Dear Readers for Oct. 15, 2009

Sherri Gardner Howell

Blount Today was born on Aug. 26, 2004, and Sherri has never looked back. Community journalism done right, the way it is at Blount Today, has always had her heart, and she loves her team, loves the community and really, really loves OUR newspaper.

A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to speak at a luncheon gathering in Knoxville of the fine women of the Friday Book Club.

This book club has a proud history and a long tradition in East Tennessee. Matter of fact, they will celebrate their 100th birthday next year.

I was equally shocked and honored when they ask if I would come and do a program for them. I knew it couldn’t have anything to do with my own book club expertise, as our little fledgling book club is not quite two years old and a bit dysfunctional (we like it that way!).

I doubted, too, that they wanted to hear what I call my “mommy speech,” which is what I normally share with groups who have read my Knoxville News Sentinel columns over the years.

I was right. What this group was interested in was “the future of the printed word.”

I told them they had the wrong person. I am opinionated and heavily invested emotionally in print journalism -- beyond it being my profession and paycheck. I love newspapers. I am not, I told them, a dispassionate observer who can analyze what I hear and accept its truth.

I warned them that I had absolutely no expertise in predicting or ferreting out the future of the newspaper business and even less -- if it was even possible to have less -- expertise when it came to whether or not books and magazines would suffer the same fate they are predicting for newspapers.

They let me come anyway, as I am always good for an opinion, and, I guess sometimes it’s nice to know as much or more than your speaker.

We had a good conversation. I shared my anecdotal stories with them, telling them what I hear “on the streets” from you -- the readers of Blount Today.

I told them how our website has grown in traffic over the past five years -- and especially since our redesign two years ago. But I also shared with them the things you tell me about seeing your pictures and stories in “print.” I told them that you say, “It’s hard to clip a website,” and what you really want is both -- a story to email and a printed version to clip and scrapbook.

They were encouraged by my totally unscientific ramblings. They were gladdened by the fact that the readers of Blount Today are so loyal to the paper, and so kind in the comments you make about our efforts to cover Blount County in a “community journalism” way.

I did have a few facts and figures for them. I told them that the Newspaper Association of America reports that there are still 104 million people who read a printed newspaper every day. I told them that 52 percent of readers say they are more likely to buy a product if they see it advertised in a newspaper.

And I told them that many of the same analysts who are predicting the demise of print journalism are turning around and calling local, community news the “sweet spot” in journalism.

The Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard recently wrote that if newspapers are “to rise again,” they must reinvent “or die.”

And how do they suggest this reinvention take place?

“Local is the franchise for newspapers,” the writer and editor, Tim Porter, wrote. “Local reporting, local photography, local commentary, local information, local interaction with the community… All that’s left is the journalism. Local journalism. That is the niche, the slice, newspapers can and must own.”

The report went on to say that just filling up a paper with community news will not be enough.

“Don’t cover the community, be the community,” Porter writes, and then quotes Hodding Carter, former head of the Knight Foundation on his days at a small newspaper.

Carter wrote, “We saw ourselves as citizens as well as journalists. We saw ourselves not simply as a mirror reflecting what was happening in the community, or as its critics, but as indivisible from it, a piece of the community’s fabric.”

Of course I’m a bit prejudice, but that sounds a lot like what we are striving to do here at Blount Today. It sounds a lot like “Committed to Community.”

Still, I wish I had a crystal ball. Life would certainly be easier if we knew all the answers.

But, no matter what happens tomorrow, I had a lovely day with some lovely ladies in an almost 100-year-old book club. In this month of budget hassles, changing business models and national predictions of gloom and doom for my profession, there was just something very right about that.

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