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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.
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.