In 1987, I took over my family’s twice-weekly newspaper in Emporia, Virginia. Shouldering that responsibility made me pay even more attention to stories about community journalism.

One such piece jumped out at me. The author didn’t think much of small-town newspapers. He dismissed them as “mere community bulletin boards.”

As I dug into my new job in Greensville County, Virginia, population: 9,200, I thought about that story a lot.

I concluded the opposite. I decided that the bulletin board function is exactly what community newspapers should do: be the place where local readers gather for the communal conversation that binds them together.

More than a quarter-century later, I‘m still sure that role is vital, perhaps more than ever.

What I’m not sure of is where small-town residents today are going for news of their community and to converse with each other.

And if readers are moving away from print to the Internet, I wonder what newspapers like the ones I grew up on are doing about it.

In particular, I want to know how the Potter Fund, which I established to honor the three generations of my family who worked for community papers, could help.

Those were the central questions I sought to answer on the Potter Listening Tour this past spring.

What I found during the tour’s eight stops is that digital change is coming to Missouri small towns. Newspapers in those communities are responding, although with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Judging how fast this digital change is coming is mostly a guessing game for my tour hosts; there’s relatively little formal research in their markets. Yet the editors and publishers of the papers I visited — ranging from tiny weeklies to small dailies — trust their guts. They have lived in their communities for decades, and most are carrying on publications that were founded or run by their parents and grandparents. So there’s a feeling that readers their age are only now slowly shifting to websites and social media for news and advertising.

But that feeling fades when they try to understand the information-seeking habits of the upcoming generation, including their own children. I got a taste of that anxiety when 24-year-old Missouri School of Journalism graduate Hannah Spaar, the fifth generation of her family to work in the newspaper business, patiently explained to me how she wanted to use social media to improve her family’s newspaper in Odessa, Missouri. Meanwhile, my tweets on that visit to The Odessan were among the first of my 65-year-old life.

Similarly, 68-year-old Jerrilynn S. Voss, publisher of the Unterrified Democrat of Linn, Missouri — the only tour-stop newspaper that had no Internet presence — clearly was more comfortable talking about going after tough news stories than contemplating venturing onto the Web. Like all my tour hosts, the award-winning journalist relies on her paper’s leading role in covering what matters to her town. She credits that approach for the U.D.’s saturation distribution among Osage County’s 4,600 households.

But Voss is aware of what’s coming. She told me of a local citizen posting breaking news to Facebook before her paper’s reporters had even heard of it, much less reported it. That tale was repeated in one form or another at several other tour stops.

For some papers I visited, Internet competition has taken formal shape. The website has appeared in The Lebanon (Mo.) Daily Record’s market. And The Gallatin Grapevine Facebook page troubles the North Missourian newspaper in Northwest Missouri.

So it was unsurprising that when asked why they went digital, nearly every newspaper’s leaders echoed Gasconade County Republican Publisher Dennis Warden: “If we didn’t, somebody else will.”

This battle to gain and keep the Internet high ground in their communities began for my tour hosts with their first websites, constructed anywhere from five to nearly 20 years ago. More recently all except the U.D. have created Facebook pages and six of my hosts also have Twitter accounts. Two even have Pinterest pages.

Facebook draws the newspapers’ attention because that’s the social platform their readers seem to use most. Pinterest might have a similar appeal to these rural, Midwestern audiences.

Twitter, however, drew less enthusiasm. During my mid-April visit, 25-year-old Jacob Warden, The Gasconade County Republican’s digital specialist, seemed unimpressed with the 93 followers his paper’s account had within its 16,000-resident county.

Mounting these new digital efforts not only changes what these papers offer their audience, but also the way their reporters cover the news and the way their salespeople sell ads.

For example, the weekly Houston (Mo.) Herald pursues breaking news much the way a broadcast outlet would on the air, texting as soon as they hear of an event and updating with tweets throughout their reporting. “If people hear sirens,” says Publisher Brad Gentry, “they expect us to have the story.”

I experienced this change for myself as I tweeted and posted to Facebook simultaneously during my stops on the tour. Never mind that I also had to take photos, too.

Read part 2 here.

Walter B. Potter Jr.  


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