By Jim Colton
Two hours southwest of Indianapolis, Indiana, in the small town of Jasper, Indiana, stands a two story brick building with a white banner near the top that quietly proclaims the name of the local newspaper: The Herald.
Established in 1895, The Herald is one of only 300 independently-owned newspapers still being published in the United States. Its 11,300 circulation reaches 92 percent of all adults in rural Dubois County -- a remarkable audience penetration for any publication.
So how does this small town paper continue to stay relevant for its community and survive the many challenges the newspaper industry has faced the last two decades? What makes The Herald consistently earn high honors for excellence on the national stage -- especially for photography?
To find answers to these and other questions, I interviewed Dave Weatherwax, The Herald’s chief photographer and photo editor.
Jim Colton: As a newspaper with a smaller circulation, can you tell us briefly about your set-up? How many photographers, photo editors are on staff? And specifically what your role is there.
Dave Weatherwax: We have a very small photo staff here at The Herald. I am the chief photographer and we have one full-time photographer and one photo intern. Our internship is six months in length so we have two photo interns each year. I also act as the photo editor for our department. I take on the entire photo budget planning for both the daily product and our Saturday features. And in my role of staff photographer, I also shoot daily assignments and standalones, as well as work on stories for the Saturday feature.
Each day starts by attending the editors' budget meeting where we discuss what will be in that day's paper and I present what photographs I have ready for publication. I work with the city editor and all of the reporters to discuss stories that I feel have photo potential and then get the details so I can assign those to someone in our department.
Our news hole for photo is pretty consistent. I have to make sure we have a local photo for page one and page three every day, as well as the local sports content we need. I work closely with the photographers to manage their schedules so they can complete their daily assignments as well as have time to work on their Saturday feature or find a standalone photo. With such a small staff, all members of the newsroom from reporters to photographers are contributing to the daily effort. It’s truly a team effort to create the product we do.
JC: What are some of the differences you have or problems you face, that say a larger circulation newspaper many not have?
DW: It's no secret that staff sizes at newspapers around the country have been shrinking over the past couple years, so I know photographers and editors are being asked to take on more and more. But with that said, for how much local content our staff produces, we are incredibly busy, even during the "slow seasons." It's certainly a juggling act trying to make sure we are providing all the daily content that is asked of us and working on multiple photo stories at the same time. It’s incredibly challenging. But I am very proud of the fact that our staff works so hard and it shows in the stories we produce.
Another issue we run up against frequently is finding a variety in our stories as well as finding fresh ideas. Our coverage is limited to mostly Dubois County, which is largely a rural county in southern Indiana. So we have a very small coverage area to mine for stories and photographs given the amount of local content we put out. It's pretty common to have story ideas turned down at their inception because we've done a similar story too recently.
We also have a rather lengthy list of activities and events that are held annually throughout the county that we almost always cover. So it can be challenging to photograph it differently than previous years, or even photographing different people. Working in a smaller community, you tend to run into the same individuals at the same events. But I personally like that aspect of the job. And thankfully, our readers aren't demanding "fresh coverage" with everything we do. They simply want to see nice moments that represent their community.
JC: How critical is local coverage to The Herald in terms of display, compared to national and world news?
DW: Local coverage is our bread and butter and is what makes us relevant to our readers in a day and age where they are receiving fresh news from all over the world faster than our printing presses can keep up with it. Our readers are certainly aware of that, but The Herald is their source for local news which is still very important to them.
Our front page typically hosts two, sometimes three stories each day. The overwhelming majority of those are local stories. Some may be localization of a major national news story or world stage but most of the news outside of Dubois County is contained in the "Nation & World" section.
For example, on the morning of May 2, 2011, I was reading on line for the first time that Osama bin Laden had just been killed. Before I could dig into the news, I received a phone call that the roof on the gymnasium at our largest school had collapsed, completely destroying it.
I rushed over there, photographed what I could within local authority safety concerns, and returned to the office on deadline to get it in for that day's paper. Thankfully, since it occurred very early in the morning, no one was at the school yet and there were no injuries. We ran the photo and single story about the collapse on Page 1. We did a “refer” box above the banner about bin Laden to direct readers to that coverage inside.
