. Muller's storytelling shines as she leads us through the maze of conflicting agendas, local feuds, and the befuddlement of a newly arrived national reporter at the News, who tries to play it straight and gets virtually run out of town for his efforts.

His editor laments, "Mike came in with what I call the ‘Tin Man’ reporter concept: you are protected, you don't associate with the people you cover, you have no relationship to them, nor do you have the desire to develop one." Muller says that the reporter is now working for a small paper in another state. "He gets it now," she says. "You can still tell the story, but you write it in a way that makes it clear you are part of the community."
 Al Cross is quoted extensively.

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