The Oglethorpe Echo earns long list of awards and recognition

One of four staff awards The Echo received in the Georgia Press Association’s annual Better Newspaper Contest.

What a spring it has been for The Oglethorpe Echo and the Grady College students and faculty members who staff and support it. 

Over the past several months, The Echo, a 149-year-old newspaper in nearby Oglethorpe County saved in 2021 through a partnership with Grady College, has been profiled in several national and local news publications, received grants to support readership growth, joined a group of independent and nonprofit news organizations, and won numerous awards. 

On June 9, The Echo earned nine section and individual awards in the Georgia Press Association’s annual Better Newspaper Contest. The Grady student journalists who won the awards competed against full-time, professional journalists from around the state, many of whom have been covering their cities and counties for years. 

Winners include: 

  • Kate Hoffman, second place, Breaking News Writing, Division D
  • Basil Terhune, first and third place, Best Photo Gallery on a Newspaper Website, Division Weekly
  • Katie Tucker, first place, Photo Essay, Division D
  • Julia Walkup, third place, Feature Photograph, Division D
  • The Oglethorpe Echo Staff, first place, Newspaper Website, Division Weekly
  • The Oglethorpe Echo Staff, first place, Magazine Product, Division Weekly
  • The Oglethorpe Echo Staff, second place, Local News Coverage, Division D
  • The Oglethorpe Echo Staff, third place, Religion Writing, Division Weekly
Andy Johnston (ABJ ‘88, MA ‘21), editor in residence, works with undergraduate student Morgan Quinn during a class discussion in a capstone class in which students produce content for the Oglethorpe Echo.
Andy Johnston (ABJ ‘88, MA ‘21), editor in residence, works with undergraduate student Morgan Quinn during a class discussion in a capstone class in which students produce content for the Oglethorpe Echo. (Photo: UGA Marketing & Communications)

“Having the privilege of getting to know the people of Oglethorpe County and being trusted to share their stories was one of the formative experiences of my time in Grady and I’m beyond grateful to have played a small part in the ever-growing success of The Echo,” said Katie Tucker (AB ‘23), a journalism major who graduated in May. 

In addition to the awards, this spring, The Echo was profiled in a spread by The New York Times’ Upfront Magazine, starred in a feature story on UGA Today, was included in Poynter’s piece on how student journalists are saving local news, and was mentioned in the Institute for Nonprofit News’ latest piece on volunteerism in local news. 

On top of that, The Echo was accepted into Google for Nonprofits, which allows the paper to use Google Ad Grants each month to promote itself as a viable online source of local journalism for the county, and joined the Rural News Network, a group of independent and nonprofit news organizations dedicated to surfacing the pressing issues facing rural communities in the United States. 

Amanda Bright leads a class discussion in a student capstone class in which students produce content for the Oglethorpe Echo.
Amanda Bright leads a class discussion in a student capstone class in which students produce content for the Oglethorpe Echo. (Photo: UGA Marketing & Communications)

“I’m thrilled that our work at The Echo has been successful and noticed, and it’s because our students have come to truly appreciate and enjoy covering Oglethorpe County,” said Amanda Bright, the instructor of the capstone journalism class that staffs The Echo. “They see doing community journalism as an important act of service, and the people of the county have been welcoming and encouraging of our efforts to bring them local news and information each week.”

“The Echo’s success has been remarkable,” added Andy Johnston (ABJ ‘88, MA ‘21), who leads the capstone course and serves as The Echo’s editor. “Nobody knew what would come of this endeavor when we started 19 months ago, but our students have worked hard and embraced community journalism, and readers throughout Oglethorpe County have supported and encouraged us from the beginning. I’m privileged and honored to be a part of what we call Team Echo. I look forward to seeing continued growth in our students and the paper.”

Dink NeSmith stands in a white tuxedo, holding several pamphlets that read "Local Matters."
Dink NeSmith (ABJ ’70) at the 2023 GPA awards banquet. (Photo: submitted)

This recent chapter in The Echo’s long history started in October 2021, when Dink NeSmith (ABJ ‘70), a long-time resident of Oglethorpe County and co-owner of Athens-based Community Newspapers, Inc. (CNI), with publications in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina, heard that his friend Ralph Maxwell was shutting down the local paper, which has been around since the 1870s. 

NeSmith, searching for an answer on how to save The Echo, decided to reach out to Charles Davis (MA ‘92), dean of Grady College. The two developed a plan. Grady College created a capstone course with The Echo as its foundation. The idea was, and still is, that students are able to work for the paper and receive real-world experience, while The Echo gains a full staff of talented reporters. 

