[If worse comes to worst, here’s a news story I’d like to read…]
ATHENS, GA., March 32, 2010 (PDN*) — If the plans of an unusual partnership go forward as expected, the daily news drought here will soon be over. That’s a welcome development for starved local news junkies. But the bigger story—according to national media observers—may turn out to be not that daily local news was saved, but how it was saved.
“What’s happening in Athens—the new partnerships, the new business model, the new print and online formats—might give us a template for keeping quality local journalism alive everywhere,” said Todd Chitlin, a noted media critic and professor at Iowa University’s prestigious journalism program in Dubuque.
Response to the “news drought”
The news drought started three months earlier in January when the Athens Banner, the daily newspaper, suspended operations after its parent company, the Atlanta-based Norris Publishing, Group, declared bankruptcy.
Almost immediately the publisher and staff at Athens Flagpole, the weekly alternative newspaper, launched a local news blog—called Athens Observed—and started publishing multiple news posts daily. Contributors not only included reporters from both papers and the local public radio station but also a group of independent bloggers and journalism students.
At the same time, a number of concerned citizens joined this group of contributors and formed a group called Save Our News to figure out a way to support quality local journalism, including some form of daily news.
“Like the death of a friend”
“That first morning without a paper was shock to many of us,” said Michael Smitts, a local activist and occasional blogger who helped organize the group. “It felt like the death of a friend, a friend who was always there, a friend who always had something interesting to say, who somehow managed to make you feel part of a family, a community.”
“We had to do something to fill the void,” Smitts said. “But right from the beginning nobody was interested in supporting shoddy, under-staffed news coverage or raising money to pay for wire services and syndicated columnists you can find anywhere. We wanted to find a way to support and sustain quality, locally-produced public service journalism. Ironically, the death of the local daily really jolted us into reinventing and improving local coverage.”
The Flagpole & Banner is born
After two and a half months of meetings—ranging from initial brainstorming sessions to discussions on fundraising strategy to a final round of agreement and contract signing, Save Our News announced the formation of Flagpole & Banner, a new local news organization for Athens under the leadership of Athens Flagpole publisher Commoner McPete and Athens Banner publisher Scooter Norris.
And today at a press conference held in the reopened newsroom of the Athens Banner, the publishers of the Flagpole & Banner promised that a new daily paper would be hitting newsstands and doorsteps in May. They also said to look forward to expanded Thursday and Sunday editions of the paper, and a new Web site devoted to local news, opinion and culture.
A non-profit with a big grant
Because the current model of for-profit local newspapers is losing its ability to subsidize quality public service journalism, the publishers said Flagpole & Banner would be a non-profit venture at least for the foreseeable future. Which means the bulk of money for the new effort will come foundation grants and individual gifts much like how public radio stations are currently funded.
The McKnight Foundation, which, like the more famous Knight Foundation, funds innovative local public service journalism projects, has agreed to multi-year, multi-million dollar grant to Flagpole & Banner.
A peak at the future
While many details have yet to be worked out, McPete and Norris discussed some of their plans for the fledgling news organization and its products. Here is a summary of their remarks.
A trim, tabloid daily paper. For readers who simply must have paper with their news, there will be the new Flagpole & Banner Daily Bulletin. It will be a tabloid with slightly larger type and run about 20 pages a day. It will be free, though customers who want home delivery will have to pay for that. Apart from one column of wire service briefs on national and international news, the paper will be devoted to local news and happenings. But readers will find their favorite comics, a sports section, classified ads, birth, crime reports, death and marriage announcements and locally written op-eds and letters. In general, articles in the bulletin will be shorter than articles used to be in the old Athens Banner.
An expanded Thursday paper. On Thursdays, the Daily Bulletin will contain a second section, called “The Weekend Manual,” which will give readers a comprehensive guide to local happenings for the upcoming weekend. It will also include reviews of restaurants, movies, art shows, and music offerings.
An innovative, multi-sectioned Sunday paper. The big Sunday paper will come in as many as nine sections, including:
“News & Views,” which will contain a summary of the week’s local news, longer background and analysis articles on major local issues and locally written op-eds.
“Scrapbook,” devoted to documenting ordinary life in Athens during the past week, will feature lots of photos of local folks at school, work and play as well as interviews and brief sketches of Athenians.
“MFA”, or the music, film and arts section, will cover the people and the issues in the local arts community.
“Table and Garden” will give readers tips about what to cook and grow, and will cover the vibrant food and restaurant scene in town.
There will also be “Funny Pages,” a section devoted to mainly locally produced comics and humor; a “Shopper’s Guide” for smart local consumption; a sports section; a business and jobs sections and an indexed advertisment and coupon supplement.A full-service Web hub. Most of what readers can get from a newspaper, they will get at Flagpole & Banner’s flagship Web site, to be called “Flagpole & Banner.” This will include news and feature stories about all things local—politics, business, crime, culture and sports. Readers will find obituaries and weather forecasts, too. And photos and video clips. What readers won’t find here is national and international news from wire services. This will be all local. The plan calls for an uncluttered, easy-to-read and navigate site that contains only a few discreet, non-up-popping ads. Every article and every photo will be easy to print, and there will be free access to the archives. The site will link to all the other content produced by Flagpole & Banner.
Standalone guides. Flagpole & Banner will publish two annual magazine format guides to Athens. The “Annual Manual,” which—much like Athens Flagpole’s Guide to Athens—will be a comprehensive guide to enjoying what Athens has to offer in terms of restaurants, bars, parks and art. The “Athens Power Guide” will orient citizens to community leaders, government and key local issues.
An AV department, and community forums. As part of its broader concept of what local news can be, Flagpole & Banner will not only produce text and graphical products, it plans to create or commission digital audio and video documentaries about local places, people and issues. These productions will be available online. The organization also plans to sponsor well-organized, well-publicized educational community forums on major local issues.
Athens: the new capital of local journalism?
“If Flagpole & Banner deliver what they are promising,” said media critic Chitlin, “Athens, Ga. will suddenly become the new national capital of local journalism. It’s a very exciting prospect—the city is so full of talent that I’m betting it will succeed and show the rest of the nation the way forward.”
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* This post is a work of fiction. PDN is the acronym for Pipe Dream News, a fake news service that syndicates (actually, pretends to syndicate) fictional news accounts of people, places, things and happenings that do not exist but would be cool if they did.In addition to being fictional, this post is not entirely composed of fresh material. I borrowed a little from posts I’ve written elsewhere, including one about a Sunday paper I’d like to see, and from a series about the future of local journalism.