Monday, October 18, 2021

Ga. publisher NeSmith takes over dying weekly, makes it a nonprofit to be maintained editorially by Univ. of Georgia

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Two strategies touted as ways to preserve community newspapers, the nonprofit model and university involvement, are combining to save a dying weekly newspaper in northeast Georgia.

Dink NeSmith with Ralph Maxwell at his Linotype
(Photo by Julian Alexander, Athens Banner-Herald)
Ralph Maxwell, who was planning to close The Oglethorpe Echo this month, is donating it to a nonprofit created by Dink NeSmith, who publishes 25 newspapers; and the journalism school at the University of Georgia has hired a part-time instructor to be managing editor, overseeing the work of journalism students.

The project could help guide similar efforts by other schools, said Charles Davis, dean of the university's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications. "I'm really excited about it," he said in a telephone interview.

Davis said NeSmith approached him with the idea when he heard that Maxwell, for health reasons, was closing the only paper in very rural Oglethorpe County, where NeSmith has a home. It's just east of Athens-Clarke County, where the university is located.

Dean Charles Davis
"The proximity was a huge factor," Davis said. "It's 15 miles door to door" from the university to the paper's office in Lexington, population 170. Culturally, though, "It's a long way from Athens," and working in the agricultural county of 15,000 will be a good experience for students, most of whom come from suburbs.

NeSmith said he chose the nonprofit route because the Echo, circulation 2,200, would have been "the very, very smallest" enterprise of his Community Newspapers Inc., which publishes 25 papers in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. He said he and co-owner Tom Wood recently stepped down as co-CEOs, which NeSmith said will give him more time to be active with the Echo. He said he has been writing a weekly column for Maxwell since making the county his primary residence several years ago.

NeSmith said the Echo will operate separately from CNI, but could get advertising through the company's salesperson for papers in the region, one in the county to the northeast. He said the Echo had gross revenue of about $100,000 last year, without much sales effort, and could gross $150,000, but "I never expect or intend to take a dime out of the cash register." 

The weekly's new editor will be Andy Johnston, a former sports editor of the Athens Banner-Herald, whom the Grady College has hired as a part-time instructor. Johnson, who was editorial adviser to the student newspaper in 2018-19 and just earned a master's degree, has hired an initial staff of six or seven students, who will be paid for their work in summers and bridge periods between semesters, Davis said. Next semester, the paper will be staffed by up to 20 seniors taking a capstone journalism course.

Oglethorpe County, Athens and Atlanta (Wikipedia map, adapted)
NeSmith said in a news release from the college, of which he is a graduate, “The Oglethorpe Echo has been the conscience and soul of the county for 148 years and we cannot let that legacy go away. I threw my heart in and my wallet followed.” 

The release said NeSmith will be initial chairman of the nonprofit and members of the Oglethorpe community and others will serve on the board. "A youth board of directors will also be established."
NeSmith told Wayne Ford of the Banner-Herald that he also plans a program in which volunteers can help the paper, "in ways ranging from paying the phone bill to manning the phones."

“We see how volunteer organizations help hospitals, schools, and here is a chance that people who love their community, love their newspaper, can contribute more than just dollars,” he said. “Maybe we can build a sustainable model that can be of benefit to other small towns and their newspapers.”

Maxwell, whose father bought the paper in 1956, said it's the best outcome for the county: “Every community needs a good newspaper and this is in the best interest of everyone involved.”

The news release said "Support from the community in terms of subscriptions and advertising will be important to its success. The paper will continue relying on written and photo submissions from local residents as well. . . . Despite the uncharted territory, NeSmith makes this one promise: 'We are all going to learn something.'"

UPDATE, Oct. 19: NeSmith's Echo column this week appeals for support from the community.
UPDATE, Dec. 9: Editor & Publisher has a report.

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