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LOS ANGELES--We've been hearing a lot of depressing news in recent years about the dire financial prospects for big daily newspapers.
But at the risk of sounding like I'm whistling past the graveyard, I'd like to point out that there are thousands of newspapers that are not just surviving but thriving. Some 8,000 weekly papers still hit the front porches and mailboxes in small towns across America every week and, for some reason, they've been left out of the conversation.
So a couple of years ago, I decided to head back to my roots, both geographic and professional (my first job was at a weekly), to see how those community papers were faring. And what I found was both surprising and inspiring.
At a time when mainstream news media are hemorrhaging and doomsayers are predicting the death of journalism (at least as we've known it), take heart: The free press is alive and well in small towns across America, thanks to the editors of thousands of weeklies who, for very little money and a fair amount of aggravation, keep on telling it like it is.
Sometimes they tell it gently, in code only the locals understand. After all, they have to live there, too. But they also tell it with courage, standing up to powerful bullies--from coal-company thugs in Kentucky to corrupt politicians in the Texas Panhandle.
"If we discover a political official misusing taxpayer funds," an editor in Dove Creek, Colo., told me, "we wouldn't hesitate to nail him to a stump."
You might be thinking that attitude would be fundamental for anyone who claims to be a journalist. The Los Angeles Times certainly nailed officials in Bell, Calif., 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.