Newspapers—digital or print editions—are often called the heart of a community. The stories published tell the joys and sorrows of a city's residents, provide reliable information during times of crisis and strengthen social ties by keeping communities connected. But in the past several years, thousands of local newspapers across the country have been forced out of business, leading to many communities becoming news deserts.
Cate Burgan, a journalism and strategic communications graduate student at George Washington University, saw it happen in her hometown. So, she decided to start an online newspaper by herself to ensure her community could still receive reliable news.
Burgan was raised in Kingston Springs, a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee. Growing up, she looked forward to seeing their hometown paper, the South Cheatham Advocate, on their doorstep every Saturday morning. The paper was run by a local family from 1990 to 2020, before going out of business during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The impact of losing its main news source was quickly felt in the small town, Burgan said. The most immediate consequence was how quickly false information spread around the community via social media.
“People on Facebook were just posting anything,” Burgan said. “There was false information flying around about COVID. We live in the Tornado Valley, and we had a devastating one in 2022 in Kingston Springs. And so there was just a lot of false information, and we just didn't have access to reliable information.”
While pursuing her journalism degree at GW, Burgan took a class on cultural reporting under assistant professor Jesse J. Holland,who is also associate director of SMPA. During the course, Burgan was chosen to participate in a project titled, “FourStoried," a collaboration between the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University and GW that aimed to uncover what stories were going untold in underrepresented communities.
“The main thing I wanted students to get out of our joint work with West Virginia was there are neighborhoods and towns in this country that are often ignored by the mainstream media, but they are still important and deserve the coverage that the citizens need to be participating members of our democracy,” Holland said.
That project inspired Burgan to reflect on what stories were going untold in her hometown with the loss of their local newspaper. When it was time to pick what she wanted to do for her capstone project, Burgan chose to launch an online newspaper called “Kingston Springs Gazette.”
“At SMPA, they’re very supportive of what you want to do,” Burgan said. “They’ll help you. So, it kind of felt like my opportunity to do something that I've always wanted to do.”
Burgan started the Gazette from the bottom up by herself, designing the website, handling the social media and writing most of the stories. She began working on the project in January and launched the website in early June.
Burgan covers everything from feature stories to sports on her website. One of the more popular features on the Gazette is the video series, “The Faces of Kingston Spring,” where she conducts video interviews with prominent community figures to showcase the rich history and personalities within the town.
“So that work we did with FourStoried, Cate is mirroring some of that work in Kingston Springs,” Holland said. “And it is very heartening as a professor to see your students put into practical effect some of the things you've been talking about in the classroom.”
He said what is especially exciting about Burgan’s project is that she's not just using the traditional playbook of news media but is instead incorporating social media, blogs and crowdsourcing, while still upholding the same values of traditional journalism.
“It’s encouraging to see that journalism is always going to exist in some shape, form or fashion,” Holland said. “It may not exist in the way we’re used to but what Cate is doing is proving that journalism can evolve and move into modern times. It can adapt to what people need and not just what people are used to seeing.”
Holland said because there has been so much turnover in the news industry, it is inspiring to see young journalists pave the way to ensure people still have sources for reliable information.
“I am impressed at how much work Cate put into it because she is basically writing an entire newspaper by herself with only the help of a few stringers, family and friends,” Holland said. “That is a big project for anyone, but she is managing it quite admirably. And I get the feeling that the people in her hometown also appreciate the work she's putting into it.”
Burgan hopes to move back to Kingston Springs after graduation and keep running the Gazette. Currently, she publishes bi-weekly but after graduation, she wants to turn the Gazette into a weekly or a daily publication. Her mission is to be a trusted, accessible source of information for her hometown, ensuring her community members’ voices are heard through meaningful stories.
“I think it's so important for a community to have a newspaper, and I wish every community in the world could have reliable information,” Burgan said. “It is just so critical to be represented and to see yourself represented in local news. That’s why I'm so passionate about representing my community, getting the facts right and presenting it to them in a way that's accessible and they can easily digest.”