More on The Echo’s partnership with Grady College can be found here, in UGA Today’s recent piece.

Podcast: Students embrace community journalism through The Oglethorpe Echo, with Dr. Amanda Bright.

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Former student journalists stand in front of the Oglethorpe Echo office.
Former student journalists working for The Oglethorpe Echo celebrating their first edition in 2021. (Photo: Sarah Freeman).

In 2021, after hearing that The Oglethorpe Echo, the community paper of Clarke County’s neighbor, Oglethorpe County, was shutting its doors, Grady College devised a plan to save it

For over a year now, after transitioning the paper to a nonprofit, The Oglethorpe Echo has been staffed by student journalists. Dr. Amanda Bright, the director of the Journalism Innovation Lab for the James M. Cox Jr. Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management and Leadership, and the instructor of the capstone journalism class that staffs the Echo, recently published an article on the project titled “Listening for The Echo: How Our Students Are Stepping Into, Embracing Community Journalism.” 

In this episode, Dr. Bright speaks about the origins of the program, training student journalists in community reporting, the adjustments and advancements made to The Oglethorpe Echo over the past year, what students gain from the experience, and the replicability of the program. 

Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for clarity and brevity.

Grady Research Radio: To start, can you give us some general insight on the program, what the College’s involvement with the nearly 150-year-old newspaper entails?

Amanda Bright: It’s been quite a journey. About a year ago, Dink NeSmith (ABJ ’70), who lives in Oglethorpe County and is an alumnus, found out that his county newspaper was about to close. The family that had owned it for a long time had health issues. Obviously, in our industry, local news struggles financially. 

He did not want to live in a county without a newspaper, so he called Dean Davis immediately, and they hatched a plan that Grady journalism students would take over The Oglethorpe Echo, the editorial side, as part of a class.

From those early moments in October, we ended up getting a group of interns to take us through to the spring semester. I was asked to teach the class, and we developed a system by which students do all of the reporting for The Oglethorpe Echo every week plus participate in editor and producer roles to manage our six digital products. 

So, it’s been a lot of learning very fast, but we’ve essentially been able to save a county from becoming a news desert because of the really hard work done by our journalism students. 

Grady Research Radio: I know a big part of local news reporting is being familiar with the community that you’re reporting on. So what mechanisms were put in place to help the student journalists familiarize themselves with Oglethorpe County?  

Amanda Bright: I think that’s one of the hardest things that we struggled with off the bat, because Oglethorpe County — it’s about four times the size of Clarke County geographically, but only 15,000 people live there. There’s only one traffic light in the whole county. There are just two chain restaurants. It is a very different environment from the UGA, Athens-Clarke campus. 

Getting the students to understand, particularly those who weren’t already from small towns, the types of issues, problems and victories that the people in Oglethorpe County were having was super vital. 

So we did a couple different things. We did a bus tour. The superintendent of schools loaded our first very first capstone section onto a bus and took us around the county and showed us the antebellum reconstruction homes, as well as the trailers that didn’t have any running water or electricity, and we got to see the full gamut of life and experience out there. 

Since then we’ve hosted open houses where we go out and visit local businesses. We see the office and the courthouse and just try to meet with people. 

The other big avenue that I think is really effective is called a community audit. Students, in their beats, research, talk to people and then create some kind of visual documentation of what they can learn about that beat, whether it’s criminal justice and safety or accounting and politics or sports and recreation. So that has been a great tool to get the students into the county to just talk to people and see what they care about and then start pitching stories from that.

The Oglethorpe Echo's student journalists, Spring 2023.
The Oglethorpe Echo’s student journalists, Spring 2023. (Photo: Jackson Schroeder)

Grady Research Radio: Great. So, when Grady entered the picture, were there any adjustments or advancements that were made to expand upon the reach of the paper and the coverage? 

Amanda Bright: The big thing was we went from a weekly newspaper to a weekly newspaper and six digital products. That includes a website, four social media platforms, an email newsletter and an E-edition. I guess that’s seven. That allowed us to reach some audiences that had not yet been reached. That was very important to us.

The second thing, which is probably more important, is diversity and impact. I do think that one of the limitations of the coverage before was that it really did focus on the people who are already known, had power, had money in the county.

There weren’t a lot of stories on the people who were different than that. And so we’ve made a concerted effort over the last year to tell stories of lots of different types of people, and I’m really proud of that and the impact that’s made on those people’s lives, covering organizations’ efforts, celebrating with people in the county who may look different than the members of the Board of Commissioners. So I hope that has been something that the people in the county have noticed and have enjoyed.

