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From AJR,   December 1999  issue

A Family Weekly Does It Right   

In Georgia, the Espys have been at it since 1906.


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

Jason Espy, who has been writing for the Summerville News pretty much since he learned to write, sniffed out the story.

There was a "dog dump," his source said. When he got there he didn't find it, at first. But in that remote spot he did find a City of Summerville, Georgia, garbage truck illegally dumping household wastes. Nearby he soon found the burial site of hundreds of dogs, more than 20 of them just lying on the ground, some polluting the overflow waters of the Chattooga River.

A city official had told the dogcatcher just to dump them out there. Nobody would know. They surely should have known better.

The paper named names and got action. Once again the News had shaped things up a bit in Chattooga County, Georgia.

The News covers every official meeting in the county's four municipalities and their school districts.

Up in the mountainous northwest corner of the state, Chattooga has been served by the News since 1886. Jason's great-grandfather, O.J. Espy, bought a piece of it in 1906 and became the owner five years later. The Espys have been publishing the News and winning awards ever since. They plan to keep at it.

Five Espys work for the paper, doing everything from reporting news and selling advertising to running the press. Winston E. Espy, known as Gene, is the editor and publisher, and a columnist.

Gene's father, David, hired me one summer and let me write almost the whole paper at 15 cents a column inch. He told me the paper and its printing business were worth about $70,000.

Gene, now 51, says he and brothers David and Greg turned down an offer of just under $2 million a decade ago. "We'd been in it all our lives and didn't know what else we would do," he says. Word has gotten around that the Espys don't want to sell. (See "Feeling the Heat.")

In a recent issue the News printed 110 photographs, the great majority of them shot by the staff, and no telling how many names. The paper usually runs 50 to 60 photos, along with coverage of everything that moves in the county, including who ate cake with whom last weekend in Lyerly. (I was born there when it was pop. 296. Our phone number was 9.)

The News is aggressive. "It's harder here than it would be in a big town," Gene says. "But as long as you are fair, and people think you're fair, well, we really don't have that much trouble."

In a county with 22,000 people, including more than 8,400 households, the News has a paid circulation of more than 8,000, about 90 percent of it in the county at $10 a year. I don't know whether they use the term "household penetration." They just know everybody reads the paper.

Not long ago, on a Wednesday night, a U.S. Postal Service truck mistakenly delivered all copies of the News to Chattanooga, 45 miles to the north. So the News didn't get out on Thursday. The three phone lines at the paper were lit up all afternoon, and some readers were still calling Gene at home that night.