February 4, 2015

The front page of the Wednesday, February 4, 2015 edition of the Wharton Journal Spectator.

When I was little, I told my parents I wanted to be a poet. They laughed. “OK,” I said. When I came back to them I said, “I want to be a writer.” My dad said be practical. “Get a teaching certificate while you’re at it.”

But I didn’t. I majored in English with a concentration in professional writing. A well-meaning professor encouraged me to join the newspaper — an independent publication serving the students and faculty of the University of Texas at San Antonio. 

Does it pay? No, she said, but it sure looks good on a resume.

We hit deadline at 5 a.m. that morning. Starved and delirious, we deliberated our severely limited (and grossly unhealthy) choices. The dollar menu at McDonald’s it is! A burger for only a $1? You can’t beat that.

When the paper hit the stands the next morning, I saw my byline in ink for the very first time. I saw the faces of students I didn’t recognize  — students I would probably never meet — flipping through those the pages. 

I felt like a part of a community; I wanted to tell their story. And thus began my love affair with journalism.

At the Wharton Journal-Spectator, we serve our community through and through. If it’s not local or of local interest, we don’t publish it.

The local paper belongs to the community and we want to tell its story.

We know the character of the web is that information should be accessible and free.

The Internet has been a crucial platform for news and social media gives journalistic content a longer shelf life beyond the stands. Thus, media organizations have begun to implement a paywall — a term which implies an obstacle that’s unforgiving and difficult to scale.

That’s why we offer a $1 per 24-hour subscription — access to all of our content, without a full year’s commitment. That’s a burger at McDonald’s (excluding sales tax).

When readers subscribe to a year, however, the subscription includes the print edition, the e-edition (which is published the same day we go to press) as well as unfettered access to all of our content on www.journal-spectator.com.

I posted on our Facebook page a link to the feature of the Salas Family, their story and their inspiring efforts to give back to the community in their grief. 

Oh, how quickly things spread on social media! We’ve received numerous comments of frustration and concern about posting our linked content to Facebook. Some comments were appreciative; however, most seemed to express the same sentiment. We were accused of being money hungry, with the assumption that we “have plenty of subscribers to read (these articles) publically.” Another wrote, “WJS, why post this if we can’t even read it?”

But we cannot possibly sustain our business by giving away our product for free. What company could?

When you hear someone say newspapers just care about the bottom line, it’s true. We are a for-profit business, but we are your best ambassadors on the street and you are our stakeholders.

If a story is important and it’s not getting any readers, we may post it to our Facebook page or Twitter account. This is us trying to share something that matters.

Less than 24 hours after the feature story of the Salas Family went live, Melissa Salas visited me to say that the family had already raised $300 for their cook-off benefiting the Salas Girls Memorial Scholarship. “We feel so blessed! We just can’t say thank you enough for the opportunities you have given to us to continue the memories of our girls,” Melissa said. “I believe this article will be a wonderful asset to help make our fundraiser a success!” 

I was truly humbled by her gratitude — an exception to the stark reality that local journalism has suffered greatly at the hands of digital chaos.

According to a Pew Research Center study, “Fully 60 percent of Americans say they have heard little or nothing at all about the financial problems besetting news organizations.”

In Saving Community Journalism, the article asks a simple question: “If the (Wharton Journal-Spectator) ceased publishing tomorrow, who has the most to lose? I believe the answer is encompassing  —  the readers and public officials who depend on the newspaper to be a credible and a comprehensive source of news and information that affects the community, advertisers who depend on the newspaper to connect them with local consumers of their goods and services and shareholders, employees and vendors who rely on the newspaper for income.”

To be fair, I knew exactly what I was getting into when I decided to be a journalist. I love my work, even when I agonize over it. “Even in the digital age, we still identify politically, socially and economically with the geographic place we currently work and connects us with readers in the community who share our passions, our interests and our concerns. Everyone in the community — whether large or small — has a tremendous stake in the survival of a local newspaper.”

My point is, the Wharton Journal-Spectator needs the community’s support so we can provide coverage of what goes on (at usually pretty boring meetings) in the county and in Wharton because sometimes, it is really important. 

I am privileged to tell these stories and I have hope that we are, indeed, in the golden age of journalism. Yet, I can hear my dad now. Be practical; predicting the future is truly a fool’s errand. 


Natalie Frels is a staff writer and graphic artist for the Wharton Journal-Spectator and East Bernard Express. She can be reached at nfrels@journal-spectator.com.

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