Norman Rockwell, “Norman Rockwell Visits a Country Editor,” 1946. The Monroe County Appeal in Paris, Missouri, was used for the illustration. Walt Potter used it in his recent Listening Tour of midwestern community newspapers.

Listening to community newspapers with Walt Potter

A retired newspaper exec looks to give back to the community newspapers that raised him with an ear to the ground for change.

Walter “Walt” B. Potter Jr. is a retired newspaper executive who has committed significant time and resources to the cause of community newspapers. Recently he completed a “listening tour” of Missouri weekly newspapers, hearing out their many challenges and opportunities in the digital age. You can read a blog of Potter’s visits here.

Recently we caught up with Walt to ask him where his interest in community newspapers comes from and what he’s heard and done so far.

Walt Potter.

Tall us about your newspaper background.

I grew up working on the Culpeper (Va.) Star-Exponent, first a weekly and then in 1963 a five-day-a-week daily. I stacked papers off the press, was a paperboy, sold advertising and did just about every editorial department job, working summers through high school and college and for several years after graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1972.

Later I worked for three city dailies whose nameplates no longer exist. I interned for the now defunct afternoon Norfolk (Va.) Ledger-Star (and later worked as a police reporter for the [surviving] morning Virginian-Pilot). After I got my master’s degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1981, I worked as a business reporter for the now defunct Nashville Banner and for the Kansas City Times. The Times, where I also was an editor on the business desk, was the morning paper in Kansas City, and that newspaper survived. When they closed the afternoon Kansas City Star, however, they transferred that historic name to the morning paper.

Later, I was a reporter for Presstime, the monthly magazine of the Newspaper Association of America. Presstime ceased its print version in 2009.

See a pattern here?

The job that gave me the most insight into community newspapers, however, was being in charge of the paper my grandfather helped found, the Independent-Messenger of Emporia, Va. I was general manager 1987–1990.

What is your interest in community newspapers?

It started with my grandfather, A. M. Potter, who ran several community papers in Southside Virginia. My father, Walter B. Potter Sr., was born in Emporia, where Granddad had a hand in the beginnings of both the Independent and the Messenger. Dad grew up in Farmville, Va., where Granddad ran another paper. Granddad died during the Great Depression and the family had to give up the paper.

After World War II, my father started running and buying papers himself, eventually owning six community publications. I in my turn grew up working on his flagship paper, the Star-Exponent in Culpeper. My mother and my brother also worked at that paper.

So, of course, I want to give back to the profession from which my family has received so much.

Moreover, as the larger papers I worked for went out of business and many friends of mine had their journalistic careers curtailed, I wanted to help stop that from happening to community papers.

Tell us about the Walter B. Potter Fund for Innovation in Local Journalism.

When my father died in 1994, I inherited the resources to do some good. I knew early on I wanted to aim my giving at community journalism for the reasons I’ve given you, but it took a while to figure out just what to do.

In Spring 2008 I got a call from Wayne Chipman, now an assistant vice chancellor at the University of Missouri, responding to a card I’d sent saying I was interested in making a gift. Wayne is a great listener and has worlds of experience in putting funds together. We first met at a Starbucks near my Falls Church home and over a series of dinners and phone calls, we created the Walt B. Potter Fund for Innovation in Local Journalism. Named after my father, it’s part of the University of Missouri’s endowment fund.

Its founding document states the mission pretty clearly:

One goal shall be to support the teaching of and research about journalism that serves small communities. A small community is defined as a location with its own identity and where residents know their fellow inhabitants. Examples would be a small town in a rural area or a neighborhood of a larger jurisdiction.

The second goal shall be to encourage and support journalists in these small communities in making the transition from print and other legacy technologies to new and emerging means of communication. In particular, the fund shall encourage and support finding ways to make a going business of these new communication methods.

What are the Walter B. Potter Conferences?

The idea for the conferences was pure serendipity. The first break was that in the same time frame that the Potter Fund was born, the Reynolds Journalism Institute was getting started. I’ve always felt that the Potter Fund is RJI’s little brother, striving to do for community newspapers what RJI aims to do for all media.

The second break was when Randy Smith, who had been my boss on the Kansas City Times business desk, became the first Donald W. Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism.

You might remember that in President Obama’s first term, there was a push to bring broadband Internet to rural communities. Randy noticed that effort lacked a media component, and he joined with the Reynolds chair at Washington & Lee University (my father’s alma mater!) in Lexington, Va. to do a survey of the Obama effort’s media impact. Randy had been thinking of presenting the survey results in some sort of conference.

Eureka! His effort and mine made a perfect blend and the first Potter conference was born. There was a lot more added to the survey results. We had more than 100 people show up. We knew had something.

The individual conferences have their own titles. For example, the first one almost four years ago was “Community Newspapers: Tomorrow has Arrived.” The most recent last November was “Innovation and Transformation in Community Newspapers.”

In between those two on-campus events, we attempted to take the conference presentation approach on the road. We partnered with a number of state press associations to present at their conferences. For example, we did two such events in my native state in conjunction with the Virginia Press Association.