Grady Research Radio: Great. So, it’s my understanding that the paper is primarily staffed by capstone journalism students. So, from the academic side, can you kind of walk us through what students gain from the experience? 

Amanda Bright: I think, for many of our students, particularly here at Grady where we have a lot of high achievers, small town, community journalism isn’t the first thing on their mind when they think about a career. They’re thinking of CNN, going to Atlanta.

One of the biggest things I want students to take away is that community journalism is incredibly meaningful and rewarding for them professionally as much as it is for the community. Every semester they’ve done this — the students come back at the end and say, “You know, I feel like I made a real difference. I understood people’s stories. I got feedback from them. I built relationships. People were good to me. They wanted to talk to me.” The student journalists are not vilified as the media in a popular culture sense. They’re seen as people who are serving. 

So I think that’s what students gain. I think they gain a sense of impact and they gain a sense of community journalism as a viable career path, which I think is probably what’s going to help community journalism survive in the next era. 

Grady Research Radio: And on that note, we all know about community journalism and its downward trajectory in terms of lots of papers closing. So, do you see this as a replicable model for saving community journalism across the country? 

Amanda Bright: That is a million-dollar question. We are a nonprofit, and I think that’s important. I really do believe in the nonprofit model for lots of reasons. 

We are working on stabilizing a more long-term business model inside of that. Right now we really rely on print advertising. We want to expand to digital, including donations, subscriptions, sponsorships, in order to have community investment in our ability to maintain, which is what a nonprofit does, keep the lights on, in what we do. 

The replicability part becomes sticky, because, unless you’re next to a big J school with a capstone class of 20-plus students that are available, that’s hard. We have 22 students dedicated to the county. That’s more reporters than they probably have ever had.

That being said, I do support, and I’m exploring with some colleagues in other universities, the idea that almost all J schools should be doing this. So it may not be able to affect all of the news deserts, but perhaps we can take this model and replicate it, even in smaller regional universities where they have a comms studies program.

Grady Research Radio: Great. Thank you for your time today. 

Amanda Bright: Thanks, Jackson.

Class publishes new home and garden magazine in Oglethorpe Echo

The full Home Grown magazine team gathered to celebrate the publication's release on Thursday, Dec. 8.
The full Home Grown magazine team gathered to celebrate the publication’s release on Thursday, Dec. 8. (Photo: Jackson Schroeder)

Those who picked up the Dec. 8 edition of The Oglethorpe Echo newspaper found a new magazine, Home Grown, slipped between the paper’s pages. 

Home Grown, which is also available online, is a product of Journalism lecturer Lori Johnston’s Home and Garden Reporting class. It was made possible thanks to a stipend from the UGA Libraries and the Center for Teaching and Learning’s Special Collections Libraries Fellows program, designed to bring archives-focused learning into classrooms.

“As I considered how to best use the funding from the program, our College’s effort to save this nearly 150-year-old weekly newspaper led me down the road to Oglethorpe County and the idea for a special print and digital publication,” Johnston wrote in her editor’s note on the magazine’s first full page. 

Grady College and The Echo entered into a partnership in October 2021, and journalism students have served as the paper’s writing staff for the past 13 months.

The semester-long project for the Home and Garden Reporting class started in the archives of UGA’s Special Collections Libraries, where students pulled archival materials, such as maps and archived images of properties in Oglethorpe County, to develop a fundamental understanding of the county’s history and aesthetic. 

They furthered their understanding of the area’s culture, as well as its architecture and design styles, by interviewing residents, artists, preservationists and gardeners in the county about their homes, gardens and artistic passions. 

A quote card that reads “Being a part of this course and contributing to the Home Grown magazine has been a challenging and rewarding experience,” said journalism major Ashley Balsavias. “It’s great to have a final product to show as a testament to our diligent work for the past few months.”The 16-page magazine includes profiles, how-tos and other stories depicting how residents of Oglethorpe County express themselves through their homes and gardens. They produced stories, photographs and videos for the publication, which was designed by Amy Scott (AB ’20).

“Being a part of this course and contributing to the Home Grown magazine has been a challenging and rewarding experience,” said journalism major Ashley Balsavias. “It’s great to have a final product to show as a testament to our diligent work for the past few months.”

For one student, journalism major Christa Bugg, the project hit close to home. While sifting through the library archives, Bugg found a photograph from 1978 with a caption reading “Bugg House cr. 1710-20.” The single-bedroom cabin, which sits on 150 acres of land hugging the Oconee National Forest, happened to still be in the family, and Bugg, after calling up a relative, had the opportunity to tour it. On page 14 of Home Grown magazine, Bugg tells the full story. 

