You might be thinking that attitude would be fundamental for anyone who claims to be a journalist. The Los Angeles Times certainly nailed those officials in Bell to the proverbial stump in its award-winning expose of municipal corruption. But just imagine how much more difficult that job would have been if those Times reporters lived next door to the officials they were writing about — or, as sometimes happens in a small town, if they had been related to one of them. Practicing journalism with gusto comes with a price tag in a small community — from being shunned in the checkout line at the grocery store to losing a major advertiser.
Of course, most of these newspapers are not uncovering major scandals on a regular basis. That's not what keeps them selling at such a good clip; it's the steady stream of news that readers can only get from that publication — the births, deaths, crimes, sports and local shenanigans that only matter to the 5,000 or so souls in their circulation area. It's more than a little ironic that small-town papers have been thriving by practicing what the mainstream media are now preaching. "Hyper-localism," "citizen journalism," "advocacy journalism" — these are some of the latest buzzwords of the profession. But the concepts, without the fancy names, have been around for ages in small-town newspapers.
The business models of these small-town papers are just as intriguing as the local news. In 2010, the National Newspaper Assn. provided some heartening survey statistics: More than three-quarters of respondents said they read most or all of a local newspaper every week. And a full 94% said they paid for their papers.
And what of the Internet threat? Many of these small-town editors have learned a lesson from watching their big-city counterparts: Don't give it away. Many weeklies, including the Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle, are charging for their Web content, and, because readers can't get that news anywhere else, they're willing to pay.
Judy Muller is a journalism professor at USC in California.