Volunteerism is key to an excellent community paper

January 26, 2012

By Ken Blum

I've found that a newspaper that has people who use their muscle and mentality as volunteers in the community finds that the community will be good to the newspaper.

I've covered 'em all now, visiting every state either as a speaker or an adviser to hometown papers from mom-and-pop weeklies to midsize dailies.

The vast majority of my travels are for advising assignments. These visits aren't drop-in-for-lunch deals. I spend at least a day and a half getting to know the paper and the people who run it, as well as the community it serves. That is followed by a comprehensive report. It has been and continues to be a pleasure and a privilege.

I'm constantly amazed at the dedication, skill and decency that characterize the people who work at America's hometown newspapers. (And I'm not saying that to butter you up--it's a bona fide objective truth.) Periodically, I'm asked if there is any one trait common to the country's most successful community papers.

First, let me say that I have learned that running a hometown paper isn't like running a McDonald's or Subway. Each one has its own personality, and its own set of challenges and opportunities, and that's another reason this business is delightful--its diversity.

But there is one practice or habit I've observed at papers that are a hot commodity among readers and advertisers.

I'll bet you can't guess what it is. Beautiful design? Sharp writing? Stunning photography? Compelling commentary? Outstanding advertisements?

Of course, these are all important, the guts of the paper. However, they aren't the common denominator for success I've observed. Drum roll please. 

The papers that seem to be the bee's knees (dating myself) in their respective communities are the papers with people who are roll-up-their-sleeves community volunteers. This includes management and everyone on the staff, be it the publisher, press operator, editor, ad rep or bookkeeper.

This volunteerism may involve serving barbecued chicken as a fundraiser for a Rotary scholarship, sawing lumber for Habitat for Humanity home, coaching a Little League team or drumming up donations for the United Way - the list goes on and on.

Of course, the most important benefit is the personal satisfaction newspaper staffers enjoy from doing good. This is fitting. After all, building a better community is job one for a hometown paper. But there are other benefits that go beyond that, even though this wasn't the primary motivation.

Inevitably, I've found that a newspaper that has people who use their muscle and mentality as volunteers in the community finds that the community will be good--very good--to the newspaper.

The paper might have a major boo-boo in a headline. It may be delivered late.

It may feature an editorial that enrages half its readership. But if it has people who intermingle with other people who work hard and give of themselves to make the town or county better, more prosperous, more generous, more decent, then that newspaper is invariably well supported and, even more important, well-respected.

© Ken Blum

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Ken Blum is a specialist dedicated to improving the bottom line and quality of newspapers, from smaller weeklies to midsize dailies. For complete details about how his advising service can benefit your hometown paper, call 330 682-3416 or e-mail blummer@aol.com.

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