Ralph Maxwell had a mind to stop the presses.
His friend Dink NeSmith had other ideas.
For 40 years, Maxwell had been the editor and publisher of The Oglethorpe Echo, a 2,200-circulation weekly newspaper just east of Athens, not too far from the University of Georgia. In September, Maxwell planned to shut down the paper so he could retire.
NeSmith, a resident of Oglethorpe County who had just stepped down from his role as CEO of Community Newspapers Inc., couldn’t stand the thought of living in a place without a paper — or retiring.
“It’s a lightbulb that just came on one morning when Ralph said he was going to shut the paper down,” NeSmith said. “I just thought, ‘We can’t let this happen.’”
So NeSmith drove to the newspaper office as Maxwell was writing the story announcing the last paper in its 148-year run, and asked him to reconsider.
Then NeSmith called the dean of the journalism school at UGA.
Within 60 seconds, NeSmith said, they’d loosely agreed on a plan to let the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication take over the paper.
Of course, as NeSmith, a Grady alumni himself, said, “The devil’s in the details.”
So far, the details haven’t proved too devilish. The family donated the paper to The Oglethorpe Echo Legacy Inc., a nonprofit established as part of the arrangement. NeSmith will serve as chairman of an advisory board for now, and UGA journalism students will provide content under the direction of Grady faculty.
The first edition of the reimagined paper, staffed by paid UGA interns until a capstone class takes over in January, came out on Thursday.
As Poynter has previously reported, there are certainly other examples of partnerships between schools and community news organizations. For example, students at the University of Kansas recently brought news back to a small community that had been a news desert since 2009.
But officials at UGA haven’t found another example of a newspaper being donated, essentially, to a university journalism program. They believe it represents a chance for the Grady school to play with a model that might have promise for other universities and communities.
The plan is that every semester, 20 students in a capstone class will report, photograph and design the paper for course credit, said Janice Hume, UGA journalism department head. They will also bring expertise to the paper’s website and social media.
“They’ll be rotating through roles — reporting, visuals editing, as well as digital — so getting their hands on everything,” said professor Amanda Bright, who will lead the first capstone class in January. “Toward the end of the semester, (we’ll allow) them to specialize, and perhaps do a little innovation.”
Andy Johnston, another UGA journalism professor, will serve as managing editor of the product.
Summers and holidays will be staffed by paid interns until the students return to regular classes.
NeSmith and Grady faculty were quick to point out that there are still a lot of variables and TBDs involved, but they are excited and hopeful about the prospect of keeping the weekly printed product going and improving the paper’s website and digital presence.
NeSmith said this new course can be a laboratory for students and journalists.
“What I would like — in conjunction with Grady — is to create a sustainable business model that can be exported to other small-town newspapers that are struggling,” he said.
NeSmith said that the primary revenue will come from circulation and advertising. In addition, donors can make tax-deductible contributions to the newly established 501(c)(3).
It’s about 15 miles to the newspaper office from campus, and the faculty said it will encourage community engagement.
“Our goal is for our students to learn to be great journalists,” Hume said. “And so what better opportunity than for them to get shoe-leather, hands-on beat reporting, covering a county and seeing their work printed in a professional newspaper? This community journalism, this newspaper, is a really special opportunity for us.
“We’re not going to skip an issue on a 148-year-old newspaper. Our plan is to keep it going for 148 more years.”