Photos by Tom Parker
Acts of faith – keeping it local in Clay Center
Recently, the husband of the mayor of Clay Center wrote a scathing letter to the Clay Center Dispatch. In it, he questioned many of the facts reported by the staff journalist about a rancorous city council meeting, and, at the end, he swore at the writer.
Ned Valentine, owner and editor of the Dispatch, still gets a chuckle out of it.
“It would be fun if it weren’t so depressing,” he says.
A political controversy has shaken this city of about 4,500, and the Dispatch has covered every facet. From the beginning, Valentine instructed his reporter to use as many quotes as possible rather than the usual summarization. The personalities involved in the kerfuffle were the real story, he said. Let them tell their own tale.
He could just as easily have said, "Let them hang themselves."
“I run what’s happening,” Valentine says. “People need to know what’s going on. Sometimes reporting the news is an act of faith.”
Faith. It’s a term Valentine sprinkles throughout his speech, and sometimes in striking ways. Faith in the future, faith in technology, faith in advertisers, faith in readers and what they want and how they want it delivered, and, mostly, faith in the act of newsgathering on a very local level. It’s not about competition, he says, but about giving readers what they need while at the same time making them want it enough to keep paying for it.
Valentine knows his readers, the movers and shakers of his community, his town. It’s part of his DNA, dating back to a great uncle who bought into the newspaper around 1880, back when it was called the Clay County Dispatch. His grandfather ran the paper at the turn of the century, eventually buying it in the 1920s. It’s been in the family ever since, and, except for a short stint working on a road crew in college, he’s cut his teeth on reporting.
And unlike many rural papers, the Dispatch is published daily except for weekends. Finding that much news can be a struggle, he admits, but fortunately the mainstream media paved the way by creating a culture of celebrities.
“In a small town, anything is news,” he says. “Newcomers to town are always great sources. People want to know how they met, who their families are, why they moved here, anything they can get. People just love that. Everybody’s a celebrity.”
Not that Valentine likes to be compared, favorably or unfavorably, to mainstream media. The similarities end with the ubiquitous phrase of “the media,” a term he grimaces at. (“We’re in with the pigs,” he says.)
“Television coverage of news is hopelessly shallow, and it’s evolving into a soapbox for different political interests,” he says. “People tell me they don’t take anything they hear on TV or the Internet seriously. I think there’s some feeling on the part of readers that there’s something real about hometown news. Everything else they get is mostly crap and it comes from big papers or radio or television, and it doesn’t have anything to do with them and it doesn’t explain anything.”
Meanwhile, circulation is up at the Dispatch, a fact Valentine attributes to an increased amount on local coverage and an emphasis on fair and balanced reporting. Or, as he puts it, a “balanced editorial style.”
“We lean more on facts than innuendo,” he says. “And it works for people. People are logical, and if given a solid, reasonable account they will come to a reasonable decision.”
If, that is, they want to. He cites the growing trend of angry people and traces it to the feet of such media personalities as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Rather than reporting news and facts, they pander to the base elements of a certain segment of society. That’s well and good for them because they’re getting rich in the bargain, but for the common man on the street it doesn’t get him anywhere.
Traditionally, he says, newspapers have been held in high esteem. Keeping it real—stating facts, no elaboration, as few adjectives as possible and language familiar to all—makes for the most powerful content a news organization can provide. And the bottom line is, the more local, the stronger the readership.
So strong that he’s had readers stop him on the street asking about the health of the newspaper. They’ve heard stories about the impending collapse of the newspaper industry, of small town papers disappearing like the dodo, and they’re frankly worried that it might happen to their paper.
“Two years ago, I would have thought nobody cared,” he says. “I think people took us for granted until they started hearing the doom-and-gloom stories. And I was astounded at the reaction.”
Nevertheless, there was some truth in the stories. Newspapers are having a rough time of it, and many of the larger papers are filing for bankruptcy. While the Dispatch is doing okay—“pretty good,” as he says at one point, or “slow” at another, and “solid” and “okay”—in order to have relevance in an increasingly digital age, newspapers must look beyond a physical presence to an Internet presence, something not at all easy for most editors to navigate.
In 1999 the Dispatch started its own Web site. It posted major news stories mostly with some extra content, and immediately lost a few subscribers. But not that many: enough to let them go without too many qualms. Since then the online version has become fairly popular with over 80,000 pageviews per month. Some of the readers aren’t subscribers, Valentine says, but a great many are. Convincing advertisers of the value of the Internet has been a harder sell, however.
Nor is the Internet the end-all of news. “You’re still splitting their interest with Facebook, Twitter, videos of grandkids, their cats, their vacation, plus all the other things you can find on the Web,” he says. “An online newspaper is not something that will dominate or have value for advertisers.”
Researchers have shown that with the growth of the Internet came the fragmentation of the attention of the news consumer, he says. Whereas when those same readers hold a newspaper, their attention doesn’t wander—and they read the ads.
“People say over and over, they like holding a newspaper,” he says.
For now Valentine intends to give them both, though only the print version is complete.
Valentine employs a dozen people and also owns a printing press used by four other newspapers. The office carries a slight whiff of ink that seems at odds with the computers, printers and monitors, a blend of the old with the new. Which makes sense for a newspaper transitioning between the printed page and cyberspace.
And yet, there’s a lot to be said for newspapers, the tactile feel of turning pages and having the moment all to oneself. No Kindle, no iPad, no Sony Reader or computer monitor can match it. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of newspapers have been greatly exaggerated.
“The studies still say there’s nothing more powerful now than the printed word physically placed on a doorstep or in a reader’s hands,” Valentine says. “I don’t think there’s anything as powerful. As all the rest of this stuff fragments, it will only be to the benefit of newspapers.”
In other words, faith in readers.