Thursday, August 1, 2019

Former Messenger intern explores communication in Midway; social-media posts can drive news events

Sarah Ladd discussed her research on April 29.
By Al Cross
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

For a town of 1,800 and a ZIP code of about 3,000, Midway is well covered by news and information media. The Midway Messenger provides continuous online coverage of events and issues, with a print edition about twice a year; The Woodford Sun regularly covers City Council meetings and other events in the town; and the Midway Musings social-media site has a large following.

All that was ideal grist for the mill of Sarah Ladd, who interned as a Messenger reporter last summer, recently graduated with honors from UK, then joined the Louisville Courier Journal as a reporter.

For her honors capstone course, she studied mass communication in Midway. The town is a good test bed for “The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism” defined by Steve Outing of The Poynter Institute in 2005, Ladd said in presenting her study after the monthly community dinner at Midway Christian Church on April 29.

For Midway residents, some of her more interesting findings were the results of an online survey she conducted. It had 62 respondents. Asked where they get daily news, 22 said the Midway Messenger and 22 said Midway Musings, a “secret” Facebook group that has almost 700 members and has become an important communication platform for the town.

Chart by Sarah Ladd; for a larger, clearer version, click on it
After the top two, at 35 percent, came The Woodford Sun’s print edition, at 16.1% (10 people); the Residents of Northridge Estates closed Facebook group, 6.45% (four people); other social media, 3.23% (two people) and the Sun online, 1.6% (one person).

The impact of Midway Musings was illustrated in late July when Mayor Grayson Vandegrift said he would appoint a City Council committee to study changing the official name of Main Street to Railroad Street, which it was once called and is still called by some people. The idea was proposed on Midway Musings by local historian and merchant Bill Penn.

Vandegrift told the Messenger, "I hesitated to bring something from Midway Musings straight into potential policy without appearance by an individual at a council meeting, but this really isn’t the first time the idea has come up, and the Musings post helped show how much support this might have."

He told Ladd for her paper that he primarily gets news from the Messenger and The Woodford Sun. “I follow Musings and Northridge as well, but consider it communication more than news.” Ladd put it this way: "It’s a nice platform that people are using to facilitate news."

In her paper, she noted that the Northridge site spread word of a burglary and the official response, "breaking news." Midway Musings discourages political content, but a posting encouraging members to attend a City Council meeting to support resolution welcoming refugees to Kentucky stirred such controversy that city leaders delayed action until they could hold a public forum on the issue.

Ladd told the after-dinner crowd, “It was really interesting that a social-media group and a newspaper tied for first place,” she said. Anticipating that, she included in her survey this question: “If you used social media more than five years ago for any reason, how has it affected your knowledge of what goes on in the Midway area?” The result: 82 percent said it had increased their knowledge.

Musings founder Blake Jones said, "I want to always support forums where people can disagree without being disagreeable. I love Midway so much, and I think it is a town of exceptional people. Our diversity is our strength. "Social media gives people an anonymity at times that is not healthy, in my opinion. . . . We must all remember to measure our words, and remember that they can have consequences. Even online."

Midway Musings’ competitive impact, at least among people who voluntarily took the online survey, has been greatest on the Sun. Asked whether they had paid more or less attention to the Sun in the last five years, 39% said they paid less attention, 43% said they paid the same amount of attention, and 18 percent said they paid more attention.

Asked the same question about the Messenger, 68% said they paid more attention to it than five years ago. Ladd didn’t provide exact figures for the other respondents, but had a chart showing that by far, most of the rest said they paid the same amount of attention.

Ladd's paper noted that Sun Editor John McGary used "open sourcing" through social media to get sources for a story. "It’s so much different than having a straight, pre-approved list of experts you might call for something," she told the dinner crowd.

Ladd concluded in her paper, "The success of Midway’s current communication systems seems to be largely thanks to its size. The education levels and the sense of community trust cause the level of quality communication the small town enjoys."

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