If I thought writing my last blog was surreal, the last five minutes have just topped it. I’m sat on the veranda of my guest house, using their wireless to communicate with people thousands of miles away. From somewhere in the distance I hear the clip-clop of horses hooves, and when I look up an Amish family, dressed in their Sunday best, goes rolling by in their horse-drawn buggy on the way home from worship or visiting family. I have truly arrived in the heart of Amish country.
After a 12 hour journey yesterday, publisher Keith Rathbun and his wife Maxine picked me up from the airport and drove the short distance to Sugarcreek. To give you a bit of background, the village is in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, and has a population of around 2,300 mainly “ordinary” people (known simply as English) in the village itself, and then Amish communties live in the farms and homesteads of the surrounding area. The next county over, Holmes county, is home to the largest Amish population in the world, despite the common misconception they are mainly based in Pennsylvania. Very little is open on a Sunday, so I spent most of today driving through the five nearby counties, watching Amish children waving out the back of buggies as they drove home from Sunday service, young girls in traditional white bonnets and Amish dresses, topped off with Nike trainers, and elderly gentlemen with long white beards lending an arm to their wives as they strolled in the afternoon heat.
I have absorbed so much information in my first 24 hours, but I’ll try to stay focussed on what I considerto be my most interesting finds so far about the newspaper, and how I’ll actually be spending my time here. The paper itself is traditional broadsheet size, and Keith, the publisher, was keen to hear about the shift to compact size he’s heard about in European newspapers. This week’s splash was about job losses at the local brick factory in the face of recession, and other stories included charity appeals and school achievements – not so different from the news values dictating the front pages of regional papers everywhere. But inside is the national edition – a compilatoin of 450 letters from more than 800 Amish scribes, writing about the day-to-day happenings in the Amish and Mennonite communities across the US, and those doing mission work around the world – the index lists entries from the Ukraine, Dominican Republic and Israel. The Budget have a policy of minimal editing on these letters – if a scribe sends it in, they promise to print it, and I plan to spend quite a lot of time looking at the themes in these bulletins and how they make the Budget a community newspaper in the most traditional sense.
Publisher Keith is a fascinating guy – a journalist of more than 30 years – who has run The Budget for almost a decade (he now owns it). He built his career as a music and arts journalist (none of the Budget’s 16 full time staff are actually Amish, although some are Mennonite), so not exactly the sort of person you’d expect to be editing an Amish newspaper, and has had to learn a lot on the job. But he has tried to make several changes to the 180-year-old paper to keep it alive (he appears to be the driving force behind moving it online) while remaining respectful and true to the paper and its readers. I hope to do a profile on him this week, as well as the local and national editors, to see what kind of background and philosophy the people in charge of running an Amish newspaper have.
Is the Budget suffering in the same way as local and regional press the world over? I asked him over lunch. Yes, he said – they struggle to maintain their 19,000 circulation with an aging population and a youth who can be difficult to engage (Keith has ideas about how to improve this too – a subject I hope to write about in its own right). He wants to try and move away from being just a weekly by treating the website as a daily publication, with the weekly providing something different. Sound familiar? The only slight problem is the majority of his readership don’t have electricity or the internet, and many are opposed to the very idea. This will be a major theme for me to develop on.
So tomorrow I start work; attending Budget meetings and holding interviews with the editorial, advertising and sales teams; shadowing them as they report on events in the circulation area I explored with Keith and Maxine this morning. I will also be going out to the printing presses and talking to some of the paper’s 800 scribes, one of whom has been providing content to the paper for more than 50 years. I will also go out to the communities, to see what the paper means to them, how they feel about online development, and whether they too find it difficult to get their youngest members engaged.
The pictures I’ve posted today on Flickr are of Sugarcreek the village, but over the next few days I hope to have some more photos of the Amish themselves, and of the Budget’s newsroom. As ever, any comments are much appreciated, and the blogging and project proper will start in earnest tomorrow.