Saturday, June 01, 2013

Making Progress

Today, on a whim, Susan and I rode up to Jasper so that she could check out a quilt shop staffed by some folks she knew from Tiny Stitches, a quilt shop not too far from our house. More than anything else, it was an excuse to ride somewhere we haven't been before. We've driven past Jasper many times on our way to Ellijay and Blue Ridge, but have never gotten off Zell Miller Mountain Parkway to actually venture into downtown Jasper.

As I do whenever we visit a new place, I looked for a local newspaper. At first, I thought my search might be fruitless; I saw a Chattanooga paper, an Atlanta paper, and a Cherokee County paper, but nothing unique. A trip into Jasper Drugs on South Main Street paid off, though: they had a copy of this week's Pickens County Progress on the racks.

Maybe it's my newspaper-family background showing (in case you forgot, Dad worked for the Rome News-Tribune in a number of editorial positions during his lengthy career), but I've always thought a newspaper not only reflected the community it served, but also helped to define it. A well-written, well-produced newspaper is a powerful centerpiece for a town or a county; a second-rate newspaper is actually a hindrance, because it generally blocks something better from coming in.

Way too many newspapers that I pick up in our travels are little more than a collection of syndicated pieces--feature stories, reviews, soft news articles, recipes, etc. I was delighted to discover that the Pickens County Progress is totally different—a community focused and locally produced newspaper complete with news, human interest stories, reviews, commentary, and more... and none of it carries an AP or Reuters credit.

Right off the bat, the Progress looks and feels like a newspaper.  While many papers today have continued to shrink their dimensions (the Atlanta Constitution is just under 11" x 22" now, as is the Marietta Daily Journal), the Progress maintains the dimensions that seem right for a newspaper: a full 12 5/8" wide by 22" tall. I hated to see papers cut their width so radically over the past few years; today's narrow papers don't feel right--the ratios are wrong, creating a folded paper that's almost exactly square. We're not attuned to square media; neither books nor television programs nor movies are square (the former is generally taller than wide in  just under a 2:3 ratio, while the latter vary from 4:3 to 16:9 or greater, depending on whether it's a vintage film/television program, a standard HD program, or a widescreen film).  Open up an Atlanta or Marietta paper, and you have a product that looks too tall and/or too narrow; again, the ratios are all wrong.

Not the Progress, though; apparently its publisher has rejected this "news-narrowing" as not a sign of progress at all, choosing to maintain the more aesthetically pleasing ratio. Okay, I know that's all technical stuff that has little to do with the quality of a paper–but it's still important to me.

As for the quality—well, let's say that I was quite impressed with what I saw. Six stories on page one, all locally produced: a story about education budget cuts and how they'll affect the Pickens County 4H program, a story about Pickens High graduation, a story about a recent death that does not appear to involve foul play in spite of initial concerns, a story about local road-closure concerns, a story about the local fire department trying to construct their history, and a story about a new finance director in Jasper. Each story is clearly bylined (as all stories in the paper are), with reporter contact info given in the byline. The page is clean, neatly designed, and visually appealing, with excellent use of color and typography.

Inside, more solid content—and once again, all locally produced. An inspirational editorial for this year's high school graduates; a locally-drawn editorial cartoon that makes a strong point and reflects positively on human nature; an opinion piece... My favorite, though, is an excellent review of The Great Gatsby by David Altman that not only points out the aesthetic failure of inserting rap and other modern music into the film's soundtrack, but then goes on to explain why it doesn't work! Altman insightfully explains why the film fails, underscoring the distinction between plot and narrative. Would you have expected to find such insights in a small town paper?

More local news, plenty of local ads, detailed coverage focusing on the upcoming Pickens County High School graduation (including a list of all garduates), several letters to the editor that reflect an actively engaged community, obituaries, more news, local history, local sports... everything that defines a local paper is here, well written and attractively laid out on the page. There's even a page of high school news written and designed by the Pickens County High School journalism staff; producing a high school paper is one thing, but can you imagine the pride these students must feel to know that their work will be seen by the entire community, and held to the same standards expected from any professional journalist?

No national news (a local weekly just can't compete with the instant-access news cycle that the internet provides, so they don't try), no divisive political commentary filled with strident excoriations and condemnations—just rock-solid, responsible journalism.

Apparently the Pickens County Progress is a family effort: the publisher is John R. Pool, the editor is Dan Pool, and the managing editor is William Pool. All three men should be proud of what they've done here—and the Pickens County community should consider itself lucky to have such a vibrant and vital newspaper in a time when the local paper seems to be fading away. Heck, I'm considering subscribing, even though I live almost an hour away and don't know much about Pickens County... but I do know an outstanding paper when I see it.

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