Amish round up….

•September 21, 2009 • 2 Comments

It’s been a while since I got back from Ohio and The Budget, and I am yet to blog on the experience as a whole on this space, but that’s not to say I haven’t been mulling it all over! Just in case anyone missed it, here’s a piece I wrote for reflecting on some of the things I learned while I was away, and I’m also extremely proud to say I was interviewed by Noam Cohen from the New York Times about my experiences, resulting in this article. My final piece for the Welsh Livery Guild will be submitted at the end of the month and I’m looking forward to putting that out there too. Then I’ll have to find a subject matter other than the Amish to blog about…


Amish interpretations part II, and the end of my trip.

•July 10, 2009 • 3 Comments
A young Amish family (and Budget readers!) on the move

A young Amish family (and Budget readers!) on the move

Following my last post, there were a couple of suggestions for events people would like me to look up in the Budget. To satisfy the curiosity of those readers (and hopefully others) I will detail those briefly here, before going over my overall impressions of my time in Sugarcreek, and how I plan to move forward with the material I have gathered.

Tim Miller (@brasseye) asked me to check out any references to the JFK shooting in November 1963. Although the news took a week or two to get back to the Amish communities, the assassination is noted in a sizable number of scribes’ letters, mainly expressing sympathy, but also appealing to church members to recognise a higher purpose in the event. One letter from Farmerstown, Ohio said:

“The news of the ruthless shooting of the President came as a great shock to everyone here, and also to the nation and the world. I know that God permitted it, and I don’t know why, but it did something to the nation, and I hope it was for the good.”

This sympathy, combined with faith-based analysis, also features in letters written at the end of World War I and II . One printed in 1945 following the end of WW2 reads:

“Now that the war is over, it often comes to my mind what a western bishop said in his sermon…if the Christian people will not take this for a warning or chastisement and live better, some kind of epidemic or severe sickness will come.”

Such responses to war and violence are born out of the Amish’s status as a non-resistant, and also non-political people, and this is noted by other scribes:

“During the recent period of war we have had a wonderful opportunity to exercise our spirit of non-resistance, but now that conditions are fast returning to normal again and restrictions are being lessened, we have even greater opportunities. We will be able to promote a constructive program of Christian Service and in doing so we can emphasize ‘The power of love to overcome Evil’.”

Fellow Cardiff graduate Ruth Mosalski (@ruthmosalski) suggested trying to find references to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I looked over quite a few issues from November and December 1989, but failed to find any references, which I was surprised about. The one factor I think might have something to do with this is that by 1989, the local edition of the paper had stopped printing stories of national and international importance, narrowing it’s focus as a local newspaper, but there may be other reasons I am unaware of.

And so after two weeks, my stay with the Budget has come to an end. A highlights of my last week has been an overnight stay with an Old Order Amish family. Spending an evening watching purple martins coming into nest rather than sitting in front of the television, and going to bed by gas and oil lamp was certainly an experience. And the evening confirmed to me that despite the agriculture and family-orientated nature of the pages of the Budget’s national edition, the Amish continue to get international news from somewhere. Melvyn Hershberger, the 74-year-old hardware store owner who hosted me for the evening was keen to know the British government’s position on topics including health care reform, Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Me, national editor Fannie Erb-Miller and Amish schoolgirl Debra enjoy a buggy ride

Me, national editor Fannie Erb-Miller and Amish schoolgirl Debra enjoy a buggy ride

But he remained completely loyal to the Budget as well – a scribe for 40 years, he at least skim reads every letter in the national edition, and pays closer attention to those places where he has friends or relatives – it’s an easy and (relatively) quick way to communicate. One of the young girls who works part-time in the Hershberger store, a 24-year-old school teacher, said while she reads, she reads more selectively – she has friends in Montana, so she’ll keep an eye out for those letters, mirroring the patterns of media consumption throughout the rest of the modern world. As I found out talking to Keith earlier in the week, the Budget acknowledges that such habits among the youth are forcing them to adapt and change. But it’s pretty phenomenal that the circulation of a paper which has barely changed its format for more than 100 years has dipped by just 2,000 copies over the last 14  – something I would put down to having a staff which know the sensibilities of their audience inside out.

