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July 27, 2023, 3:17 p.m.

What one journalism school learned after taking over a rural weekly newspaper

In the first 18 months, The Oglethorpe Echo added digital products, won awards, tripled advertising, and doubled subscriptions. An unmitigated success, right? It’s a bit more complicated than that.

In 2021, the owners of The Oglethorpe Echo — with offices in Lexington, Georgia — planned to close the paper after 148 years. Within hours of hearing the news, an alum of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, Dink NeSmith, had hatched a plan. Instead of shutting the paper, would the Maxwell family consider donating it? The nonprofit org Oglethorpe Echo Legacy, Inc. was born and the paper has been running as a news-academic partnership since.

Amanda Bright, assistant editor and instructor at The Echo, outlines some of the hard-won lessons she and her students have learned since the j-school took over.

For most of our journalism majors, reporting for The Oglethorpe Echo is akin to studying abroad.

With only 15,000 residents served by a single stoplight and grocery store, Oglethorpe County is quite different from its neighbor Athens, home of the University of Georgia, or the Atlanta suburbs from which many of our students hail.

We started this news-academic partnership — stepping in to prevent a news desert — because we knew it would be mutually beneficial. Students would gain exposure to (and perhaps learn to love) community journalism, and the residents of a rural county would continue to have local news.

In the first 18 months, we added six digital products, won awards, tripled advertising, and doubled subscriptions to the 149-year-old weekly newspaper. An unmitigated success, right?

As our nonprofit chairman Dink NeSmith would say, “the devil’s in the details.”

Combining our observations with a survey of 75 Echo readers by my UGA colleague Kyser Lough, we have the first snapshot of what building a news-academic partnership to avert a news desert looks like.

Some parts of the old news product are sacred, while other parts require courageous (and incremental) change.

We wanted to make adjustments at The Echo, but knew some aspects would be untouchable, like the nameplate, county seat office space, obituaries, and local calendar.

Community-submitted content isn’t the focus of j-school training, but we’ve learned that it’s sacred to the Echo audience: who was visiting whom, the topic of last week’s sermon, and relatives who are improving after illness. “I think the Echo does a great job … except it seems that there is difficulty in getting someone to provide dots from Crawford,” one survey respondent noted. So, we’ve kept community content like “dots” (short writings from residents), local columnists, submitted photos, and even rainfall totals from readers.

Our policy of running content only after journalistic editing, however, is challenging for many. “Sadly, it doesn’t seem as much of a community paper anymore. You seem to stop including citizens’ stories turned into the paper,” one respondent said.

Also sacred were the long, unsubstantiated police report narratives. Our decision to cut those and leave only the bulleted arrest report is the most frequently mentioned loss of “the new” Echo.

“You no longer do the police blotter, like Ralph Maxwell [former publisher] used to do it,” one person said. “Listing traffic stops, arrests, drug busts … I’ve been here all my life and appreciated all the work Ralph put in to keep the paper going. You should follow his lead.”

Yet, other community members supported our intentional choice.

“Love that incident reports have been removed that create suspicions, etc., on the individuals,” one person noted. Another resident said, “I’m glad you have less details from the sheriff’s report.”

We’ve focused on the traditional, rural life of the county. We also intentionally pursue stories from a variety of demographics. (For context, the county is 79% white, 16% Black, and 7% Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2022 U.S. Census.)

“The Echo is much more diverse, and that’s a huge plus,” one resident noted. Another mentioned “the students are doing an excellent job of finding and covering the stories that are important to a rural community. I feel I know and love Oglethorpe more since reading so many wonderful interviews and stories about the people here.”

One long-time subscriber mentioned he didn’t remember seeing any photos of Black community members on the front page before we took over. It was a record we were happy to break.

Achieving subscription and advertising growth from a community that feels informed takes tremendous effort, but it’s worth the trouble.

More than half of Oglethorpe County is without reliable internet. We’ve learned it’s crucial to keep print at the center.

“I believe printed news is the needle sewing the thread binding Rural America together. More publications such as the Echo are needed in today’s times,” one reader wrote.

Subscriptions, which have doubled, are due to quantity and quality of coverage. With our staff of 20 students during the fall and spring UGA semesters, we are turning at least 10 local bylined stories a week — covering not just the latest board meeting but also features, data-driven reporting, and solutions journalism.

One subscriber commented, “thank you for the work you do in covering the county. The improvements since coming under the aegis of UGA have been welcome.”

A website, audio and video reporting, a weekly email newsletter, and regular posts on Facebook and Instagram have aided that growth, too. These products alone reach 4,500 each week, nearly a third of the county’s population.

On the flip side, our Twitter and YouTube have languished, and our website’s high bounce rate shows that our paywall rarely leads to conversions. However, we plan to implement digital advertising and sponsorships in the next six months or so, which will change that paywall strategy significantly.

Advertising growth, through print ads alone, has been about the use of “shoe leather” by NeSmith, a charismatic resident and a former newspaper owner/publisher himself. Particularly in a rural area, visiting the businesses, building relationships, and using special sections have been keys to success — along with a good news product.

Approximately 80% of our respondents said they believe The Echo is of high quality, with 71% agreeing at least in part that The Echo provides a complete picture of what’s going on in Oglethorpe County.

“Thank you for saving The Oglethorpe Echo … in more ways than one,” one respondent commented.

It’s possible to build trust when new to a community, but it’s nearly impossible to escape the perception of bias.

Distrust of “the media” bleeds into local journalism. The Echo has an additional hurdle — our students and editors live outside the county’s borders. So, we’ve learned to be present. Our best storytelling has come from stopping by the rec center, wandering around downtown Lexington, or driving with sources to see historical sites. (These were also the most transformative experiences for our journalism students.)

Yet, however humble and intentional our approach, there’s a gap revealed through perceived bias and occasional errors. Just 42% of our community felt strongly that The Echo was not biased at all in its reporting.

“I feel they are leaning one side politically for certain candidates,” one respondent said, but another noted The Echo had improved because they felt like they “were in a right-wing echo chamber previously.”

One error can undo months of good-faith effort. Our editor, Andy Johnston, has handled complaints transparently, inviting those who say we got it wrong into dialogue. But, it’s hard, especially in a community where missteps travel fast (usually in Facebook groups).

In the end, though, the data is encouraging — 82% said they feel some level of trust in our coverage.

“Overall, the Echo has improved as an information source for new residents to acclimate into the county mainstream,” one respondent said. Another added, “The Oglethorpe Echo is an amazing community paper. I’ve seen such improvement over the past year — both in content and accuracy.”

And with the current pressures on community news and our entire industry, our nascent news-academic partnership built on hard work and a good idea can’t ask for much better than that.

Amanda Bright, PhD, MJE is a senior academic professional at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia, specializing in news product innovation, design, and pedagogy. In addition to serving as assistant editor and instructor for The Echo, she is the managing editor of Grady Newsource and co-director for the Solutions Journalism Hub for the South at UGA. She is also the director of the Journalism Innovation Lab for the Cox Institute for Innovation, Management & Leadership. Formerly, Bright was a professional journalist, freelance editor, web developer and social media director.

Nearly 100 residents gathered at an open house to meet the new reporters and editors of The Oglethorpe Echo as it became a nonprofit and news-academic partnership in November 2021. Photo by Sarah Freeman of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

POSTED     July 27, 2023, 3:17 p.m.
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