'Emus Loose In Egnar' Explores Small Town Papers

Emus Loose in Egnar is about the surprising success of tiny weekly newspapers around the country, weeklies that are doing well while their larger cousins are collapsing. Guest host Linda Wertheimer interviews author Judy Muller about her new book.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: You've heard Judy Muller on our air. She's a MORNING EDITION commentator and a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California. Judy has written a new book, cryptically titled "Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns." The book is about the surprising success of tiny weekly newspapers around the country, weeklies that are doing well while their larger daily cousins are collapsing. Judy joins us from member station KOTO in Telluride, Colorado. Welcome.

JUDY MULLER: It's wonderful to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: Could you explain what means emus loose in Egnar?

MULLER: Egnar is a town in Colorado. They wanted to call it Range, but that was taken, so the early settlers spelled it backwards. Yes, this is a police blotter item from several years ago from the Dove Creek Press. Turns out a rancher in the area was raising emus, which are, for those who don't know, very large birds, like ostriches. And a lot of his neighbors didn't know he was raising emus, which are good for their meat and their oil. And one night the emus got loose and they were running around other people's pastures. And so this had the effect of, well, either people stopped drinking entirely or they called the sheriff and reported that some strange creature was running through their pasture. And this went on for several weeks running in the sheriff's blotter in the Dove Creek Press: Emus Loose.

WERTHEIMER: Your general thesis in the book is that a number of the little weeklies that you look at, in little towns especially, are doing well.

MULLER: They are doing very well. I thought I would see if they were just surviving, but they are in fact thriving. Some 10,000 weekly newspapers covering towns of 30,000 or less are thriving because they were sort of hyper-local before hyper-local was cool - that phrase is now the buzzword of mainstream media. They had a captive audience. They have captive advertisers and people willing to pay for the news in that town and pay for advertising. And as long as that's true, as long as there are refrigerator magnets, I like to say, there will be weekly newspapers. Because everybody wants to cut out that article on their kid on the high school team and put it on the refrigerator.

WERTHEIMER: My favorite part of the book, I think my favorite stories in the book, are a series of pieces about, I guess I would say, about attitude, about the hard-charging take-no-prisoners kind of reporting versus the Lake Wobegon-style I live here too. Maybe you should explain that.

MULLER: Well, since you brought up Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keeler has a fictional character, an editor of the Herald Star Newspaper, and his name is in fact Harold Star, and his slogan is, hey, I have to live here too. That would be the kind of editor who's, you know, going along to get along, sort of burying the lead so he doesn't offend. On the other end of that spectrum, you get really brave, crusading kinds of editors who speak the truth to power. And sometimes this results in bullets being fired through the window, newspaper offices being burned down. It's a real tough go when you take on the powers that be. And then there are the curmudgeons who are crusaders with attitude. Bruce Anderson of the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Mendocino County, California, is a curmudgeon in the most honorable sense of the word. Righting wrongs trumps being liked every time for Bruce. And here's something that he told me - he said things have gone terribly awry and ordinary people, unrepresented people - and that's most of us - really don't have a weapon, don't have any kind of a voice. A lot of the big newspapers do some great reporting, but out in the outback here, it's pretty rare.

WERTHEIMER: Local people tend to take criticism of local institutions very, very personally. What did you conclude about what people really, really want from a little local paper?

MULLER: Well, first of all, what they really want is the holy trinity, I call it, of local news, which is high school sports, obituaries and the police blotter. The police blotter, of course, is where we all turn first to see what's really going on in town, and you have to sort of read between the lines. They're like the haikus of Main Street, USA.

WERTHEIMER: Maybe you should give us an example of a haiku.

MULLER: Man calls to report wife went missing 15 months ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MULLER: Or man calls for help getting overweight dog up the basement stairs.

WERTHEIMER: I know a lot of reporters have a kind of romantic front-page view of moving to a little town and running a little paper. Now that you know a lot about it, would you like to try it?

MULLER: I'm way too old. I told the folks in Norwood, Colorado, where I have a home, and the Norwood Post is there, I said, you know, if I were really young, I would love to take over this paper and combine it with a radio station out here and it would be so much fun. And then I thought, oh my gosh, that's so much work. It really is a lot of work. You have to be committed. On the other hand, I tell my students, this is a great place to start. I started at a weekly newspaper in New Jersey. It's where I got hooked on journalism. You can go to a wonderful little town, really learn the ropes at that level and do some good work and move on from there if you want, or you may just get hooked and stay.

WERTHEIMER: Judy Muller is a reporter, commentator, journalism professor and the author of "Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns." Judy, thank you very much.

MULLER: Thank you, Linda.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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