The three speakers, asked by Oconee County Democrats earlier this month to discuss the Role of Local Media, gave complementary responses.
Amanda Prochaska, co-publisher of The Oconee Enterprise and the first to speak, took a historical perspective.
Since the founding of this county in 1875, she said, “essentially there has been some form of print media that has been helping tell the story of the citizens that live here.”
The Enterprise has played that role since 1884, she said.
“I think the most important role of the media is connecting with the community,” Caitlin Farmer, a reporter at the Enterprise, said.
She also said the role of the media is to hold local governments accountable.
I was the third speaker, and I said my purpose in writing this blog is “to share information with the goal of producing a more informed community.”
A good community newspaper has the same goal, I said.
Amanda Prochaska told the Democrats at the Oct. 19 meeting that she wanted to start her comment with a brief history of newspapers in the county.
|Prochaska And Mary Louise|
Five years after Oconee County was split off from Clarke County by the legislature, the Watkinsville Advocate began publishing, she said.
The paper lasted only two years and was followed by the Enterprise.
Prochaska said the paper was named the legal organ of the county at its beginning by the Judge of Probate Court, the Sheriff, and the Clerk of Superior Court and has remained the legal organ ever since.
Some of the editions, she said, contained nothing more than legal advertisements.
Prochaska said in the 1890s Bogart and High Shoals also had their own papers, and she suspects there were other papers for which she has not been able to find a record.
At present, Prochaska said, “We have seven full-time staff members and a baby.”
That baby, Mary Louise, a nearly two-year-old toddler, joined Prochaska for the presentation to the Democrats.
Prochaska has served as co-publisher of the Enterprise with her husband, Michael, since the December 22, 2022, edition of the paper.
The paper announced in that edition that local businessman Mark Martin had purchased the paper from Publisher and General Manager Maridee Williams.
Michael Prochaska joined the Enterprise as a reporter in 2012 and became editor of the paper in 2016.
The seven full-time employees include, in addition to herself, her husband, and Farmer, a sports editor, two advertising consultants, and a production manager/graphic designer, Prochaska said.
Prochaska said her husband, as editor, “oversees all of the editorial content that goes into the paper. So he designs where stories are going to go in that newspaper. He coordinates with all of the contributors.”
“I am the jack of all trades, master of none,” she said. “I do all of the other things, so obituaries, announcements, legal ads, classified ads. I oversee the retail advertising.”
“I clean the office, just do a little bit of everything,” she continued. “I also manage the subscription service. And I am the last person who sees the page on a Wednesday before it goes to press.”
Farmer told the Democrats, meeting at the Oconee Chamber of Commerce in Watkinsville, that she writes on average of six stories each week for the paper “on a wide array of topics.”
“Since I joined the Enterprise in January of 2023,” she said, “I have covered topics from agriculture to education, government meetings. I write profiles about people. When there are events, I go to those every day.”
“How that works is we get story ideas from lots of different places,” she said. “Most of the time I am talking with Michael about it, and he’ll kind of assign me to stories.”
“So it can come from something on social media, events that we are told about,” she said. “Or things that people reach out to us about because they have questions about it and they want to know more.”
“And that is what is so awesome about local journalism,” Farmer said. “Because you are really able to immerse yourself into the community, build relationships with people.”
“And once you do that, people know that you are someone that they come to when they hear something going on or they see something that they are not sure about,” she said.
Farmer graduated from North Oconee High School and then from the University of Georgia.
Before joining the Enterprise, Farmer worked as a journalist with The Oglethorpe Echo and with the student publication The Red & Black, where she covered activities in Athens-Clarke County.
“It doesn’t really matter where you are, the most important thing is building trust with people and building relationships with people,” she said. “Because at the end of day, I am coming into people’s lives and I am asking them to tell me their story.”
“I am asking them basically to trust me and to allow me write their story,” she said.
“I think the most important role of the media is connecting with the community and being a place where people in the community feel like they can come and ask a question or tell you about a subject and know that you are going to look into that and do your job to answer their questions and bring more openness to the community on whatever the topic may be,” Farmer said.