Some things I came to find out about I am yet to blog on. This has partly been down to time, but also because when I write my final piece for the Welsh Livery Guild, I still want some of the material to be original. I have spent a large amount of time looking into the development of the Budget’s website, and am hoping to make this a substantial part of my finished article, but I will write a post on it when I get back to the UK.

As far as the Amish people are concerned, I’ve found they are often misrepresented and misunderstood. I have met Amish people who never use the phone, have no running water and no intention of changing. But I have also met Amish men (and women!) who have masters degrees, use the Internet, and have land line phones. The variety is as great as in any other community, and just like all communities, they are not without their problems. Although less prevalent, alcohol and drug abuse, unhappy families and financial desperation appear in the Amish too, and many told me they find it hard to deal with the idealised vision often promoted through the tourist industry. If you’re interested in these people, go to a reliable source – get a copy of the Budget’s national edition if you can. The reliability of citizen journalism is often questioned, but I would argue that in the case of the Budget, it can be an accurate reflection of life in Amish country.

Amish interpretations: the moon landings and other major events

•July 7, 2009 • 6 Comments

The scribes letters which make up the national or Amish edition of the Budget are a far cry from the news formats we “English” are used to. The majority start with a description of the weather; “It is 88 degrees at 9am. During the day it goes into the upper 90s. We have little breeze today,” begins one from a Wisconsin scribe last week. This is normally followed by updates on farming issues – news on crop growth or the harvest – and then details of auctions or sales attended by community members during the week. Church news is shared, along with the names of those visiting or those away visiting others, plus reports of weddings and funerals. It is community news in the truest sense, and Amish families appreciate it as a way of keeping up with relatives who may be many thousands of miles away (the Budget is sent to 41 US states, and to international destinations).

But I wondered if there were ever events in the “non-Amish” world that were so big they impacted on these letters, causing them to refer to happenings outside Sunday’s church service or the height of their corn. Looking up important dates over the last 100 years in the paper’s archives I found that every so often, this did happen. Take for example the moon landings in 1969. When Neil Armstrong took one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind, the world marvelled at this moment in our history. But the Amish communities had a slightly different view.

For some, it appeared insignificant. This short note appeared at the bottom of a long letter from Dundee, Ohio, following on from news of sick community members:

“Today was a new holiday because the astronauts had reached the moon.”

In communities focused so intensely on family, the news value of such an expedition is not particularly high. Other letters expressed sentiments very different from the congratulatory tone in mainstream news, including the Budget’s own local edition at that time. A scribe from Indiana commented:

“The astronauts intend to walk on the moon tonight. We wonder if the money that is used for space exploration would not be better spent if it were used to help the poor.”

A valid argument. Someone else argues: “one wonders what is gained by [landing on the moon] outside of high prestige at the expense of billions of dollars,” while others simply seek to put it into perspective when compared to the powers of God:

“Quite an achievement. But if we measure this up with the power to create the Sun, moon, stars, earth and everything, it is very puny. Bible states man gets wiser and weaker.”

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it. Skip forward four decades and 9/11 also finds itself among the social gatherings and buggy accidents – in fact the front page tells the story of a Pennsylvanian scribe whose home was just six miles from the site where the fourth plane crashed into farm land. Here the sentiments were similar to those expressed across the globe in the aftermath of the tragedy, although they remain deeply rooted in the religious teachings provided by the Amish church:

“Our thoughts have been stirred by what has happened this past week in New York City, etc. It is a challenge to us to spread the Gospel to those we meet, and to be faithful till Jesus comes!”

Fast forward again to November’s US elections and Obama-mania is strangely absent from the pages of the national edition. Staff at the Budget inform me the Amish are unlikely to vote in national elections, although they maybe encouraged to do so on single issues affecting them, and this brings me back to the very heart of the content on the Budget’s national pages; if it does not relate their communities, it doesn’t go in. They are completely faithful to the needs of their readership, because the writers are the readership – it is citizen journalism taken to the extreme. As a result our English new values are either perceived in a very different way, or omitted completely.

