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Randy Turner

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Community Newspapers: Relegated to the Scrap Heap of History?

Posted: 06/20/2012 3:45 pm

It was only a few weeks ago that I made a side trip to the heart of Carthage, Missouri, to take a look at a stately three-story building that had been a home away from home for me for nearly a decade.

It was in that building, the one-time home of the Carthage Press, that I learned what community journalism was all about. For the first three and a half years, I spent my time learning from experienced newsroom veterans what a small-town newspaper should be and what it should not be.

City Editor Jack Harshaw arrived at the Press right after he graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1952 and never left. I watched each morning as he called funeral homes and painstakingly checked the spellings of names and facts about the deceased.

From veteran reporter Marvin VanGilder, a historian who had once served as the Press' managing editor, I learned the value of institutional memory. I took advantage of every opportunity to discuss the stories of decades earlier that gave me a greater understanding of the events of the day. I also learned to make good use of the filing cabinets full of photos and clippings dating back to the '40s and '50s and hardbound volumes of newspapers dating back to the 1880s. I spent many a rainy weekend afternoon poring over those old newspapers.

As I looked over that wonderful old building, I thought about Marvin and Jack, both of whom have died over the past few years. Sadly, both of them were still around when GateHouse Media, which owns the Press (and owns more small town newspapers than any other company), decided to leave the building a few years back for a small, nondescript location outside of the center of town.

The voluminous files they compiled over decades did not make the move to the new building. Thanks to my successor as the newspaper's managing editor, Ron Graber, they were preserved, as Ron gave the filing cabinets, their contents, and the bound volumes to the Jasper County Historical Society. (For that, Ron received a dressing down from GateHouse officials, who had hoped to make some money by selling the filing cabinets. Shortly after that, he was no longer working for GateHouse.)

My visit to that building came back to me today as I read a column by David Arkin, GateHouse Media vice president of content and audience (I'm not kidding; that's his title), extolling the virtues of the company's new centralized copy editing and design desks. The Carthage Press will be designed by someone in Boston, halfway across the country, someone who has no idea of the rich heritage of Carthage, someone who would have no idea that the man who just died at age 86 had at one time been a leading businessman in the community.

This is how Arkin saw the job of a copy editor at a small town newspaper:

For years, copy editors and page designers performed consistent tasks when they walked through the doors of their newspapers. They viewed wires, received budgets, read content, edited content, sent content back to city editors, got cleaner copy on pages, edited that copy some more, moved the pieces they had to work with around on a page, wrote headlines, subheads and edited again, finished their page and sent it to an editor for edits. The editor edited, gave the page back to the page designer, who made the edits and then gave another final proof to the editor. The editor would find more things, send it back, and the copy editor finally would send the page. That's exhausting just to write. Imagine doing it. Every day.

That is the explanation of a man who has no idea of what the function of a copy editor was (or someone who has been told to emphasize the parts of the job that can be done thousands of miles away). I don't blame Arkin. It is a thankless job to be the point man of the latest step by the robber barons of GateHouse to strip away everything that makes their community newspapers "community" newspapers.

Newspapers no longer need publishers, copy editors, designers, production managers or advertising salespeople to be stationed at the newspaper. They can do their job from anywhere. You can even set up automated answering services so you don't have to deal with an actual customer.

The deaths, births, anniversary, wedding, and engagement announcements that Jack Harshaw and Marvin VanGilder went to great length to ensure accuracy on are no longer prized by the newspaper companies. They are just another method of milking every last cent out of the customers. Those are the heart and soul of a community newspaper. As they vanish, is it any wonder that the readers are vanishing, too?

In their SEC filings, GateHouse officials invariably speak about their business model. They bought hundreds of newspapers in communities where those newspapers are often the only news source. That lack of competition is vital to the company's existence. Sadly, GateHouse officials always had competitors who were looking to destroy their products. They would have recognized that if they had looked into their mirrors.

The old Carthage Press building has remained empty since GateHouse abandoned it about a decade ago, a monument to what once was a highly respected community newspaper. Good people still work at the Press and they are doing their best to serve the community, at the same time their bosses are making their jobs more and more difficult.

The days when the Marvin VanGilders and Jack Harshaws manned the barricades for truth, accuracy, and historical perspective are just a memory and thanks to those who have made it so, it probably won't be long before community newspapers are relegated to the scrap heap of history.

 

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