Secrets of Small-Town Journalism: Local Angles and No Free Stories

Hannah Spaar, news editor of The Odessan in Odessa, MO, and a member of the board of directors of the Missouri Press Association, would like people to know that running a profitable independent small-town newspaper demands a different approach that managing corporate media.

For one, The Odessan, and a sister paper, Focus on Oak Grove, weeklies that cover communities of around 25,000 in an area that is mostly rural but runs up to the edge of the suburbs, still don’t publish any news online.

If you want to read its stories, you have to find a paid copy. “We’ve avoided the industry’s number one problem,” she told me. “And when do go online, it’ll be a full paywall.” Giving away stories for free is not an option for a newspaper in a community where advertising income would never be sufficient.

If there’s any threat to the business model, it’s that “the printing presses might dry up,” she added.

But the biggest difference is that the paper is resolute in only publishing news that’s relevant to its readers. The Odessan publishes “a lot of community things that aren’t impact journalism, like obituaries or birthdays,” she said. “We only do national news if there’s a local angle.”

The result: People in town still mostly trust and buy the paper.

That matters. The only way Americans can rebuild their broken information ecosystem is to fill in news deserts with self-sustaining profitable newspapers like The Odessan and people like Hannah Spaar.

Smart non-profit news organizations like Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia, Report 4 America, and the Missouri Independent, which Spaar praises, are also filling key voids. But thousands of communities like Odessa need newsrooms that can attract real revenue to pay the salaries of skilled journalists.

For older people, seeing her performing the nuts and bolts practices of journalism — calling people for interview or to check facts — helps them trust bigger media outlets like the Kansas City Star and the New York Times. “For younger people, it’s a bit different,” she said. “Sometimes, they’re not quite sure what journalism is.”

If there’s anything I’ve learned in almost 10 years of studying Moundsville, WV for the PBS film Moundsville and towns like it, it’s that we need to educate young people about media literacy and the craft of professional journalism.

Here’s how The Odessan describes itself: “The largest paid circulation newspaper in Lafayette County, The Odessan continues to receive awards for feature stories, news coverage, special sections, advertising and photography. Serving western Lafayette County, the newspaper covers the Odessa and Wellington-Napoleon school districts, city and county governments as well as the businesses and families that make up our communities.”

Spaar, who’s written a column for the paper since she was 10 years old, is a proud fifth-generation journalist. Her grandmother Betty Simpson Spaar bought The Odessan in 1960 when the publisher sold to go join the staff of The Wall Street Journal.

Yes, the age of Trump has been weird and difficult. “There have always been people who say they don’t trust the Odessan, but now we’re dealing with people being more hostile,” she said. “At board meetings [the newspaper covers], people aren’t just yelling at the board, they’re yelling at us, and the adjectives are a lot worse.”

But The Odessan plans to keep going. “We haven’t changed,” she said.

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