The Oglethorpe Echo has been published for 148 years. Grady College students will work at the paper as part of a new non-profit entity, The Oglethorpe Echo Legacy Inc. (Background Photo: Unsplash; Foreground photo: Georgia Historic Newspapers)

Journalism students to play integral role in saving community newspaper

Grady College journalists are teaming with one of their alums to rescue a 148-year-old weekly newspaper in nearby Oglethorpe County with the help of an innovative experiential learning project.

Within hours of hearing that the county newspaper, the Oglethorpe Echo, was announcing its final publication, Dink NeSmith (ABJ ’70) created a plan to save the newspaper. The centerpiece of the plan includes senior journalism students at Grady College, who will learn in a working community newsroom.

“We’re honored and excited to work with a great team to save the Oglethorpe Echo,” said Charles N. Davis, dean of Grady College. “This is an incredible hands-on learning opportunity for our students, and it means a great deal to us to keep a 148-year tradition moving forward.”

The plan was created when Echo publisher Ralph Maxwell announced that he was ceasing publication due to health issues. NeSmith quickly put a plan in place to save the paper and transition The Echo into a non-profit organization, The Oglethorpe Echo Legacy Inc. The Maxwell family is donating the paper to the non-profit. Integral to that plan is the opportunity for Grady College journalism students to design, report, write and take photographs for the newspaper.

“The Oglethorpe Echo has been the conscience and soul of the county for 148 years and we cannot let that legacy go away,” said NeSmith, an Oglethorpe County resident and co-owner of Community Newspapers, Inc. which publishes 25 community newspapers in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. “I threw my heart in and my wallet followed.”

NeSmith emphasized that this is a personal project and not a CNI project. NeSmith will serve as the initial chairman of the organization and members of the Oglethorpe community and others will serve on the board. A youth board of directors will also be established.

The Oglethorpe Echo has been in the Maxwell family since 1956 when Ralph’s father bought the paper after retiring from the Navy. Maxwell grew up hand-setting type and writing stories. He is grateful the newspaper will continue and thinks this plan is the best outcome.

“I am very pleased that Dink and the journalism school and Dr. Davis are trying to pull this together,” Maxwell said. “They have the knowledge and experience and connections to get it done. I think Oglethorpe County needs a good newspaper. Every  community needs a good newspaper and this is in the best interest of everyone involved.”

Working with the students at Grady College was a natural choice, NeSmith said.

“When you look for writing talent, you just look fifteen miles up the road to Grady College,” NeSmith, a 1970 graduate of the UGA journalism program, said. “Students will get real-life experience and a chance to hone wordsmithing skills to better prepare them for wherever they land after graduation.”

Davis agrees: “It’s been about a month since Dink first mentioned this to me, and from the first call, we were enthusiastic about the possibilities of having our students doing community journalism. Lexington is close enough that they can get out in the community and get their hands dirty–it’s so important that they learn journalism by doing journalism.”

Beginning this month, Andy Johnston (ABJ ’88, MA ’21) will assume the role of managing editor, mentoring the students in planning, writing and editing.  Johnston served more than 30 years as a writer and editor of local newspapers, including the Athens Banner-Herald where he was sports editor from 2003 to 2007. He also served as editorial adviser for The Red & Black in 2018 and as a sports adviser from 2019 to 2020. He is currently a part-time journalism instructor at Grady College.

For the first few months, a team of seven paid student interns will work with Johnston and NeSmith to fulfill a number of roles from city and county government reporters to sportswriters, copy editors and photojournalists.

Starting next semester, the paper will be staffed by up to 20 senior journalism students taking a capstone journalism class, similar to Grady Newsource for broadcast journalism.

Janice Hume, the Carolyn McKenzie and Don E. Carter Chair for Excellence in Journalism and head of the Department of Journalism, appreciates the unique collaboration this plan offers.

“We are so excited to get going on this project,” Hume said. “I want to thank in advance the folks in Oglethorpe County who will help our journalism students learn. When you agree to an interview, or provide information to a student reporter, you become an educator as well as a source. When you offer feedback, you push these UGA journalists get better and better.”

Johnston continues explaining this win-win scenario for students and the community.

“This is a great opportunity for the students where they will get practical, hands-on experience, but it is also helps the community,” Johnston said. “We don’t want this paper to die and become a news desert where people don’t have a way to know what’s going on in their own  community.”

Johnston looks forward to helping students build on their journalism skills while also continuing to build on the tradition of community journalism in Oglethorpe County.

“We aren’t here to do a makeover of the paper,” Johnston said. “We are here to provide journalism to this county in the same way that the paper has provided for generations and that readers are used to seeing about people and events in their community.”

NeSmith agrees.

“This is more about community spirit and we will be 100% local to residents of Oglethorpe County,” NeSmith continued.

Support from the community in terms of subscriptions and advertising will be important to its success. The paper will continue relying on written and photo submissions from local residents as well. NeSmith envisions expanding services in the future like e-editions of the paper and video.

“We will leapfrog as we can to provide needs and services that today’s readers expect,” NeSmith said.

NeSmith admits the process will probably “scrape our knees” as the new model gets up to speed, but he is energized about the possibilities and hopes this will serve as a model for other community papers.

Despite the unchartered territory, NeSmith makes this one promise: “We are all going to learn something.”

More details about this innovative plan:

Date: October 8, 2021
Author:  Sarah Freeman,  freemans@uga.edu