Is there hope for community journalism?

75

Last Thursday, I spoke to the University of Oklahoma community journalism class at the invitation of Department Chairman John Schmeltzer. This was not my first visit to Gaylord Hall, but it had been several years since the last time my two Ph.D. sisters, who both lived and worked at OU, took me for the grand tour of the beautiful facility.

I began talking with this group of about 30 young people who were currently studying the relationship of the local newspaper with their hometown communities. Some of the students were from out-of-state but most from towns and communities throughout Oklahoma.

Professor Schmeltzer and I had a great visit before all the kids got to class. I think I really impressed him with my long-term memory as I recalled specific events and times regarding incidents and accidents I managed in 2006 (at the Edmond Sun) when I handled some of the printing tasks of the Oklahoma Daily (OU’s student newspaper) that we printed every night.

When all the kids got to their seats and John introduced me, I asked the young people how many of them got up that morning and read either The Oklahoman or the Norman Transcript. They all just looked around the room at each other. No one answered. I then asked them if they had watched any of the local television channels for updates on that day’s weather. No one said they had.

I knew how they were all going to answer before I asked them those questions. I had given this presentation before to many high school journalism classes. I then asked them if they knew who their state representative at the Capitol was and who their Congressman in Washington, D.C. was.

Not one of those OU kids could answer.

I told them I understood and that I was not upset with them. So, I just asked them who the football coach at OU was and almost in unity they all started replying…Lincoln Riley.
I looked over at John and he just kind of smirked. I looked at the kids and replied to them that that was the reason Oklahoma is 49th in the nation in so many different categories. I continued and told them that as community journalists, they are going to be the future and they need to understand how our local, state, county and national government works.

I told them I understood how important making the college football playoff each year was, but that Lincoln Riley was not going to be providing funding for dental care to our low-income neighbors in Hughes and Pushmataha counties! They all laughed and agreed.

After they realized their eyes had been opened, I began to tell them what they could expect out in the real world of community journalism and how they would need to interact with business leaders in the towns they worked in. I encouraged them to come do internships in Yukon, Piedmont or Okarche. I explained how following around a city manager or county commissioner for a semester and seeing how local and county government functions would be critical and so valuable to them in the future, even if they didn’t work in community journalism. They agreed.

I told these young kids some of the same things that were told to me about 35 years ago when I was in college. I made sure I didn’t just hear but that I listened. I will always remember asking, “How many of you future University of Oklahoma graduates will be going to work for your hometown newspaper once you finish your degree?” Not a single one of them said they would be.

In all likelihood, the community newspaper business as we have known it in the past and as we know it now will dramatically change. We have so many younger business people in our communities who put no stock in the community newspaper or get all their “news” from FACEBOOK and pay zero attention to what the local newspaper can do for them.

And yet, it has been my experience that so many of these same people end up calling me and asking me if I can leave their names out of the newspaper or if I can see to it that we don’t cover a story involving them when all hell breaks loose.

I’m fairly certain that that scenario will not be something for anyone to have to worry about in less than a decade. Everyone now working at the community newspaper is aging. A lot of us are thinking about retirement. When the last of the talented community journalists/newspaper people are done for good… the local newspaper as you know it will go away. There will not be anyone young to take over.

I closed my presentation last week at OU then drove home. I thought about how thankful I am for my good job and the great newspaper career I have had so far. I am not done yet. I have several more things to accomplish. I am going to continue on like my favorite rock-n-roll band REO SPEEDWAGON and just keep on rollin’!

Thanks so much for reading. I will see you next Saturday. Would you like a Progress?