A fascinating story you might have missed. Noam Cohen of the New York Times looks at The Budget, a newspaper in Sugar Creek, Ohio that serves a large Amish community as well as an “English” (non-Amish) community. The story appears to be inspired by Jessica Best, a Welsh journalist who had the opportunity to study the paper on a summer fellowship. She blogged about her experiences and wrote an excellent piece for Journalism.co.uk about the experience, and the interesting compromises the paper’s taken in a digital age.
The Budget, Best explains, has two editions – a local and a national edition. The local is a weekly ten-page paper that covers events in Sugar Creek and environs. It includes news on the Amish community – a large presence in Sugar Creek – but the focus is on “English” news… and Best explains that the paper is quite careful about local sensibilities, describing the paper’s decision to downplay news of a murder in the Amish community. The local edition wraps around a much larger national, which is compiled from reports from 400 Amish “scribes” from 41 states. Scribes write reports on community news – who hosted church, the weather, harvests, births and deaths – and mail, fax or, in a few cases, email their reports to the Budget, which compiles reports into a 40+ page national edition.
When The Budget decided to go online, there was a great deal of fear in the Amish community that their news would go online – the community had legitimate fear about privacy, being targetted by scams, or simply opening the Amish lifestyle to online ridicule. (Wait, how’d they hear about 4chan…? Actually, before you go to far down the “An Amish website? Impossible!” line, read Kevin Kelly’s excellent essay, “Amish Hackers“, about the complex conversations in Amish communities about what technology to adopt and which to eschew.) The Budget decided to put the local edition online, but has kept the national edition offline.
While this is probably the right decision, it’s a loss for those who share Best and Cohen’s sense that The Budget’s national edition is one of the longest-standing citizen journalism projects in the world. The sort of hyperlocality that friends like Lisa Williams have been studying (see her Placeblogger project) has a long track record via The Budget, and the constancy of this record has some interesting social implications. The archives of The Budget become a search engine for the Amish community. Cohen reports that people in the Amish community are able to use reports from the Budget to obtain birth certificates for home births that weren’t reported to local authorities.
Benedict Anderson’s brilliant “Imagined Communities” makes the argument that a community’s identity is shaped, in part, by a shared media. He offers the image of a British empire, where citizens in Bombay, Cape Town and London might have imagined a nation united by little, day to day, but the Times of London… and speculates that the ability to imagine these other readers is a way of imagining a nation. It’s intriguing (for me at least) to think of The Budget in this context, and in the context of an archive of data that might serve as an Amish internet.