I think this obit of Tom Gish came to me via Romenesko earlier today. I just now had time to read it. It’s all worth reading, but here’s the relevant hyperlocal/citizen journalism part:
The Gishes were city journalists when they published their first edition in January of 1957, and they decided to bring a city style to the Eagle. The newspaper they had purchased was filled with community columnists, mostly women, who wrote the news of their small towns — who was visiting, the successes of children, the illnesses of elders.
Tom and Pat concluded the Eagle’s columnists violated every rule taught in their university journalism classes. The columns (from places like Ice, Blackey and Millstone) weren’t written in “news style.” They weren’t “objective.” And often they weren’t even about what city journalists would define as news, unless you considered the bounty of somebody’s garden to be worthy of newsprint.
So the Gishes stripped the columnists from the Eagle…and the Eagle’s circulation dropped like a very heavy rock. Nobody wanted a weekly newspaper that didn’t have “the news.”
Tom and Pat quickly relented and resumed printing the columns from the little coal camps dotted up the creeks that ran between the mountains. They realized that the definition of “news” used by their sophisticated professors at the university was just plain wrong. What the columnists wrote about — the day-to-day life of a community — WAS news. It was the most important news the Eagle could ever publish.
Tom and Pat spent the next 50 years practicing the most democratic form of journalism the country has ever seen. Everybody and anybody could be a reporter for the Eagle. The paper wasn’t written FOR a community. The Eagle was written BY a community. In the ‘90s, Tom began collecting phone messages people would call into a special line at the Eagle. The messages were often silly, crude at times and they appeared in the paper unfiltered. Unless the messages were libelous, they went onto the page headlined “Speak Your Piece.”
Like the columns, Tom’s Speak Your Piece feature was filled with the life of the county and often with news by anyone’s definition. In the 1990s, state police used information that appeared there to aid a criminal investigation of county officials. Speak Your Piece helped indict a handful of local officials.
A while back I read a book titled Managing Newspaper Correspondents. In the defination of the book, a correspondent was a house wife or farmer or society lady who sent in a weekly column of “locals” to his or her newspaper. This 1941 book said there were 250,000 newspaper correspondents in America at the time. I often wonder, what happened to them all?
[…] Tom Gish, a rural newspaper editor who made a difference | Howard Owens – A while back I read a book titled Managing Newspaper Correspondents. In the definition of the book, a correspondent was a house wife or farmer or society lady who sent in a weekly column of “locals” to his or her newspaper. This 1941 book said there were 250,000 newspaper correspondents in America at the time. I often wonder, what happened to them all? […]
I spent a good bit of time working in Eastern Kentucky and made several visits to the Mountain Eagle. The paper’s “Speak Your Piece” section of anonymous messages and gossip was probably the most entertaining newspaper feature I’ve ever read. People who had moved away from Whitesburg told me they would continue their subscriptions just to read the gossip.
My favorite Speak Your Piece item went something like this: “Why is a certain candidate for sheriff running a campaign on family values when his teenage daughter is the star of a well-known pornographic video being circulated around the county?”
Speak Your Piece was irreverent and often jarring, but it was always a must-read.
They never went away Howard. They’re right under your nose.
When I started in this business, in 1977, at a small, rural Ohio newspaper, we also had these types of correspondents who would submit reams of text on the activities of most everyone of their small communities — who travelled where, what person had whom over for dinner, which pastor visited which parishioner, etc, etc. It filled the paper weekly for more than a year until the paper’s owners decided to bring the paper into the “modern” world and stopped running the columns. There was a small outcry, but it quickly died down. I think, at least in this area, the readers were not so much invested in these column as were the Kentucky readers.