Print editions of Home Grown magazine can be purchased in Oglethorpe County at Bell’s Food Store, Golden Pantry locations or the Echo office in Lexington. 

Student journalists at The Oglethorpe Echo are finalists for awards

Student journalists at The Oglethorpe Echo are finalists for the 2021-22 Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) Awards.

The paper was notified that its journalists were finalists in two categories: the Game-Changer Award/Small Division and the Insight Award for Visual Journalism.

In addition to this recognition for visual journalism, The Oglethorpe Echo has also been nominated as a top contender in the Media Award category by the Georgia Health Care Association and Georgia Society of Activity Professionals. The nomination is based on a series of photos of residents at Quiet Oaks retirement facility taken by Julia Walkup.

Portrait of Marcus Goolsby
Marcus Goolsby, a 98-year-old resident of Quiet Oaks Healthcare Center in Crawford, Georgia, poses for a portrait at the healthcare center on March 26, 2022. This is one of a series of portraits that has been nominated for a Media Award by the Georgia Health Care Association and the Georgia Society of Activity Professionals. It was taken by Julia Walkup, a photojournalism student, as part of the Woodall Weekend Workshop.
(Photo: Julia Walkup)

Both the photos represented in the Insight Award for Visual Journalism and the photos at Quiet Oaks were published in The Oglethorpe Echo as part of the Woodall Weekend Workshop, a program where advanced photojournalism students cover a specific county in Georgia each spring and report on stories vital to that area. The workshop took place in Oglethorpe County in April 2022.

“It is gratifying for the students’ work to be recognized when we haven’t even completed a calendar year yet,” said Amanda Bright, academic professional and assistant editor for The Oglethorpe Echo.  “To have our name being thrown around with so many other amazing nonprofits is great exposure for our students,” Bright added of the INN awards.

Bright said that the INN organization includes nearly 400 nonprofit news organizations including several large publications including ProPublica, Texas Tribune and Canopy Atlanta making it gratifying to be in such good company.

“We just joined a few months ago and it’s a very competitive application just to join,” Bright continued. “INN has a lot of requirements about what you need to be a nonprofit and transparent and have journalistic ethics.”

The Game-Changer Award is presented to an organization that produced an innovative idea or practice that led to success in revenue, audience growth or sustainable financial support of news. Bright explained that since the first issue of The Oglethorpe Echo was published with the students in early November 2021, they have also developed a full website, an e-newsletter and several social media channels including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube to promote their videos. The social media accounts were started by The Oglethorpe Echo intern Mackenzie Tanner and the website, newsletter and YouTube channel were created by journalism graduate student Alex Anteau.

Bright explains there are several video reports and audio slide shows on the YouTube channel and that one of the areas the students talk about in class is pitching story ideas, including multi-media stories.

The Oglethorpe Echo is the only publication in the Game-changer category so it is expected the paper will win the $500 prize award.

The Insight Award for Visual Journalism honors a single story or a series of stories that uses photography and/or other visual media to more accurately portray a community that has traditionally been under-represented or mis-represented in news media. The Oglethorpe Echo is nominated for work that photojournalism students Sydney Fordice (AB ’22) for a video slide show with narration called “King overcomes health issues to win crown,” and Basil Terhune was nominated for a series of photos and short story called “Never-ending egg hunt.”

The winners for all categories of INN Awards will be announced Sept. 21. The winners of the Georgia Health Care Association and Georgia Society of Activity Professionals will be announced Sept. 22.

In the Fall of 2021, The Oglethorpe Echo, a weekly newspaper serving Oglethorpe County, was preparing to shut its doors. Dink NeSmith (ABJ ‘70) stepped in and created a non-profit organization, The Oglethorpe Echo Legacy, Inc., with a Board of Advisers to keep the paper operational. Part of the plan was to provide Grady College students taking the capstone journalism class the experience to do all the reporting and photojournalism under the direction of Bright and Andy Johnston, editor-in-residence.

INN members are 501c(3) organizations or similarly structured to provide news as a charitable service or public good. They set and meet membership standards that include journalistic quality, editorial independence and public transparency around the sources of their funding and their control.

Girl throws seed as she is feeding a group of chickens in a farmyard.
Tamita Brown throws non-GMO feed to chickens on Caribe United, her farm in Crawford, Georgia. This photo is from a photo essay produced by Basil Terhune as part of the annual Woodall Weekend Workshop, put on by the University of Georgia’s visual journalism program. It has been nominated for a visual journalism award by the Institute for Nonprofit News. (Photo: Basil Terhune)