By Carolyn Shapiro
Dink NeSmith wrote a column for The Oglethorpe Echo for about a decade after he and his wife moved to a farm in the Georgia county that the weekly newspaper had served for 148 years. One day in late September, the Echo’s owner told NeSmith he planned to shut the paper down. Ralph Maxwell, whose family founded the Echo, had exhausted his energy and resources to keep it going, NeSmith said.
NeSmith, a lifelong newspaperman and co-owner of a chain of 25 community newspapers in three states, asked Maxwell to consider another option: donate the paper to a nonprofit organization that NeSmith would form. Then, from the seat of his pickup truck, NeSmith called the dean of his alma mater, the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, less than 20 miles from the Echo’s office. “We want to turn the Echo into a real-life laboratory for your journalism students,” NeSmith recalled telling Dean Charles Davis. “We want to form a partnership, and your students can get real-life experience at the Echo.”
Barely a month later, on Nov. 4, 2021, a small team of Grady students put out their first issue of the Oglethorpe Echo. Under the school’s partnership with Oglethorpe Echo Legacy, the nonprofit that now owns the paper, a student-run newsroom and a faculty managing editor have continued to produce a print and digital edition.
“We have not missed a week because the paper has not missed a week in 148 years,” said Amanda Bright, a Grady journalism professor who oversees the Echo program. “So we're not going be the ones to drop the ball.”
The Oglethorpe Echo became part of Grady Newsource, which provides undergraduates immersive journalism training through their capstone courses. Newsource already had four or five capstone sections devoted to broadcast and digital production, Bright said. She turned one section, usually about 20 students, into the Echo staff.
Initially, seven student interns bridged the gap between the end of the fall 2021 semester and the start of the spring semester in January. “We recruited, hired, trained, and we picked up printing the newspaper,” Bright said.
“It was insanely quick, but it was the most fun I've ever had and the most stress I've ever felt – which is journalism, in a nutshell.”
As of January, the capstone students began handling the Echo. They work in pairs, reporting one week and handling editing or other production tasks in the alternate week. Seven paid interns serve as a skeleton Echo staff over the summer and winter breaks. NeSmith solicited community members to sponsor $2,500 scholarships for each intern.
“I don’t want to live in a town without a newspaper,” NeSmith said. “We pay substantial property taxes. I want to know what's going on. If there's a crime wave in our rural neighborhood, I want to know. If somebody died, I want to know. If there's a new development, I want to know. Information is necessary. And it's powerful.”
Bright did a “light” redesign of the Echo’s print edition, which averages 10 to 14 pages weekly, to make it streamlined and easier to read. Through the Digital Natives program that Bright launched a year ago, students help traditional news organizations boost their online activities. A few developed the Echo’s new website and broad social media presence – on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. A Saturday morning Echo newsletter delivers curated content for subscribers and non-subscribers.
The Echo’s managing editor, Andy Johnston, an adjunct faculty member, and newspaper veteran, started in a part-time position, and the university recently agreed to fund it full-time, Bright said. The university also pays for a freelance page designer who is a Grady graduate. The Oglethorpe Echo Legacy employs a part-time office manager to handle classified and legal ads.
Bright is pursuing grants “like crazy,” she said. Funding from the Solutions Journalism Network will encourage the Echo’s coverage of stories that highlight responses to social problems in the county, and the paper will participate in the NewsMatch program through the Institute for Nonprofit News this fall.
After 51 years in the business, NeSmith is back on the streets, selling ads for the Echo to keep it financially stable. “Not only do we want a distinguished newspaper, we want a profitable newspaper,” he said. “We're not going to be losing any money at the Echo.”
NeSmith estimated that advertising has tripled since Grady took over the paper, and Bright said the audience of readers and viewers has doubled. “That’s just because we're doing good journalism, and the community is responding,” she said.
Students have increasingly come to value local news, as well, after decades of news industry decline that discouraged their interest in pursuing careers in the field. Academic-news partnerships can embrace this pro-news environment, Bright said.
“The narrative around local news has obviously shifted tremendously in the last ten years,” she said. “It’s seen as a philanthropic, purpose-, mission-driven thing now, in a way that it wasn't before.”
The Oglethorpe Echo capstone attracts students as much for that mission as for the learning experience, Bright added. “It has kind of changed the game.”
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