AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   March 2000

We’ll Just Do It Ourselves   

By Bonnie Bressers
Bonnie Bressers is a visiting professor at the Kansas State University School of Journalism.     

Less than a decade ago, most people in Almena, Kansas, believed their town was dying.

The death knell: On December 27, 1990, the 102-year-old Almena Plaindealer folded. The last letterpress newspaper to operate in the state of Kansas succumbed to the same harsh economic conditions that have killed newspapers throughout rural America.

But this is "we'll-help-you-build-your-barn" country.

Today, in the Plaindealer's old offices, a small cadre of volunteers gathers and edits news; lays out pages; and photocopies, folds, staples and mails the biweekly Prairie Dog Press, launched to fill the void the local paper left behind.

"Our community needed a paper to hold it together," says Alice Kuiper, 78, one of the paper's 16 volunteers. "After the Plaindealer quit, it was like a vacuum. No one knew what was going on."

What's going on, for readers of the Prairie Dog Press, is a mix of community news, school and sports events, church notes, letters to the editor, calendar items, a heavy dose of who's-visiting-whom social news and homespun commentary. Advertising is discouraged and accounts for only 10 to 15 percent of the revenue; the rest comes from subscriptions and donations.

Almena grappled with the loss of its megaphone for more than three years after the Plaindealer closed.

"I don't think it sunk in until we didn't have a newspaper for a while," says Pat Ambrosier, 52, a Prairie Dog Press columnist whose grandfather wrote for the Plaindealer. "Then things would come up. You had to get the word out about a fundraiser, or that someone got hurt and needed help with the crops, and there was no way to do it."

With the support of four Kansas State University students and two journalism professors, a core of volunteers decided to launch a nonprofit newspaper.

It was no small task. Although some of the writers are young, most of the production volunteers are in their 70s and 80s. They had no background in news or newspaper production, and they had never operated computers.

"We started out having them play solitaire and mah jongg on the computer, so they could learn to use the mouse," says Lisa Elliott Diehl, one of the K-State students who helped start the paper and who is now business editor and city reporter for the Newton Kansan.

The students lived with Almena residents for eight weeks while they taught the volunteers basic copy editing and production skills.

Now, more than five years later, the Prairie Dog Press, at a cost of $16 a year, has a paid circulation of 585 in a community of fewer than 400 people. About half of the subscribers live out-of-state, and some, who have never been to Almena, subscribe to keep up with friends and relatives in the area and to support the volunteers' efforts.

"It's a little bit of Americana, even if you've never been there," says Carol Oukrop, a Kansas State professor and one of the original faculty members involved in the project.

There is some criticism of the publication, which is more folksy newsletter than newspaper. Coverage of government meetings consists of printing the minutes. School news is provided by the schools. Courthouse news is all but absent, and community controversies are handled in a low-key manner, if at all.

The Prairie Dog Press is "just a gossip paper," says an Almena resident who stopped subscribing after two years.

Editor Laura Craig, 57, is clear about the Press' mission: To support the schools, preserve the area's rural heritage and celebrate its history.

But the fundamental question is whether the people of Almena are better off with or without the Prairie Dog Press, says Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

"If people are better off with it, then who cares whether it satisfies the traditional or nontraditional definition of news?" Clark says. "If it helps people keep track of their neighbors, if it creates some social glue to bond people together, if it creates a stronger sense of membership in the community, then God bless them."