LLOYD GRAY: For newspapers, community is still the key

OTSEGO, Minn. – Way up here, the Mississippi River isn’t a whole lot wider than the Tallahatchie. You could almost skip a rock across it.
It was a hot day in Minnesota last week when I took a stroll down a bluff to get a good look. If there had been someone on the opposite bank, we could have carried on a conversation.
It was a good place to talk, in the woods by the river, and later that evening at the Riverwood conference center I did some evangelizing for Tupelo, Northeast Mississippi and the Daily Journal at a gathering of community newspaper editors and publishers from around Minnesota.
They have a leadership program sponsored by the Minnesota Newspaper Foundation, and it draws its inspiration heavily from Tupelo.
Vaughn Grisham’s book “Tupelo: The Evolution of a Community” is required reading. They study longtime Journal owner George McLean’s legacy and the newspaper’s continuing mission of community building. I was there with an invitation to talk about the Daily Journal’s role in the Tupelo story.
The foundation’s program hopes to get newspaper executives in Minnesota to learn about community-building leadership from Tupelo and to emulate the best elements of the Journal’s history. Like the river, the Tupelo story’s currents keep flowing steadily and spreading wider as they go.
Naturally, we talked a good bit about newspapers in general. That always happens when newspaper people gather, and when times are tough as they are now, there’s a lot of commiserating.
But nobody was feeling sorry for themselves. They believe in what they’re doing, they’re finding ways to adapt and change, and they’re confident that the future – even with the chaotic upheaval in the media marketplace – is more to be embraced than feared.
Way down the river, where it’s so wide you could hardly see, much less speak, to anybody on the other side, the currents empty into the Gulf. There’s another story going on down there.
A few days before heading to Minnesota I was in Biloxi for the Mississippi Press Association’s convention. That city and its Mississippi Gulf Coast neighbors have taken a beating, and some doubters wondered after Hurricane Katrina whether they would even survive. But they’re resilient, and they’re proving the doomsayers wrong.
That context was appropriate for a newspaper convention. Like many sectors of the economy, the newspaper industry has been through its own storms since the MPA last gathered on the Coast a year ago. The prophets of doom are predicting calamity. But if there was an unofficial theme at this convention, it was the multitude of ways in which the resiliency of newspapers – particularly in smaller communities like most of ours in Mississippi – is being demonstrated.
The news about newspapers simply isn’t as bad as the exaggerated conventional wisdom has it. The newspaper industry is in an unprecedented recession, but so is the country. Think there might be a connection for an industry where nearly four out of five revenue dollars come from advertising?
Overleveraged mega-chains that made unwise business decisions are paying for it dearly with advertising revenues down in this economy. They’re the bankruptcies or pending deaths you read or hear about – almost all in two-newspaper metropolitan areas where one paper has long been dominant.
Mississippi newspapers are hurting as their advertisers retrench, and every one of them has had to cut expenses. But they’re nowhere close to being out of business, either now or in the foreseeable future. They remain, most of them, their communities’ chief story-teller, challenger, encourager and catalyst for improvement. They will be around for a long time to come.
Minnesota and Mississippi, connected by a river, are a long way apart geographically and, in important ways, culturally. But the people who lead community newspapers in both states share a fervent belief in and commitment to what they do, and to the communities they serve.
A good newspaper has an organic connection to its community, so much so that to separate the fate of the two has been virtually impossible. The coming years will test the durability of that connection. As long as newspapers remember that building community is their first responsibility, they’ll pass the test.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662)678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

NEMS Daily Journal