Amish newspaper succeeds the old-fashioned way
By ASSOCIATED PRESS SUGARCREEK, OHIO
September 10, 2009 09:45
Publisher Keith Rathbun's most pressing concern isn't the threat of the Internet but ensuring that his readers, scattered across remote stretches of farmland, get their newspapers on time..
(photo credit: ap)
In a world where news still travels at a mail carrier's pace, the farmers,
preachers and mechanics responsible for filling The Budget threatened to
go on strike if the 119-year-old Amish weekly went ahead with its plan to go
The writers' grievances came in the form of angry letters,
carried over bumpy rural roads to the newspaper office serving the Amish
The Budget is the dominant means of communication among the Amish, a
Christian denomination with about 227,000 members in the US who shun cars for
horse-drawn buggies and avoid hooking up to the electrical grid.
The writers, known as scribes, feared their plainspoken dispatches would
become fodder for entertainment in the "English," or non-Amish, world. The
editors hastily rescinded the plan shortly after proposing it in 2006, and
today, only local news briefs appear on The Budget's bare-bones Web site.
"My gosh, they spoke in volume," said Keith Rathbun, publisher of The
Budget, a newspaper mailed to nearly 20,000 subscribers across the US and
Canada. "I'd be a fool to not pay attention to it."
Far from impeding the newspaper's success, shunning the Internet actually
solidified its steadfast fan base.
As other newspapers increasingly shed staff and reduce the frequency of their
print editions in the face of growing competition from the Internet, The
Budget is plodding along comfortably in the recession.
Subscriptions, which cost $42 a year and account for most of the newspaper's
revenue, have dropped by just a few hundred in the past year. Advertisers - who
are mostly Amish - are not fleeing to the Internet. And plans are in the works
to add a couple of reporters to The Budget's editorial staff of about a
Rathbun's most pressing concern isn't the threat of the Internet but ensuring
that his readers, scattered across remote stretches of farmland, get their
newspapers on time.
"People call The Budget the Amish Internet," Rathbun says. "It's
nonelectric, it's on paper, but it's the same thing."
The local edition, mailed to about 10,000 Ohio subscribers, is a typical
community newspaper produced by The Budget's own employees, and their
local stories are all that appear online. There's a page dedicated to church
news and another to farming - where you get the going price for alfalfa and hay.
The national edition - and the source of its faithful following - is a
patchwork of dispatches from scribes, which include both fresh-faced teenagers
and bearded old men.
"Supper and singing were held at our house last night, so have been busy this
morning getting dishes away and house in order," says a writer from Sligo,
"We've had some nice rain the last few days and grass is greening up nicely,"
says another in Middlebury, Indiana.
On white sheets of paper, or "tablets," the scribes chronicle the fabric of
their daily lives, generally writing them by hand and submitting them weekly by
mail or fax.
The news isn't always upbeat. They'll write about the child whose arm got
caught in a threshing machine and the family that was killed in a buggy
accident. When a gunman shot and killed five Amish girls in Nickel Mines,
Pennsylvania, in 2006, the scribes detailed the aftermath.
The Budget is published in Sugarcreek, an eastern Ohio town of dairy
farmers and bricklayers at the heart of America's largest Amish settlement. It
was born in 1890 as a series of letters swapped among Amish families who had
dispersed across the Midwest.
It is the oldest and largest among Amish publications, which include Die
Botschaft, a rival weekly formed in the 1970s by people who believed The
Budget was too liberal.
Inside The Budget's brown-shuttered office, tables are piled with
handwritten letters and the computers look dusty. On Rathbun's desk is a beige
box filled with contacts written on index cards and a clunky calculator that
spits out receipt paper.
The archives, preserved on microfilm, are "a history of a people," explains
Fannie Erb-Miller, who edits the scribes' letters. A copy of The Budget
is sometimes the only record of a birth in the Amish world, where official birth
certificates are scarce.
Amish newspapers provide a sort of social glue for the community, says Don
Kraybill, a leading expert on the Amish.
"They may not be able to worship together or collaborate together, but they
can learn about each other through these newspapers," Kraybill explains.
Rathbun, who is not Amish, took over The Budget eight years ago after
running an alternative weekly newspaper in Cleveland.
The Budget's owners - a local, non-Amish family who own a chain of dry
goods stores that cater to the Amish - wanted to bring in someone with a fresh
perspective and a background in journalism, Rathbun explains. He later bought a
10 percent stake in the newspaper.
Rathbun grins proudly as he boasts about The Budget's success, but
grows nervous when the conversation turns to his readers.
"I need to be really careful about this," he says. "So I don't betray a
confidence with them."
Rathbun declined to release The Budget's annual profits but admitted
that he worries about the future of the printing industry. Newsprint is
expensive, and he has refused to raise advertising rates for the past three
Unlike most of its counterparts, The Budget has a staff that is not
Amish (the unpaid scribes, on the other hand, are typically Amish). As such, the
self-described newspaper of "good news" takes pains not to offend its pious
readers, who are quick to revolt at any whiff of impropriety in its pages.
The newspaper rejects advertisements for products considered taboo, such as
beer, tobacco and drugs that treat sexual dysfunction. A public outcry ensued
when the newspaper ran an illustration of a woman clad in a bra and underwear.
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