By Al Cross
When Jim Phillips of Lexington, Ky., started poring through microfilm copies of old newspapers to research his family history, he thought it would be “a legacy to be left for my family and others, documenting the world of my parents’ youth and their home Pulaski County, Indiana,” as he wrote in a research paper for an independent-study course I supervised at the University of Kentucky.
But Phillips experienced something that may make printed newspapers last longer than many think: the serendipity that often manifests itself in scanning the pages of a newspaper, discovering and digesting information that you aren’t specifically seeking.
He also discovered a fundamental element of community newspapers that may also make them survive, in whatever form: the granular coverage of individual lives that weave together to form a community. That led him to expand his work to the independent-study course in journalism.
“When this project started, I was merely looking for items mentioning my family, but it soon expanded to other items that interested me,” Phillips wrote. “This occurred – as my journalism professor, Al Cross, aptly pointed out – because of the wide variety of information displayed on each newspaper page.”
Newspaper serendipity was well described in The New York Times by Bill McKeen, chairman of the Department of Journalism at Boston University, when he held the same job at the University of Florida (after teaching at my alma mater, Western Kentucky University). Bill required students to read the Times in print, not online, when you “find only what you’re looking for,” he wrote. He defined serendipity as “the ability to make fortunate discoveries accidentally” and called it “a historian’s best friend, and the biggest part of the rush that is the daily magic of discovery.”
As Phillips scanned the pages of the Pulaski County Democrat and the Winamac Republican, he found not only things that he didn’t know about his family, but many other happenings — some of which constituted narratives about individuals and families, and economic, technological and cultural trends from 1924-25 – the years his parents were born – to 1947, the year he was born. It’s all there: the Ku Klux Klan, Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II and so on.
The project showed the value of newspaper archives in researching trends, some of which Phillips notes with striking examples, such as Chet Reynolds, who wrote a letter to Santa Claus in 1925, when he was 7, asking for “an electric moving picture machine.” In October 1947, as manager of the Home Appliances and Radio Store, he ran an ad announcing that it had a “telivision,” and in May 1948 one of the papers pictured him installing the antenna for “the first home television set in Pulaski County.”
Phillips’ paper is online at http://www.uky.edu/CommInfoStudies/IRJCI/JimPhillipsStalking.pdf. He wrote in the first paragraph, “I came to know my hometown just before my birth, because the reporting of these weeklies was relentlessly local.”
And granular. He found no enterprise reporting, but plenty of personal reporting. “Births, marriages, deaths, and courthouse reports were front-page staples,” he writes. “In each issue, Sunday dinners, family visits, short trips and parties were routinely reported by correspondents for each of the county’s five to eight communities and their adjacent farms. Hospitalizations and long trips were also announced, without concern for confidentiality and burglaries.”
This amounted to a lot of information. “The number of people mentioned in an issue was about 2,500,” Phillips estimated, including as one of his many illustrations a house ad that bragged about 2,630 names in one edition. “Although it included visitors from outside the county, that number is significant in a county with a population of about 11,000.”
Community correspondents are much less common today but are still seen in some rural newspapers. I wish there were more of them. Times have changed, and most of the information a weekly correspondent might report would already be known, but the best correspondents also include insightful personal observations and valuable background knowledge of their communities.
I like to say that every American has the First Amendment right to commit journalism. Note that verb; it connotes responsibility for your actions. At a time when every American has the ability to publish, without understanding the responsibilities of journalism, it would serve us well to have a cadre of correspondents in every county, citizen journalists, serving as connectors to the local newspaper and helping their neighbors identify with it.
Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog at http://irjci.blogspot.com.