I have a few days left with the Budget, so if anyone wants to suggest an event from 1890 onwards they would like me to look up to see the Amish response, let me know and I’ll try and get round to it.

Audience interaction…in 1890

•July 6, 2009 • 2 Comments

If you think engaging with your audience and toppling journalists from their ivory towers has only come about with the advent of Web 2.0, take a look at these “newsroom rules” printed in the Budget’s second edition on May 29, 1890. These were directed at readers, not staff:

Rules of our office

When you come in don’t sit down, but walk about and inspect the office closely.

Take hold of the press and give it a few turns, as it keeps it in working order.

Look over the editor’s shoulder and read what he is writing.

Don’t forget to examine the type, we like to have them mixed.

Don’t fail to make some suggestions as to how a paper should be run.

Spit tobacco juice on the ink disc, it keeps it from rusting.

Monkey with the paper cutter, it keeps it sharp.

Ask questions, we have lots of time to answer them.

Ahead of their time, some might say.

Newspapers and (Amish) youth: an age-old dilemma

•July 6, 2009 • 2 Comments
Young Amish girls serve up supper - photo by Devonaire Eye

Young Amish girls serve up supper - photo by Devonaire Eye

The Amish population doubles roughly once every 20 years. Despite the famous rumspringa period in an Amish teenager’s life (the time during which adolescents are given freedom from some of the church’s rules before they decide whether to be formally baptised) leading some to the decision not to join their parents in a simpler way of life, Amish families tend to be larger than their English equivalents. This means even if one or two children decide to leave, there is normally a sizable number who will choose to stay. They in turn will have their own children, and so the cycle continues. So this leaves the Budget with a quandary familiar to most newspaper editors of today; how to draw in younger readers. But unlike many other publications, the Budget has many more obstacles in its way than just cash flow and clever advertising campaigns.

Both Budget publisher Keith Rathbun and national edition editor Fannie Erb-Miller say they have no reliable data on the demographic make-up of their readership, but they estimate the majority of their Amish Mennonite audience to be in the 50+ age bracket. Keith puts this down to two contributing factors:

“One is they are busy. Even the Amish kids, they do not have the time to read it like their parents and grandparents did. But also the content and letters tend to be of more interest to the older people. They’re about health problems, people’s recuperation, visiting the sick. The kids do not really relate to that. There is a place for that in the paper, but when it’s so much of the letters, the kids just sort of tune it out.”

He said this has led to concerns that, despite the Budget’s 120-year history, some of the kids simply do not know the paper exists, and this is worrying for a newspaper which in many areas has a monopoly as the source of Amish news.

Over the past few years, Keith and his team have tried to develop schemes to tackle the youth problem:

“We want to try to find out what the younger Amish look for in the Budget. What do they need to see to make the time commitment to the paper?”

Ideas have included producing a “Little Budget” – a compact version of the paper, aimed at young adults and children attending parochial schools and written by younger scribes. It would be about “what’s going on in their school, their lives, trips they’re thinking of doing, friends that are getting married,” said Keith, and could also act as scouting ground for talented national scribes. But while Keith is willing to put in the time to find the advertising commitment  to be able to break even on such a project, the economic downturn has rendered it a pipe dream for the time being.

Other proposals included mimicking the Newspapers in Education programme that has been popular in other US schools. The scheme puts a number of newspapers into classrooms each month, allowing teachers to build lesson plans around them to raise awareness of their role in society and current affairs. Doing the same with the Budget, say the staff, would be a way to maintain a connection with their younger readers on the ground. But they have faced opposition from the Amish bishops and others in the community, with such schemes deemed “too mercenary” for the Amish philosophy. But the publisher insists there is more to his paper’s motivation than dollar signs:

“Of course, we are hoping to gain readers,” said Keith. “And we are hoping to get people to want to pick up the paper on a regular basis, but [the bishops] felt that that was all we were interested in. But the Budget is a very important part of Amish lives – it tells their history, their genealogy.”

Even smaller schemes to raise awareness of the Budget’s name have been fraught with problems. Plans to provide dictionaries to every Amish third grader, courtesy of the Sugarcreek publication, were shelved after it proved too difficult to find a “clean” dictionary. Thoughts then switched to putting world maps into classrooms with the newspaper’s logo printed somewhere discreet, but this idea could also come under fire for a perceived commercial motivation.

