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Journalism professor uses sabbatical to expand knowledge

February 28, 2008

Pat Berg, an associate professor in the journalism department, will be going on sabbatical next fall in order to work on a book profiling small-town newspapers.

Small-town papers have always been of special interest to Berg. She especially notes how her hometown paper in Ascov, Minn., made mention of her father’s death, and that that’s something that just wouldn’t show up in a larger newspaper.

“They fill a niche that no other media does,” Berg said.

She wants to explore the role that rural newspapers play in building community.

Berg hopes to complete the first three chapters of her book during fall semester. She plans to focus one chapter on the history of these papers and one chapter on letters to the editor, but for the third chapter she has not made any definite plans.

“We’ll see where it takes me,” she said.

For the letters to the editor section she has a collection of 125 letters written to the Ascov American by a Minnesota farm woman over a 60-year period. The letters covered a range of subjects, including the Korean War, McCarthyism and legislation. The letters are a one-of-a-kind look at history, Berg said.

She also wants to take a close look at small-town newspaper editors.

“Small-town editors are some of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met,” Berg said. “I want to tell [their] stories.”

She plans on visiting a number of communities across the country and conducting focus groups to collect stories to find out what community is through the editors’ eyes.

The book has appeal in the journalism department as well.

“The surveys of small-town newspapers over the past years are especially significant and timely for today’s world where newspapers are grappling with major technological, financial, and social changes,” Colleen Callahan, chair of the journalism department, said in an e-mail. “I’m looking forward to incorporating the results in the Principles of Journalism and History of Mass Communication courses that I teach.”

Berg began teaching at UW-River Falls in 1995. She received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Minnesota, and worked as a correspondent for the Pioneer Press before graduate school, according to the journalism department Web site.

While working in the field Berg realized that she wanted to talk about journalism while she was doing it, and that the rigors of the job were more than she wanted to handle.
“Beginning journalism is a young person’s game,” she said.

Teaching was a way for her to keep working in the field while escaping the stress.

Berg loves the small community here, as well. She is thrilled that being in a smaller school allows her to take the opportunity to explore her interests, and that people are taking an interest in the work she is doing outside of class. That just doesn’t happen in a big city, she said.

“Giving voice to the voiceless—those who are not in positions of power or decision-making—has been a primary principle of journalism, and Pat’s research goes straight to the heart of this practice,” Callahan said.