Rural newspaper network focus: Local folks

Alabama Living Magazine

By Emmett Burnett

From Huntsville to Orange Beach, Alabama’s newspapers run statewide with room for more. But starting a newspaper requires significant funding, expertise, and training, not often available in rural areas. You need help and you need money. 

The PACERS Rural Community Newspaper Network supplies both.

For years, the non-profit organization has advocated for small communities and schools. More recently, they discovered the benefit of small newspapers in tiny towns. 

Jerrie and Gary Burton hold a copy of The Pintlala Ledger, one of four rural community newspapers supported by the PACERS Rural Community Newspaper Network.

“Rural areas do not have a record or written history, “ says PACERS Founder and Executive Director Jack Shelton. “Such areas are seldom covered by big media. Small communities are the perfect spot for  a local newspaper, because the people need a voice.” Thus, PACERS set the pace.

“We got the idea when helping  schools produce student newspapers,” Shelton recalls. “That is how community newspapers got in our DNA. There is a need for connecting and communication in small areas. We wanted to establish self-sustaining, quality newspapers, produced by people who live in the communities they report on.”

PACERS researched Alabama for good location candidates. Four were selected: Camp Hill in Tallapoosa County; Beatrice and Packers Bend in Monroe County; and Pintlala in Montgomery County. “I visited all four areas and asked residents would they like to publish papers as part of a network,” Shelton says. “The response was similar in every place – ‘This is the best thing we can do for our communities.’”

Gary Burton, publisher of the PACERS network’s Pintlala Ledger, agrees. “This is so gratifying for us, knowing our paper was well received, not just here in Pintlala, but other places too.”

He continues, “Our goal is to help the community to get to know each other. Even though we are a small area, many here live two or three acres off the road. It is hard to visit. We just know each other superficially. I hope our paper takes that to another level.”

The Ledger does not delve into politics but focuses on local people, businesses and events.

Gary’s wife, Jerrie, is the paper’s designer.  Like the others, she learned the business by doing it. “My previous experience was producing church bulletins,” she recalls. Today Jerrie is the  layout person, and as husband Gary says, “the brains behind this business.” 

She laughs, describing small town newsprint production, “You never know what will happen until it goes to the printer.”

The network of four papers was chosen to see if and how long it would take for each to go from startup to self-sustaining. “We wanted to know the time it takes until we are no longer needed,” says Shelton.  “All four are good, professional newspapers that started out being run by journalism rookies.”

The four initially received funding from PACERS’s accounts, and other money was donated by individuals, including two who gave a total of $30,000. A grant from The Daniel Foundation of Alabama covers costs not met by the papers. 

In addition to the Pintlala Ledger, the network includes The Camp Hill Chronicle, The Packers Bend Times and The Beatrice Legacy.  

Based on key learnings from the four-paper network, PACERS hopes to launch two or three new papers in 2024.


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