Publishers’ front-page protest produces positive result

Jun 6, 2014

By Bill Tubbs
Publisher | The North Scott Press, Eldridge, IA

Community newspapers across America organized what appears to have been a successful protest to get the Newseum in Washington, to include community newspapers in its Today’s Front Pages exhibit.

The Newseum, for those who haven’t been there, is an interactive museum of news and journalism, located on Pennsylvania Ave., near the U.S. Capitol. It is a seven-level, 250,000-square-foot museum with 15 theaters and 14 galleries.

Its mission is “to help the public and the news media understand one another better” and “to raise public awareness of the important role of a free press in a democratic society.” The Newseum’s operations are funded by the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to “free press, free speech and free spirit for all people.”

In the five years the downtown facility has been open, the Newseum has attracted more than 2.25 million visitors, making it one of Washington’s most popular destinations. A front page from each of the 50 states can be read by passers-by.

The one thing missing was that front pages from the 85 percent of the nation’s newspapers that are “non-daily” were not welcomed. Those newspapers account for 75 percent of total print circulation of U.S. newspapers.

The protest started when community publishers were in Washington this past March for the National Newspaper Association’s annual We Believe in Newspapers Leadership Summit. Some of the publishers noticed an exhibit about a fictional TV anchorman occupying an entire level at the Newseum—but there was little about the community press.

Gary Sosniecki, a retired Missouri publisher who lives in LeClaire, IA, wrote an editorial about the snub that was printed in the newsletter of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. His wife and co-publisher, Helen, had an inspiration: “What would happen if all 5,500 weeklies forwarded their front pages to the Newseum on the same day?”

The idea started to grow from there. Steve Thurston, a journalism teacher at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD, helped ISWNE organize a “front page blitz” in which my newspaper, The North Scott Press, and weeklies throughout the English-speaking world e-mailed front pages to the Newseum on April 17, which is the birthday of Huck Boyd, the legendary community journalist from Phillipsburg, KS.

The front pages rolled in to the Newseum nonstop—more than 130—and publishers were even more determined when they were told at midday that weeklies weren’t welcomed. The onslaught continued until the late afternoon when the Newseum’s senior manager of media relations, Jonathan Thompson, conceded.

“We are going to change that policy. We will begin including weekly newspapers in that exhibit. It’s a conversation the Newseum has been having for quite a while. When people get together like this and feel strongly about a specific issue, and mobilize and make arguments, it does have an impact.”

Barbara Selvin, an assistant professor of journalism at Stony Brook University in New York, summed up the victory with an article for the Poynter Institute, which studies modern media. She quoted Chad Stebbins of Joplin, MO, the executive director of ISWNE, who said the larger issue is respect for the passion and energy that community journalists bring to their work. “We have forced them to at least start considering weeklies as real, legitimate newspapers that should stand aside their daily counterparts.”

NNA President Robert Williams, publisher of Southfire Newspapers in Blackshear, GA, complimented ISWNE for a successful campaign. He recognized that exhibit space at the Newseum is limited, costly, and planned many years out. But he said this is the beginning of a conversation with Newseum officials, asking their help in raising the profile of community newspapering through educational programs on-site and in other locations around the country. Also “promoting speakers who understand and appreciate the role community newspapers play in supporting the bedrock principles of democracy as well as our service as a link between thousands of community businesses and their customers.”

In my nearly 44 years at The North Scott Press, I’ve seen how hard the reporters and staff members work to record our local history as it happens, 52 weeks a year, including holidays. This paper is made possible because of their dedication and untiring efforts, and the support of local businesses who use the paper’s pages to communicate with customers.

Staffs and budgets are smaller at community newspapers than at the big dailies, and it is not as glamorous as in the big newsrooms, but I’ve known many a journalist who would trade the buzz of the big city in a heartbeat for the chance to be part of a community such as this one, where the newspaper staff has close relationships with the readers. One of The NSP’s staff, Sarah Hayden, for example, worked for USA Today.

You can move to a smaller market without sacrificing journalistic standards, too. Earlier this year, I judged the editorials competition for the large weeklies in Wyoming, which included some of the finest newspapers in America. I was able to understand the complex issues in that state because of their well-researched, hard-hitting editorials. The staffs of these papers include editors and writers who have fled the big-city rat race for a different lifestyle.

That’s the part of American journalism, which, until now, has been overlooked by the Newseum. I visited the Newseum briefly in 2013 when I took the picture of the front-page display that you see on Page One. There is so much to see and do at the Newseum that you could spend hours or days. It is a “must see” if you’re traveling to Washington.