AJ Dome: OUR NEIGHBORS | KSU journalism school director's interest in media began with toy printing press

·5 min read

Sep. 21—Steve Smethers said as a young boy, he was more attracted to the newspaper business than broadcasting.

"I thought that I would go on and become a newspaper journalist," Smethers said.

The director of the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism at K-State since 2019, Smethers, 69, is retiring from the university in June after 40 years in education. He also will be inducted into the Kansas Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame on Oct. 3 after a career in broadcasting that started at age 16.

Hailing from a farm near Selma, Kansas, Smethers joined the journalism school faculty as a professor in 2002. As a young child, Smethers said he enjoyed gathering and compiling news.

"I had printed a community newspaper when I was a kid," Smethers said. "I mean a mimeograph machine, printed a newspaper. I had about 100 subscribers, and that was from the time I was in seventh grade until I was a sophomore in high school."

Smethers said he "was hooked on Superman" the TV show as a kid, and was fascinated by "the portrayal of the newsgathering and reporting business" involving Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent.

"That always made an impact with me," Smethers said, "and one year, Santa Claus brought me a toy printing press for Christmas."

He said he was "just so totally fascinated" by the technology of printing and equally "the art of reporting, too."

"Once I learned about the mimeographing process... I thought, 'Oh, you can do this,'" Smethers said. "'You can actually make a community newspaper.' So, that's what I did."

He said part of his desire to create his own newspaper came from "living in a small town."

"There's nothing else to do, right?" Smethers said. "So, I learned how to entertain myself by doing that, and now look what it led to."

Smethers said he diverged to broadcasting when he was a teen because of a change in programming at his local radio station, KALN Radio in Iola. He said the sudden increase in country music being played prompted him to write a "very nice, professional" complaint letter to the station. He said he got a "wonderful" letter back from the manager of the station explaining the change in programming.

"The last paragraph of the letter said, 'You write remarkably well; this is one of the best letters we've ever received from a listener,'" Smethers said. "'Next time you're in Iola we'd love to have you come out and tour the radio station.'"

When Smethers got that tour, he ended up reading a five-minute Associated Press newscast script and two 30-second commercial scripts. He said the station manager told him, "As soon as your voice deepens, we could use you around here."

Later that year, Smethers said he got a call from the manager, asking if he wanted to do some part-time writing and on-air work for a new show being launched at KALN. He accepted and worked at that station for five years, through high school and community college, ultimately receiving the title of program director. Smethers graduated from K-State with a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1976.

"You never know when one seemingly insignificant thing is going to lead to a career," Smethers said.

That career led Smethers to Grand Island, Nebraska, before a return to Kansas to co-purchase a radio station in Norton in 1978. After selling the station in 1983, Smethers moved to Manhattan to get a master's degree and become an educator. He earned his doctorate from the University of Missouri in 1991.

Smethers said our "entire social fabric is built with newspapers at the central core of the communities that we know."

"I'll guarantee you something: In every community, large or small, without a newspaper, you're going to be in a lot of trouble," Smethers said.

He said a study he was involved in focusing on the loss of the newspaper in Baldwin City "gave us a golden opportunity to go in and see how a community survives in this day and age of electronic platform communication."

Smethers said the people of Baldwin City responded to the lack of a traditional news source by turning to social media. The digitalization effort even included classes for residents of senior living facilities on how to use different social media platforms to exchange information.

"What we found out was that nobody in town knew what was going on, because social media essentially created little pockets of information all across town, and yet nobody knew what was going on in the community as a whole," Smethers said.

The absence of a newspaper meant the absence of services like classifieds and city briefs, from home sale listings to trash pickup dates, and Smethers said that led to a "community in information disarray." He said it revealed the fact that there is "no real substitute" for a local news outlet, and that examples of hyper-local newspapers can be found in the Iowa State Historical Society archives, where there are preserved handwritten newspapers from the mid-1800s.

"They were created by people as they were traveling west... because everybody wanted to believe that they were a part of something bigger," Smethers said. "I always tells students this, you know, if I teach you anything else, it's that community is everything."

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