What we found in the conferences is that community newspapers so far have escaped much of the destructive competition brought by the Internet. But they’ve been watching what has been happening to “our big city cousins” as one of my listening tour hosts put it. They were ready for a conference aimed at helping them make the transition to the Internet, the core goal of the Potter Fund.

Are any more conferences planned?

None at the moment, but I think we’ll make a number of decisions about the next Potter Fund steps over the next couple of months, drawing on what I learned on the tour and other information.

What was the idea behind the Potter Listening Tour?

While the initial Potter Conference was a big hit and the subsequent efforts have been well-received, we’re still looking for ways to build on that success. We wanted to know in more detail and specificity what our community newspapers need.

So, I had the idea that if you want to know what somebody wants, why not ask them?

Further, I thought if I visited these newspapers in their own communities, I would gain invaluable context to the responses to our questions.

Potter with the Spaar family who run the Odessan in Odessa, Missouri. Five generations of Spaar family have been involved in newspapering.

How did it go?

The Potter Listening Tour was one of the great experiences of my life. Like so much of my involvement with the Potter Fund, I feel I get back more than I give.

Visiting eight community newspapers in Missouri felt like going home. I had so much in common with my hosts.

And I did learn a lot about what’s going on in the classic community newspaper, and the papers I visited were indeed what we think of as community newspapers. In a presentation on the listening tour I gave this summer, I used one of Norman Rockwell’s classic portraits of the Monroe County Appeal of Paris, Mo., done back in 1945, as an illustration of the papers I visited.

I learned that while print is still the backbone of their operations, they know that competition from the Internet is coming. The papers are adapting at different speeds and with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Seven of the eight papers have web and Facebook pages. (The Unterrified Democrat of Linn, Mo., is a notable exception.) “If we don’t do it, somebody else will,” was a frequent comment.

At the same time I was hearing my tour hosts’ stories, I was experiencing for myself what they’re facing in terms of learning new things. I’ve been working on computers ever since Professor Brian Brooks showed me the digital ropes 35 years ago at Mizzou, but social media is still pretty new to me. In the same year I enrolled in Medicare, I posted my first tweets. It was an entirely new experience for this old reporter to have to post to Facebook, tweet, take pictures AND fill notebooks with notes, all at the same time.

What kind of help are these newspapers looking for?

Help in making the transition to the Internet, though they’ll take this help from wherever. Penny Abernathy and most of the major trade organizations are offering help in this area too. One of the things one publisher suggested the Potter Fund could do is coordinate our efforts with these other folks.

The more specific help the folks I visited asked for starts with an efficient, thorough way to keep up with what other community newspapers are doing, especially what works. The “This is how I did it” presentations by their peers were always the most popular at the Potter Conferences. Indeed, the most recent conference focused entirely on papers’ good ideas.

There seemed to be a lot of interest in having visiting digital advocates, e.g. a group of Mizzou students who’d trade their knowledge of new media for real world experience.

Audience research was another thing on their want list.

A lot of folks also wanted turnkey solutions to specific problems. An example would be Missouri Journalism Professor Judd Slivka’s how to do quality video cheap presentation.

How much time do you think community papers have to get on board with delivering news across multiple platforms?

That’s a difficult question to answer with more than a guess, because — as I said — there’s precious little research on what’s going on in small markets.

My guess is the speed of the switch to digital depends on how the upcoming generations in those communities choose to get their local news.

On the one hand, there is some research that youngsters actually prefer their serious reading in print. Here’s a fascinating story from the Washington Post on how and why college students prefer print.

On the other hand, the youth preference for mobile, I think, poses a real threat to any print-only approach.

I’ve told this story many times. At a cocktail party during the first Potter Conference, I was talking to the lady who edits the Ozark County Times, a small weekly down near the Missouri-Arkansas border. I asked her what home broadband Internet penetration was in her county and she said something like less than 10 percent. Well, I replied, I guess you don’t immediately need what our conference offers, but thanks for thinking of the future and attending.

But then she said no, listen. We lost a big chunk of our yard sale ads to a Facebook page somebody put up for free.

Well, how did people reach that Facebook page without a broadband connection? I asked in surprise.

She pulled out her cell phone and pointed to it.

The message: competition is not just coming through broadband, but also on mobile devices and social media.

What’s next?

I’m talking with Executive Director Randy Picht and the rest of the RJI folks about a number of things, but there’s nothing concrete yet. I’m hoping in a couple of months to have firm plans.

I don’t know if there’ll be a Potter Listening Tour, Part II, but I’m playing around with an idea for that.

I’d like to visit community papers that vary from that Norman Rockwell mode, geographically, ethnically, whatever makes sense. I’d like to see if changing a community newspaper’s market, changes the results I got on PLT, Part I.

But right now it’s just an idea.

What do you think is the single most important message for publishers of community newspapers today?

It’s not a new message, but it’s more important that ever — pay attention to your market. Your audience will tell you through what medium they want to receive your content. Then, just do what you’ve always done — deliver the news and advertising your community needs.

You can read more about Walt’s Listening Tour here and here.

— David Cohea, King Features Weekly Service

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