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The "community" in community paper


The "community" in community newspaper

The second deadline has passed and the Birmingham Eccentric still stands with no new cut-off dates looming on the horizon.

It’s a true survivor story that made national headlines when the Birmingham Eccentric and four other papers from the Gannett Company’s Michigan-based Observer & Eccentric newspaper group were slated for closure in May. Four papers folded, but one did not: the Birmingham Eccentric. When faced with losing their local paper, the community rallied and its efforts have thus far, kept the paper alive.

After heading to Virginia to meet with Gannett officials several months ago, members of the Citizens to Save the Eccentric Committee were told the paper had to bring in 3,000 new subscribers by July 1 if it was to survive. While they proceeded to produce about 1,000 new subscriptions, they were still 2,000 short. Despite this, the deadline came and went and the newspaper chugged on drawing more supporters and acclaim as it gained momentum. The final deadline was Sept. 1, when the paper was supposed to have obtained a total of 5,000 subscriptions. To date, the paper has gained about 2,000 new subscribers since those fateful days of May and is going strong, said Birmingham Eccentric editor Greg Kowalski.

Meanwhile, the editorial staff has been inspired and is busily working to put the “community” back in community paper. “We are now focusing on bringing young people into the process. I have a 12-year-old photographer who shoots feature stuff for us,” said Kowalski in an e-mail interview. “We are the only paper that I know of where our photographer’s mother has to drive him to assignments.”

In addition, the paper’s staff has plans to volunteer their efforts toward Birmingham Schools PTA’s fundraising projects, while also establishing a new way to bring in young readers by dedicating specific pages in the paper to school news. “Young people are tomorrow’s readers,” said Kowalski. “We have to get them used to turning to the newspaper, not just on-line but with the paper product. They like to see their names and work in print.”

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the paper had already begun its community transformation before they were told they would be closing. They hired a design consultant firm called IDEO to study the habits of media usage and added new features like local business pages, Q&A’s with business owners, a public safety page as well as a Neighbors page, where announcements are featured instead of being paid-for insertions. “It’s been a lot of work, but we are making steady progress,” said Kowalski. “I don’t see us shutting down.”

— Katrina M. Randall

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