And all the while, the Amish (both young and old) are finding other ways to communicate. I have seen more than one young teenager chatting away on a mobile phone in the week I have been here, and walking into Sugarcreek Library on Thursday I came across one Amish girl about to type something into Google’s homepage. The recent addition of extra computers to the library is, in no small part I am told, due to others like this young woman. But while the causes of the Budget’s youth problem may sound familiar, they also have to factor in a respect for the Amish adults they co-operate with, who are often working from a very different agenda.

Advertising with the Amish

•July 2, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Any publisher worth his (or her) salt will tell you the fiscal backbone of a successful newspaper is advertising. As the bottom fell out of this market in papers from London to St Louis over the last two years, many established titles have suffered, and some have even gone to print for the very last time.  Former classified advertisers are moving online to fill the pockets of E-Bay and Gum Tree, while major advertisers tighten their belts in the face of global economic doom.  Newspapers have been forced to slash staff numbers or adopt other drastic cost-cutting measures. When I went to visit the offices of Ohio daily the Times-Reporter earlier this week, I was saddened to see a large newsroom littered with empty desks, and a down-hearted editor describe how the most recent round of redundancies reduced his staff journalists from 25 to 18. On the plus side, he said, they were still managing to get a paper out each day.

So it was heartening to hear that the Budget (a weekly paper with a lower circulation than the Times-Reporter in the local area) has so far been riding out the great advertising crash with relative ease. I talked to the Budget’s production and advertising manager Kim Petry about the changes she has seen over the last few years, and she voiced the belief that their buoyant advertising could be attributed to the Amish readership of their national edition (the section of the paper catering purely for Amish Mennonite communities).

Local business in Sugarcreek continue to advertise with the Budget

Local business in Sugarcreek continue to advertise with the Budget

“The advertising drop here is not as severe as in most papers. We have the benefit of Amish readers and advertisers, and they do help the paper to stay afloat. For example, the Amish are into their home and herbal remedies and that just does not seem to have been hit at all.”

While the recession has reached all corners of the world – and Amish communities are no exception – the fact that a large majority do not have the internet in their homes means the Budget’s classified section continues to perform strongly. Other Amish advertising also remains largely unaffected because, as the foremost Amish Mennonite newspaper in the world (although not the onlyone of its kind being printed in America, such as the Pennsylvania based Die Botschaft), the Budget can guaruntee advertisers a stable demographic that they are not losing to television, radio or the web. As publisher Keith Rathbun put it:

“If you want to reach the Amish Mennonite communities, there is not a more effective way to do it than advertise in the Budget.”

There aren’t many papers that could still make that guaruntee today. There are of course some fluctuations in advertising patterns. Kim pointed out her staff have been going home early over the last few weeks because of the change in the seasons:

“The amount of work does vary, but it depends on the season as to how much there is. At the moment, they [the Amish communities] are in their fields and gardens, or travelling to see family for weddings and visits. I can really tell when the farming starts, because the advertising does drop off, and so do the letters. But then when the seasons change, it picks back up again because people aren’t so busy and they remember to send their ad in each week.”

Keith also pointed out a substantial number of their regulars have reduced the amount of inches they purchase, and pagination has sometimes been cut slightly as a result. But generally these reductions simply leave room for new clients. With an increasing number of Amish families unable to support themselves on farming revenue alone, a whole range of secondary businesses – from basket weaving to Amish restaurants – have sprung up and also need advertising.

Amish families continue to look for new business ventures to supplement farming

Amish families continue to look for new business ventures to supplement farming

There are restrictions on what can be advertised in the Amish section of the paper – there are no ads for alcohol or birth control, and the advertising team have to stay alert for advertisers with less than honest intentions. There have been cases where Amish families have been scammed out of tens of thousands of dollars by schemes appearing to cater for their wants and needs. But Keith believes it is this kind of vigilance, and a deep understanding of their readership, that keeps them afloat at a time when everyone else seems to be sinking fast.

