Photos by Tom Parker
Relevance with an eye toward history – Washington County News
For the 150th anniversary of Washington County, Dan Thalmann vowed to take a picture.
Actually, Thalmann vowed to take 365 pictures, one a day, each a visual and literal snapshot of the county and its residents, its festivals, its daily rhythms and cycles—its culture—at the opening of the 21st century. Each daily image would be posted to a special website, and each week’s collection would be prominently placed within the pages of the Washington County News.
Thalmann trained his lens on people shopping at the grocery store, a deliveryman hauling boxes of merchandise into a business, kindergartners on their first day of school. He photographed test plots of corn and a highway widening project and roofers working in 100+ degree heat, and sports tryouts and baseball games and the early morning sun bathing the cobblestoned streets of downtown Washington. Anything and everything was fair game. The only stipulation he enforced was that one image per day was required, and if for some reason he couldn’t find time to do it he’d toss out a query on his website asking someone, anyone, to send him a photo, and in so doing let the community become part of the project as well.
Some thought the photos were too trivial, too mundane. Thalmann’s response was a little more farsighted. He was doing it not for the here and now but for a college student or historical researcher 100 years in the future.
Thalmann, owner and editor of the Washington County News, is first and foremost a historian. He has no formal degree in journalism—no journalism schooling at all, in fact—but he doesn’t consider it a liability. As he’s fond of saying, he knows enough of the rules to understand which ones to abide by and which ones to bend. The role of the newspaper is more than simply the dissemination of news, he feels; it’s also the documentation of a culture at a fleeting moment in time.
“When I was researching history in college, a large part of the information I gathered was from old newspapers,” Thalmann says. “Some were great sources of knowledge and others were pretty bad. My goal for the paper is to be relevant not just for our current readers but for the researcher a hundred years from now. We do something unique here that a traditionalist might not agree with.”
Though the Washington County News dates back to March 25, 1869, when it was known as the Western Observer, Thalmann’s editorial reign has been fairly short. He came on board as a writer in February 2000, covering school stories mostly, and worked his way into purchasing the paper a little over six years later.
He was, he says, either stupid or brilliant. And, at age 33, he was also the youngest owner of a newspaper in Kansas, a fact he finds cool, or depressing, depending on his mood.
No sooner had the paper transferred ownership than the economy took a nosedive. The population of Washington County continued its hundred-year decline. Ad revenue—the lifeblood of any newspaper—withered. Not that there was a lot to begin with, for Washington is a far cry from being a retail hub and there are few manufacturers in the county. (There are no traffic lights in the county, either.) Many of the county’s businesses are ag-related, with large dairy farms supplying many of the jobs. Circulation declined as well.
Yet, despite the downturns, the newspaper, under his direction, started picking up awards of excellence from the Kansas Press Association. Thalmann placed a heavy emphasis on quality writing, unbiased reporting and news that was relevant even if it was sometimes uncomfortable.
One such series of articles was on the trial of a child molester. Another was of an outsider who committed suicide but whose body wasn’t found for months, leading to the largest manhunt in the county’s history. The topics were serious and timely and daunting in their attention to detail, and drew both positive and negative responses.
Lighter touches were even more resonant with readers. One major project was an attempt to document and photograph the county’s remaining one-room schools. At one time Washington County had more schools than any other county, though most were collapsed, relocated or repurposed. “I was barraged with comments on the school project,” Thalmann says. “Sometimes the simple things hit people the hardest.”
An unexpected outcome resulted from a small story about trying to trace his linguistic roots to a Low German heritage. After discovering that the language was still spoken in the area, the article prompted meetings that blossomed into an organization that eventually hosted an international conference.
The newspaper has won so many awards that it now ranks within the top three weekly rural papers in the state. And yet, like many newspapers, it struggles financially. This year Thalmann downsized the staff, leaving four part-time employees and himself. He often works seven days per week and can found glued to his computer far past midnight.
Negotiating a future for the newspaper in a digital era (and a bad economy) concerns him deeply, and occupies far more of his thinking than he cares to admit. Rural weeklies have an edge on mainstream newspapers, he feels, because no one else covers their turf.
“During the last presidential primary, I watched the evening news, and had my choice between a half-dozen news channels, the Internet news sources, bloggers and tweets,” he says. “Everybody was covering the same stories. By the next morning, almost everyone in the world already knew the outcome. It wasn’t even news for the dailies that ran the stories.”
Yet, for local rural news, no other medium exists than the local newspaper. That’s slowly changing but mostly slowly and not without a lot of starts and stops while editors struggle to find a way to make it financially worthwhile.
“Online is the future, no doubt about it,” Thalmann says. “I’d like to see websites include imbedded audio and video coverage, giving the news a more interactive feel. It would give readers a reason to subscribe to an online issue, a value-added benefit that print can’t provide.”
The paper’s one attempt at having an online presence ended dismally after subscribers began canceling in order to get their news fix for free. Since then, Thalmann has tried a Twitter feed, a Facebook page and a blog. More and more, he sees Facebook as the most successful of the three, though there’s still no revenue attached to it.
“For the past several years there’s been a constant barrage of doom-and-gloom concerning newspapers,” he says. “At conventions it’s the biggest topic. And I was one of them, I admit. But last year, for the first time, I felt a whiff of optimism in the industry.”
Talk now is of a combined print/online package combining the best of both traditions. Young people feel more comfortable with the Web while older people prefer the tactile sensation of a hard copy, though that’s evolving into a greater acceptance and comfort level for the elderly. New e-readers such as the Kindle and the iPad have the potential to revolutionize how readers get their news. The problem Thalmann sees is the learning curve for editors and news staffers to become technically proficient in the new mediums such as videography, audio editing and website creation.
“I feel overwhelmed at times as it is,” he says. “We can’t afford a tech person, and I have no time to learn video and audio recording. One of my goals is to be an innovator, but I would prefer someone else lay the groundwork!”
For the foreseeable future Thalmann intends on maintaining the paper’s current course: excellence in journalism, relevance and an eye toward that unborn college researcher who someday will ferret through archives to see how people once lived, loved and died in a sparsely-populated north-central Kansas county.