"Emus Loose in Egnar"

"It is more than a little ironic that small-town papers have been thriving by practicing what the mainstream media are now preaching," writes the broadcast journalist and USC professor Judy Muller in her new book, Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns (University of Nebraska Press).  "’Hyper-localism,’ ‘Citizen Journalism,’ ‘Advocacy Journalism’ — these are some of the latest buzzwords of the profession. But the concepts, without the fancy names, have been around for ages in small-town newspapers."

Inspired by the local weekly in the working-class Rocky Mountain town of Norwood, Colorado, Muller embarked on a lively, funny and engaging tour of small papers that took her across the country, from Concrete, Washington to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

"I was surprised to find that they're doing as well as they were," says Muller, whose book looks at feisty family-owned papers like the Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, whose founders survived a firebombing, the Guadalupe County Communicator, the "sixth smallest weekly in New Mexico," whose new owner had been a national correspondent for the Rocky Mountain News, and the Dove Creek Press in Colorado, whose editors are so reluctant to deliver bad news that when doctors estimate a car crash victim's chance of paralysis at 99 percent, it writes "the family reports that Kelsi is looking to the 1 percent  chance she still has."

According to the publisher Bruce M. Kennedy, "the study of weekly journalism is inescapably the study of small towns." Muller writes movingly about the close bond between small town papers and their populations. She describes the elation in the depressed Skagit Valley town of Concrete, Washington, when a young outsider came to revive their newspaper, the Herald. "People were--I'm not kidding--crying and hugging him, "says Muller, "and the paper's not all that good, frankly, but what it represents to those folks who are so isolated up in that canyon is really powerful."

The importance of the community of a local paper is something that John Wylie, publisher of the Oologah, Oklahoma Lake Leader argued for in a 2007 speech to a rural journalism conference:

"To our readers, we are not the newspaper, we are THEIR newspaper. Down the block at Rogers Mini Stop, we sell more than a hundred papers every week. If our press run is late we get frantic calls from the Rogers family. They have a store full of irate customers who want THEIR papers NOW…. We all know the traditional reasons — the little stories that never would be considered ‘news’ anyplace else. Our readers really care about those things."

So what are townsfolk waiting for so urgently? "I think the holy trinity of the small town paper is obituaries, the police blotter, and high school sports," says Muller. "That's what people care about. The police blotter is where you find out who's doing what to whom. The school superintendent beating his wife, from there it gets blown into a bigger story. The high school sports thing is so huge, I can't even explain it to a person who doesn't live in a small town. And births, not just obits, tend to dominate. If you leave town, and you subscribe online, those are the things, 'Oh my God, old Pete just died' — that might seem insignificant to someone outside of a small town, but every single birth and death means something."

But surely local journalism has to be about more than recording comings and goings, nighttime calls for help, and salutes to BearCat pride? Muller finds ample journalistic inspiration in the pages of small-town papers, what she calls "this wonderful crucible of telling the truth, weighing that against living with the people you're writing about."

Muller describes the Ezzel family's courage in publishing their Canadian Record in a conservative Texas panhandle town. Throughout the 60's, the paper gave full-throated support to the civil rights movement and later, opposition to the Vietnam War, despite broken windows and a local business boycott (which was announced in a newspaper advertisement, no less). More recently, the second-generation publisher, Laurie Ezzel, successfully crusaded against plans for large-scale hog farming operation that would have brought jobs but, as she persuaded residents, would have tainted the area's precious groundwater supply.

Perhaps it is in the American West where brave editorial stands can make the most difference to a town's future, where the character of a community can turn on a dime according to the departure or arrival of an industry. Muller writes about the evolution of Jim Stiles, the editor of the Moab, Utah Zephyr, who rallied successfully against energy and timber development in the 1980s, only to turn equally against the ensuing tourism boom that transformed the area into a mecca for cyclists and second-home owners. "When we talk about changing the rural West," he tells Muller, "we're threatening the traditional lives of some very nice people."

Muller takes us to the town of Hardin, Montana, which built a $27 million jail complex on spec, then launched a doomed campaign to house Guantanamo Bay inmates. The issue touches off a furious wrestling match among the local paper, the Big Horn County News, the local gossip sheet, the Original Briefs, and the Crow tribe's newspaper, the Apsáalooke Nation. Muller's storytelling shines as she leads us through the maze of conflicting agendas, local feuds, and the befuddlement of a newly arrived national reporter at the News, who tries to play it straight and gets virtually run out of town for his efforts.

His editor laments, "Mike came in with what I call the ‘Tin Man’ reporter concept: you are protected, you don't associate with the people you cover, you have no relationship to them, nor do you have the desire to develop one." Muller says that the reporter is now working for a small paper in another state. "He gets it now," she says. "You can still tell the story, but you write it in a way that makes it clear you are part of the community."

Rural journalism analyst Al Cross says, "The best of these newspapers hold local governments and institutions accountable, by covering meetings and asking for records. They're prophylactics, by exposing bad things that are going on." But he says, at the same time, "a lot of papers are timid editorially, they don't take stands. One is a social reason, they'd rather make friends than enemies--although personally I think they're in the wrong business. Then you have the business reasons. In these smaller markets, some of these papers are an advertiser away from red ink, so they're cautious by nature. ‘Don't get sued, they say. It's like they never heard of libel insurance, which is pretty cheap."

To Muller, biting the hand that feeds you is the definition of courageous journalism: "Papers that--faced with the loss of revenue from a big advertiser--who speak the truth anyway, that’s just pure heroism."