By Gretchen Parker
A new book by journalism professor and Emmy award-winning reporter Judy Muller (pictured, below right) proves that America’s new news ecology may have turned mainstream media on its head, but it’s leaving plenty of room for small-town weeklies – the original hyperlocal journalism – to make a healthy living.
Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns chronicles the life of rural newsweeklies from Alaska to the Texas Panhandle to Martha’s Vineyard. There are about 8,000 of these papers that are much like the one where Muller began her own career, at The Colonial News in Freehold, N.J.
“This just in: journalism is not dead. It is alive and kicking in small towns all across America thanks to the editors of weekly newspapers who, for very little money and a fair amount of aggravation, keep on telling it like it is,” writes Muller, who goes on to relate tales ranging from “club news to Klan news… broken treaties to broken hearts… banned books to escaped emus.”
She concludes that hometown weeklies provide a “twin payoff of connectivity and continuity” that is irreplaceable. “Without a paper, their paper, they feel disconnected from their neighbors. With a paper, they have a sense of their collective history, a continuity of shared experiences,” Muller writes.
She discovered that many small papers are thriving “mostly because absolutely no one else does what they do: document the births, deaths, crimes, sports, local shenanigans, and many other events that only matter to the 2,000 or so souls in the circulation area.”
“Taken together, however, these ‘little stories’ create a mosaic of American life that tells us a great deal about who we are – what moves us, angers us, amuses us. As a weekly editor in Alaska said, ‘I feel as though I am writing the Great American Novel, one week at a time.”
The book, just released by the University of Nebraska Press, already has drawn praise:
“Readers of this book, which is a rare combination of important and entertaining, will be surprised to discover how much small-towners have to teach the rest of us about life, and how much their local weekly newspapers have to teach big-city news media about survival.”—Bill Geist, correspondent for CBS News Sunday Morning and best-selling author of Way Off the Road: Discovering the Peculiar Charms of Small-Town America
A regular contributor to NPR's "Morning Edition," Muller also wrote a book about her experiences as a journalist titled Now This -- Radio, Television and the Real World. As a reporter for ABC News, she covered the 1992 Rodney King trial and ensuing riots, the 1994 Northridge earthquake and the O.J. Simpson criminal and civil trials, among other stories. She won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award as part of a “Nightline” team.
Muller lives part-time in Norwood, Colorado, one of the towns featured in Emus Loose in Egnar.