Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Budget

The Pajamas Media consortium of bloggers (I've enlisted) is exploring ways to take this medium to the next step and turn the round-the-clock mudslide of the blogosphere into a viable source of news and commentary.

Being bloggers, many of the participants don't care for the ways of the "MSM." Being both a blogger and an MSM-ite, I think we could benefit from the lessons and examples of 200-some years of newspaper publishing in America.

One of the models that intrigues me is "The Budget," a weekly newspaper published since 1890 in Sugarcreek, Ohio.

I can't link you to it, because it doesn't have a Web site. That would be a waste of time, because "The Budget" serves the Amish and Mennonite communities.

About the only online presence of the Budget is in the 2004 Electronic Information Services Database survey by the Ohio Newspaper Association, in which the publishers answer "no" to just about everything, and write under "comments," "We are predominately an Amish-Mennonite publication, and therefore electronic technology is not a priority at present."

I can pick up a copy of it if I drive up to Intercourse and go into the old country store where the Amish girls buy solid-colored polyester by the bolt. I don't know how anyone else can get one, however, so I'll have to describe it for you.

"The Budget" must be the grayest paper in America. Not only does it have no photographs, it doesn't even have real headlines. Every page (I think they use an 8-column front) is built up like brickwork of short contributions from readers in one or another of the Plain communities scattered across North America. Each settlement has an appointed scribe who has the duty to send "The Budget" a brief weekly account of the news from that corner of the Amish/Mennonite world.

The items run about 6 to 10 inches, and the only heading is the name of the community. Each contains the news of that community -- how far ahead or behind the sowing or reaping is, the weather, births, death, marriages. Who's in the hospital, who's been visiting from afar. And any unusual events.

They can keep it short because the Plain folk are famously focused on the basics in their farm-oriented lives. And because they are notoriously laconic. Whole stories are told in a sentence. An item on the death of a farm wife with six children noted that the oldest daughter, age 12, had "commenced housekeeping" for the family. The whole story was given as much space as the item about the state of the pickle relish canning that year.

Another item noted a church member had gotten half his beard ripped off in a tangle with some piece of shop machinery. How I described it here is about how they wrote it. That's it; with the addition of: "He says it doesn't hurt, but it doesn't improve his appearance much."

I don't offer this as a direct model, but an inspiration. "The Budget" knows what it does. The Amish and Mennonites have family all over North America and as far afield as Guatemala by now, and this paper keeps them in touch.

It doesn't enforce priorities; it lets the readers find what they want. it presumes they know what they're looking for.

The contributions are short, because newsprint is limited. But an online version need not be limited by space. It could print the top few paragraphs of each entry, and let the reader decide whether to open it up to full length.

There's not a single trained journalist among its legion of contributors. Their positions are based on trust. They report the facts of life where they are. It can be done!