“[With larger papers] they don’t know who owns Joe’s Beverages, but they talk to Starbucks. They can’t get small enough to know what their readers really want, and it’s important we do this to remain a successul community paper for our Amish and English readers.”

Social networking with the Amish

•June 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment
A man using a traditional Amish phone box

A man using a traditional Amish phone box

My second day in Ohio’s Amish country, and first day working with the Budget, was characterised not only by meeting the newspaper’s enthusiastic and extremely dedicated staff (an impressive number of them have been with the paper more than two decades, and in the case of their book keeper, for over thirty years), but also by my first meeting with Amish men and women. I ate lunch in a diner served by a young Amish girl – once married, Amish women are no longer allowed to work – and met several men who worked as tour guides at the Amish and Menonite Heritage Centre. Their tour gave me a sound grounding in the basic history of these intertwined communities, but it was while talking to one of these men I came across something I thought would be of particular interest to new media types, because what I discovered was a form of social networking being used by the Amish.

The Amish and Mennonite Conference Line was set up in 2004 in Illinois as a phone line providing  Amish news bulletins 24 hours a day, except for Sundays, when the conference line is suspended so there are no distractions from church. Now the most obvious question that springs to mind here might be: the Amish have phones? But according to Keith (The Budget’s publisher) a lot of Amish, particularly those belonging to the New Order (less conservative), will have mobile or cell phones, while others will have shared phones in their homes or farms, complete with voice mail services, enabling callers to reach the correct family member. (For an interesting account of the historical Amish use of telephones, see here.)

The conference line operates in English and German on alternate days, and a newscaster will read bulletins  with news telephoned in by communities across the US, acting as an audio version of the national pages of the Budget. But if you can get all this in the Budget, why is the service becoming increasingly popular among the Amish? I put this to an Amish gentleman I interviewed who said he used the service almost every day, and that as many as 700-800 people were also using it on a regular basis. His answer relates back to every person who has ever been questioned about why they use the internet instead of picking up a paper.

“It’s quicker than the newspaper. Things that happened today I can find out about on the conference line that evening, but with the paper I would find out maybe tomorrow, or later in the week.”

But as well as the news bulletins, the line also hosts “conferences” on different topics. The line operates a programme of upcoming conferences, and anyone who has subscribed to a conference ID or pin number (almost like a Twitter username…) can speak on the line, giving their opinion or detailing their relevant experience.

Speaking about the different conference topics, the same Amish gentleman said:

“The controller tells you the information about what’s coming up [in the conferences], so maybe they have a group of farmers who graze their livestock and cows, and they’ll discuss different grazing patterns. Or some talk about organic farming, or raising animals or health foods.

“I personally like hearing about genealogy and Europe. Sometimes people talk about their trips to places where our ancestors came from, and I like the history part of that. ”

Now it may be that I’ve been spending far too long in the Twitterverse or the blogosphere, but I couldn’t help drawing parallels between this and the way social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook are used by the rest of society – as mediums to communicate with others on matters of shared common interest, going above and beyond that provided by traditional media, no matter where in the world they are. The similarities only seemed to deepen when my genealogy enthusiast said:

“I found out about it a year or so after it started, and I was interested in it at first, but it took about another year before I started to talk on it myself. Now I know probably 100 people on there that I just know by their voice – I’ve never even met them before.”

Of the 226 people on my Twitter feed, I doubt I’ve met more than a quarter in real life. But those who tweet still feel a keen sense of connection with the people who they follow, and their followers, and that connection – one that is more immediate and personal than that found through a newspaper – seemed to be important to the Amish using the conference line too.

And just like good twitter etiquette, there are rules for the conference line too, although some perhaps wouldn’t go down so well in our own social networking circles. Women are allowed to listen in to the conference conversations, but are not supposed to participate. Anyone talking about religion must identify themselves, and “sheep stealing” – trying to encourage listeners to switch their allegiance from one church to the other – is banned. But overall the service is growing in popularity, and has even taken out adverts in the Budget. So if you thought the tweeting generation were wildly advanced then think again, because the Amish are playing that game too – albeit at a slightly slower pace.