“Without local journalism, there wouldn’t be someone to hold the local government accountable,” she said, “because a big part of what we do is going to government meetings and sitting and listening and reporting on those things and summarizing for people what happened at that meeting.”
“You’re, in a way, the eyes and ears of the community because you know what people are talking about certain topics,” she said. “You know where to find certain things where people might otherwise not know where to go find.”
Oconee County Observations
I told the Democrats that I decided to start my blog in 2006, while I was still on the faculty of the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, for a number of reasons. I retired in 2017.
“One of them was to learn how to use social media for journalism because I hadn’t worked in any environment in which that existed, and I wanted to incorporate some of that in my teaching,” I said.
“But another was to provide community service,” I said. “I thought that by doing journalism in Oconee County, the community in which I lived, I could make a contribution to the community.”
“Journalists historically, I think, have done themselves a disservice by not being straightforward about what they do,” I said. “They like to tell you that they mirror society. And try to state that they are relatively passive in the news construction process. And that is, I think, absolutely wrong.”
Journalists are not stenographers, I said. When a journalist attends a meeting, for example “What we are trying to do is to create a narrative from that meeting, a news story, if you like, and tell a story that has as its base that meeting.”
“I’m trying to figure out what someone who attended the meeting would single out, but also what affects the most people,” I said. “I think, when I do my journalism, about the community.”
“I’m also very sensitive to my selection,” I said. “I recognize that there are going to be other people” who might focus on some other aspect of the meeting.
“So what I try to do is video record everything that I can video record,” I said. “And I put it at the bottom of my blog. And I annotate it.”
“You can say ‘he screwed up. You know, he didn’t pick out the most important thing. I’m going to go read that first. I’m not going to pay any attention to what he’s got.’” I said. “You have that option.”
Focus On Selection
“If you accept my premise that, when we discuss journalism, we should be focusing not on the bias, that is, the ideological bias and things of that sort, but on selection,” I said. “Then we should focus on what are the goals of the journalist who is making that selection. That is what our conversation should really be about.”
“I told you that my goal is I’m trying to share information with the goal of producing a more informed community,” I said. “It is a lofty goal, but in reality that is really what I’m interested in.”
“And a good community newspaper has the same goal,” I said.
“I believe that Mark Martin, who bought the paper, and Amanda, Michael, Caitlin, who put it together each week, I believe that they are really trying to focus on serving this community,” I said.
“They hope by serving the community they can make money,” I said. But that focus on service, “is what, I think, makes the Enterprise so important to this community.”
“We don’t realize--I think most people don’t realize--how unusual it is to have a locally owned, locally edited, locally focused newspaper,” I said. “We really are, I think, blessed to have that here in the county.”
“But the Enterprise, in my opinion, is not enough,” I continued. “Amanda, Caitlin, and Michael may not like my saying this, but I don’t see journalism as being something that belongs to professionals.”
“I see journalism as an act of citizenship,” I said. “I think we need more people at meetings. We need more people creating narratives about what is happening as well as reporting about what is going on in the community.”
“These people, I hope, are people whose goal it is to provide information to the community, not argue some point or support some ideological point of view,” I said.
Questions And Answers
Much of the conversation that followed the three presentations focused on lengthy stories Farmer had written for the Sept. 28 edition of the Enterprise on soil amendments.
Farmer, in response to a question, said these stories, of all she has written since she joined the paper in January, have produced the most feedback.
She said she spent two weeks working on the stories.
That included 10 or 11 hours making phone calls and two to three full days of talking to a lot of people with different perspectives and expertise.
“That article on the sludge thing,” Dan Magee said. “That was great...That was a great story.”
The meeting on Oct. 19 was the second held by the Oconee County Democrats focusing on journalism.
Greg Bluestein from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke to the group in June.
The video below, shot by Ann Hollifield, is of the full meeting of the Oconee County Democrats on Oct. 19.
The meeting took place in the basement meeting hall of the Oconee Chamber of Commerce off Experiment Station Road in Watkinsville.
Prochaska began her comments at 5:50 in the video.
Farmer began her comments at 13:07 in the video.
I started my comments at 24:17
Questions started at 53:51 in the video.
The business meeting starts at 1:16 in the video.