Given the nature of how important high school sports are in people's lives (especially basketball in the state of Indiana) we felt our treatment of the two stories was easily justified. Our paper was the only source for the news of the roof collapse. By the time our paper reached our readers, they would most likely already be up on the latest news about bin Laden.
JC: What makes a great picture/story in your eyes?
DW: I don't think there is a particular type of picture that necessarily makes for a great story. What is important to me is execution and communication. You have to provide the reader with new information but unless the photographer is able to communicate a theme that speaks to the audience or reach them on some emotional level, you won't connect to them.
I'm not saying I come close to succeeding at this with all of the stories I work on, but it is a goal of mine when I set out to tell a story to find the theme that is universal enough to connect someone who may be a stranger to our readers and make those readers care about that individual. If I can successfully do that, even if it is simply a photograph of a young boy learning for the first time from the older generation of his family how to humanely shoot a hog for the families' annual gathering to butcher hogs. Most people can't say they've been in the young man's shoes, but hopefully that moment of one generation passing on to the next will connect to the reader and make them think about similar generational moments in their lives.
When I first met Dennis "Red" Keusch while shooting a standalone photo for the next day's paper at a bowling alley, I could tell there was something very special about him. At the time, Red was in his 14th year of battling Parkinson's disease. And yet, despite his very evident physically disabilities, he was putting himself out there, trying to maintain as much of a "regular" life as he could.
Sadly, there are dozens of individuals I could have done a story on about Parkinson's, but the thing that made Red special was that his "will to survive" attitude that I think a lot of people with Parkinson's or other disabilities tend to lose when they are dealt the cards Red was. He certainly lived his life to the absolute fullest right up to the end and I thought that he was such a powerful example of that to others.
JC: The Herald seems to do well in many of the national photo contests. Why do you think that is? What distinguishes your photography from other smaller circulation newspapers?
DW: Largely, I think it is due to the time and space we dedicate to telling the stories of our community, both with words and photographs….they are treated with mutual respect here. Without a solid story to accompany the photo, the photo isn't going to get great display. At the same time, a story without a solid photo may also not get the play it may deserve. So we really take the time to make sure stories are told in the best possible fashion.
The Herald has been publishing the Saturday feature — an in-depth picture story that typically spans the first two to five pages of the newspaper every Saturday — for the past 33 years. This commitment to visual display has attracted some amazing photographers over that time which has contributed to the quality of the photography and storytelling.
JC: Any sage words of advice for the aspiring young photojournalist contemplating a career in this business and perhaps weighing circulation as a factor? Should it be a factor?
DW: What we do as photojournalists is not about us. It's all about our subjects and sharing their story with the audience. That's our main job. The same stories we do here can be done just about anywhere else, it really doesn't matter the size of the publication, or the budget. In fact, I would argue that if you can't do the stories at the local level, you probably will not be any better equipped to tell them at the larger publications.
The smaller publications provide for a great opportunity to practice your craft and really hone your skills. If you put in a couple years at these publications and really devote yourself to your work and produce worthy content, you'll rise to the top and find yourself at the next level quicker than you may think. Sure, you'll have to put up with assignments that aren't ideal in most minds. But it is all about your own attitude. No matter the size of the publication, you'll have different challenges to face that aren't ideal by any means. We have them here too.
Clearly, The Herald's success is the result of a long tradition of attracting dedicated journalists who know their readership and are committed to delivering excellent journalism. The paper's local ownership has a longstanding commitment to the community that is reflected in the company's mission statement that states:
“The mission of the company is: To produce quality products, sell them at a fair price, and make a reasonable profit; to grow steadily; and to be a good community member.
“The company recognizes that newspaper publishing is a unique business. It serves both the general public and advertiser. And so, the company must publish news free from commercial or political pressure in order to maintain its readers’ trust and loyalty. This, in turn, will serve the advertisers’ interests by providing high readership.
“Further, the company will set a course whereby long term stability is valued over short-term profit.”
Perhaps this is a mission more companies might use as a path to both editorial and economic success.
Do you have a story you think is a good candidate for Photo Journal? Email your suggestion to: [email protected]