ISWNE conference showcases strong state of local news

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My eyes widened staring down at the plate. It was heaped with French fries topped with cheese curds and slathered in brown gravy. After one bite, my tastebuds rejoiced. It was delicious. 

It’s a Canadian culinary conquest. It’s poutine.

Ignoring the fact one can’t go wrong with brown gravy and cheese curds, the poutine exemplified my experience at the 2024 International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors conference in Toronto, Canada.

It was both fresh and familiar. A brand-new comfort food I’d known forever after my initial taste.

I felt the same about ISWNE and my fellow conference attendees. The organization and the people were new to me, yet I immediately felt like I was home and had known everyone for years.

ISWNE opened the door for me to find community with others keenly interested in the health of the rural and weekly media. Having started my career running a weekly newspaper in rural Kansas before transitioning into the realm of academia, my work focuses on training future community journalists and researching local news.

Hearing stories about how my fellow attendees continue finding success in their towns and coverage areas buoyed my spirits. Despite the dominant narratives casting the media world as being in constant decline, community journalism is alive and well. 

Sure, the publishers and editors gathered from around the globe acknowledged various challenges they face. However, the doom-and-gloom portrayals are overblown.

Thanks to the collective knowledge and experience of the ISWNE members, issues can be discussed and best practices exchanged in an open and supportive environment so any obstacle can be overcome.

A prime example of this backing came via the editorial critiques in which conferencegoers participated. They put themselves out there, allowing their fellow members to pick apart their editorial pages in an effort to improve the work they do. Such an exercise could have become uncomfortable. It’s easy to get defensive when someone criticizes your work, and that’s doubly so when that work happens to be a newspaper that you put your blood, sweat and tears into. 

Rather than it devolving into anger and frustration, though, it served as a wonderful opportunity for learning. Everyone involved understood that any criticism shared came from a place of respect and appreciation for the work being done with the goal of helping each other.

It was incredibly inspiring, especially in a time when so many aspects of our world are filled with division and vitriol that pits people against each other even when they are essentially on the same team.

That’s what ISWNE is, though — an international team of community-minded journalists aiming to keep the public informed and the politicians accountable while recording the news for the historical record.

I wish I had known about ISWNE when I ran my weekly newspaper. Having such a support network would have made me feel less isolated. I would have known that I had a team of people rooting for me, and those people understand the nuances of community journalism. I would have had people to talk to and work through any issues I faced.

After all, it is about the people. Whether I was learning about cricket from Ian Murray, laughing with Kathy and Richard Tretter, discussing experiences with Steven Ranson and Bradley Martin, brainstorming with Paul MacNeill, or reconnecting with Martin Kruming and Sarah Kessinger, I found myself amazed by the people I met, and I’d like to think I made new friends.

One such individual was co-host Alicia McCutcheon. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to explore Toronto and crack jokes with her and Ed Prudhomme. Also, special thanks to her daughter Julia for helping me figure out how to work the laundry card machine.

Of course, none of what I experienced would have been possible without folks like co-host Gordon Cameron and ISWNE Executive Director Chad Stebbins, Ph.D. Not only were they incredibly kind and helpful in a number of ways, chatting with them was a joy.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank two people in particular: Sam Mwangi, Ph.D., and Vickie Canfield-Peters.

Dr. Mwangi, who served on my doctoral dissertation committee, directs the Huck Boyd National Center for Community Media at Kansas State University. Knowing my research interests, he encouraged me to submit to the ISWNE/Huck Boyd Center research paper competition even though I didn’t anticipate I would place let alone win.

Since I did win, though, I wouldn’t have been lucky enough to have my attendance financially supported if it weren’t for Canfield-Peters. The 2024 Past Presidents’ Scholarship I received exists because of her. Of course, I didn’t know this until the end of the conference. If I had, I would have bought her more than a hotdog at the Toronto Blue Jays game and refused any repayment, whether in the form of Loonies, Toonies or anything else. 

Regardless, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to attend the ISWNE conference. I am grateful to all those who helped me achieve this and welcomed me into the fold.

I hope to be involved with the organization and all its people for the foreseeable future. After all, as was evident in Toronto, the state of local news is strong.

Dr. Vogts is an assistant professor of media at Sterling (Kan.) College. His research focuses on mis- and disinformation, the intersection of media and democracy, sports media, community journalism, and journalism education. He advises student media and teaches courses in communication, journalism, and digital media. Born and raised in rural Kansas, he ran a weekly newspaper in the central part of the state and taught high school journalism prior to entering higher education.

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About toddvogts 843 Articles
Todd R. Vogts, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of media at Sterling College in Kansas. Previously, he taught yearbook, newspaper, newsmagazine, and online journalism in various Kansas high schools, and he ran a weekly newspaper in rural Kansas. He continues to freelance as a professional journalist from time to time. Also, Vogts is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Journalism Education Association (JEA), and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), among others. He earned his Master Journalism Educator (MJE) certification from JEA in 2022. When he’s not teaching or writing, he runs his mobile disk jockey service and takes part in other entrepreneurial ventures. He can be reached at twitter.com/toddvogts or via his website at www.toddvogts.com.