The Different Faces of Community Journalism

By Linda Gilmore
The Review, January 2001, Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media; p. 10

Charley Kempthorne has done everything from teaching college English to painting houses. But no matter what else he has done over the last 40 years to earn a living, he has always been a writer. In particular, he loves to write newsletters.

“I’ve been doing newsletters since I was kid,” he says. “I think it brings people together.”
Kempthorne is the founder and director of The Lifestory Institute and publishes the monthly LifeStory Magazine. He gives workshops for people wanting to learn about writing their family stories. In fact it was one of Kempthorne’s first workshops that gave Jessie Lee Brown Foveaux the chance to write her life story, which eventually led to an article in The Wall Street Journal and a bidding war among publishers for her story. Any Given Day was published by Warner Books in 1997, when Foveaux was 99 years old.

His most recent example of newslettering is The Deep Creek Bullfrog, a monthly (most of the time) newsletter for the 250 or so people who live along either side of Deep Creek, near Manhattan, Kan. There’s no town of Deep Creek, and never has been, but there was a rural school district and a church. Kempthorne grew up in the area and knows that it’s a community, all the same, and he’s always looking for ways to help people connect with each other.

He says his model is based on something that used to run in The New York Times, years ago, called Metropolitan Diary. It consisted of scenes of life in New York City. While he says he’s not quite achieved that model with The Bullfrog, it remains a goal.

“If we ran scenes of each other’s lives, we would know each other like family know each other,” he says.

The Deep Creek Bullfrog has no audience except the community it serves and people who used to live there, but it is still one of the many faces of community journalism. In communities from Monticello, Minn. to Lafayette, La., from Sequim, Wash., to the Bronx, N.Y., community newspapers of all sizes and frequencies help the people in their communities know each other better.

So what is a community newspaper? Many newspaper professionals and educators agree that 50,000 in circulation seems to be the cutoff point. Many traditional weeklies and dailies are easy to identify as community newspapers by this standard.

Marysville, Kan. is obviously the community served by the 6,000-circulation Marysville Advocate and even though The Riverdale Press is located in the Bronx in New York City, it serves a distinct area of that borough.

Alternative weekly newspapers are often community newspapers, too. Papers such as The New Times of San Luis Obispo (Calif.), or The Times of Acadiana (in Lafayette, La.) can provide in-depth coverage of news of concern to their communities as well as provide news about events and interests that are distinctive to their regions.

Other types of community journalism haven’t always been included under that umbrella, however. Some, such as The Deep Creek Bullfrog, are more like newsletters and don’t seem to get much respect from the traditional newspaper community. As Kempthorne has said, newsletters are “the most under-rated piece of paper that doesn’t come in a roll.”

The Burns (Kan.) Blaze is an example of another community newsletter that fills a need for a small town without its own newspaper. Subscribers to The Blaze get eight pages a month of news just about Burns. A recent issue included a feature about a local World War II veteran and his memories of Iwo Jima, a story about a community hog roast, and a community calendar. Gloria Freeland, who grew up in Burns and is now the director of the Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media, says she thinks that The Burns Blaze has done more than anything else to improve community pride.

The Prairie Dog Press, in Almena, Kan., is a volunteer newspaper that was started six years ago, with the help of a Kansas State University Community Service Team, to fill the gap left by the closing of the town’s weekly newspaper. It’s filled with news about the schools, community doings, and local history. It doesn’t cover hard news or community controversy, but that’s not its mission.

An article about The Prairie Dog Press that appeared in the March 2000 American Journalism Review and reprinted in the July 14 issue of the Press helps make that clear. Bonnie Bressers, the author of the article and a visiting professor of journalism at Kansas State University, quotes Roy Peter Clark, of the Poynter Institute, on what matters in community news.

“If people are better off with it, then who cares whether it satisfies the traditional or nontraditional definition of news? If it helps people keep track of their neighbors, if it creates some social glue to bond people together, if it creates a stronger sense of membership in the community, the God bless them,” he said.

Social glue might also be a good way to describe a newspaper that seems to be the only one of its kind. The Southeast Outlook is published by Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky. Southeast Christian has about 15,000 members and The Outlook is the means of communicating with those members. Ninie O’Hara, the managing editor, says she knows of no other very large church that publishes its own newspaper.

“And believe me, I looked,” she said.

O’Hara came to Southeast Christian in 1995 to start The Outlook. At the time, she was running the Lebanon (Ky.) Enterprise and the Springfield (Ky.) Sun, both owned by Landmark Community Newspapers. It was a challenge.

“Just because you know how to run a newspaper, doesn’t mean you know how to start one,” she says.

When she arrived in June of that year, the office didn’t have so much as a pencil. She started with a staff of five and the first issue was published Sept. 1, 1995. The paper had a press run of around 10,400 and the church had a membership of about 8,500. In the beginning, the paper ran about 30 pages a week, but those were not ad generated.

Now, the newspaper has a staff of 21 and averages about 40 pages a week. The congregation numbers about 15,000 and the weekly’s circulation is about 18,000. It is now totally self-supporting through ads and donations, as a non-profit 501c(3) corporation. O’Hara says the paper goes to anyone who wants it and they don’t charge for subscriptions. They do send out a flyer about once a year asking for donations, but a donation is not required.

She said about 3,000 papers are mailed outside of Jefferson County (the Louisville metro area) to churches and individuals. The remainder are mailed in county to church members and anyone else who wants it. It is also distributed free in bookstores throughout Louisville, both Christian and secular. (The Outlook is an in-county qualified mailer, just like other community newspapers, according to Max Heath, the NNA’s postal chairman and a member of Southeast Christian.)

O’Hara says the paper’s success is “definitely a God thing.” The paper is an outreach of the church, as well as a means of keeping its members informed of activities and events in the church.

Church members seem to appreciate the paper. O’Hara said that she gets lots of comments from readers who say they read it all, or they really appreciate the paper. And it fills an important need for the congregation. There would be no other way, aside from a steady stream of flyers and notices, to inform people of everything that’s happening in the church. In fact, that’s what they did before The Outlook, and it cost a bundle, according to O’Hara.

She said when the church moved into its new 770,000 sq. ft. facility, in December 1998, The Outlook did a 100-page special section about the move. There would have been no other way to coordinate such a huge project, O’Hara said.

The paper has also received recognition from outside its church community. O’Hara, a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, entered the paper in the Louisville area competition. This year they won six awards in writing and photography: three 1st place awards, two 2nd place awards, and one honorable mention. She’s especially pleased because their photographers, some of whom are professionals, are all volunteers.

“We do have some spectacular volunteers,” she said. “We couldn’t do what we do without our volunteers.”

O’Hara thinks that one reason her paper is unique, is that the people at Southeast Christian have come there from small towns or small churches. The church, and the paper, do what they can to make the church feel smaller for its members, “the smallest big church” they’ve seen. And the paper helps church members and newcomers get to know their neighbors in the pew, just like a hometown newspaper helps people know their neighbors better.

Heath agrees that the paper has a unifying effect for the congregation, and says it’s amazing what the paper has been able to do in the short time it’s been in existence. He credits God and O’Hara, calling her “one of the most talented writers in the state of Kentucky,” explaining that she won writing awards from the Kentucky Press Association multiple times. He believes that for O’Hara, The Outlook is a true calling.

For people in communities of all sizes, from Almena, Kan., population 400, to members of Southeast Christian Church, membership 15,000, their community newspapers — and the people who produce them — are an important part of their lives and a part of helping neighbors work together to make their communities better places.

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