LJWorld.com weblogs Devin Lowell's Community Journalism Blog
The Family Trade
Much of the Kansas press has been owned and operated as a family business, and I was born into one of those families.
For most of the last century, the men in my family have worked at, edited, and published the Concordia Blade-Empire, in Concordia, Kansas, from my great-grandfather Art Lowell, to my grandfather Brad, and my dad, Jim. There might even come a day when I return to the place that raised me and take over the family shop. I have spent a good chunk of my life down at the Blade office, whether it be in the basement, inserting circulars to earn a little extra summer cash, or more recently, upstairs, reporting and designing the newspaper that my family has put so much work into.
Small-town newspapers are very interesting cases, because of the close-knit nature of the community. Much of the principles of journalism I've learned at the William Allen White School of Journalism have to be adjusted for Concordia. For instance, there's no avoiding talking with sources you know personally, because you know everyone already.
If you're the town newspaper publisher, you're also probably one of its reporters, and you're already friends, or at least familiar with, judges, city commissioners, school board members, community college presidents, and so on. And small-town publishers are people who care quite a lot for their community, so they might even be members of those boards. You know they sure aren't in the business for the money.
Also, in a small town like Concordia, the newspaper might feel a stronger obligation to the community because they are so involved. This obligation necessitates advocacy on behalf of your neighbors, and fellow Concordians, even if parts of the community malign or ill-appreciate your efforts. My family has experienced this firsthand.
Concordia is the proud home of Cloud County Community College, a school that my grandfather serves on the foundation board of. A few years ago, the president of the college did some things he probably shouldn't have. College credit cards were used to purchase personal effects, some of them quite extravagant and costly. In his role as a community advocate, my grandfather chose to report on this, and use the newspaper as voice for what he saw as justice.
Now, some might disagree with this choice, because of conflict of interest, or a potential source of bias in the journalism. I contend that because of his twin obligations, both to serving the community and to upholding the truth, my grandfather was, in fact, more reliable and accurate in his efforts. I should mention that in addition to being a concerned and active citizen, Brad Lowell is a member of the Kansas Press Association Board.
It got ugly, though. College employees were intimidated for speaking out and enimity grew between former allies. Some people in the community did not appreciate being told the truth about the corruption, and might even have viewed it as a personal vendetta. In the end, the president took another job at another college in Kansas, and the grand jury investigation that was sought never resulted in an indictment.
So I guess what I'm saying is that it's tough being a small-town editor. You fight to keep the paper afloat, and occasionally try and do some good in the community, good that the community isn't always grateful for. But you do it because you love it, you love your employees, and most of all, you love your town, no matter how bad it gets. It's places like Concordia, Kansas, where journalism and the media aren't some detached abstraction for people to feel animosity toward, but an integral part of community, somewhere between its heart and its conscience.