UGA Students, Faculty, & Alumni Come Together to Breathe New Life into a 149-year-old Newspaper

Jayne Roberts

Friday, June 9th, 2023

In an era of instant online news and social media, little attention is paid to the decline of community newspapers and the estimated 3,000 U.S. weeklies that closed in the last 20 years.

When Dink NeSmith heard that his friend Ralph Maxwell was shutting down his weekly newspaper, The Oglethorpe Echo, he was determined to prevent the nearly 150-year-old publication from being forgotten.


Both NeSmith and Maxwell are long-time residents of Oglethorpe County, just east of Athens. They have known each other for almost 50 years. NeSmith is a co-owner of Athens-based Community Newspapers, Inc. (CNI), with publications in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. He has also been contributing a column to The Echo ever since he moved to Oglethorpe County a decade ago.

In 2021, Maxwell called NeSmith to let him know that due to health issues, he would be closing The Oglethorpe Echo. Though NeSmith understood, he couldn’t stop thinking about the history behind the local publication.

Maxwell’s father bought The Oglethorpe Echo in 1956 after retiring from the Navy, but the newspaper has been around since 1874. It’s a record of everything from local weddings to major changes in the legislature.

NeSmith remembers waking up at 6 a.m. after that phone call and realizing he needed to speak with Maxwell right away. He jumped into his pickup truck and drove to The Echo offices. NeSmith arrived just as Maxwell was finishing the story that announced the end of the newspaper. He immediately urged his friend to think of a new solution.

“Well, what are we going to do?” Maxwell asked him. “Are you going to buy the newspaper?”

NeSmith looked up at the ceiling, searching for an answer. Then, inspiration struck.

He would create a nonprofit and Maxwell would donate The Echo to it. All that was left was to hammer out the details. After leaving the office, NeSmith called Charles Davis, dean of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“I’ve got an idea,” NeSmith told him. “I want to turn The Oglethorpe Echo into a real-life experience for aspiring journalists at the Grady College.”

Davis loved the idea, and he and NeSmith built a sustainable business model for the future of The Oglethorpe Echo.


They developed a capstone course with The Echo as its foundation. Students experience a working newsroom which acts as a springboard into their careers.

At the same time, The Echo, which normally functioned with a single reporter, gained a revolving team of eager student journalists.

With NeSmith and Davis working together and the community supporting them, they built the program’s framework in less than two weeks. Of course, they needed someone to run the newspaper. But that was an easy decision.

Andy Johnston had been teaching at Grady for a month when Davis called him in for a meeting.

“Oh, no, what have I done already?” Johnston remembers thinking.

It was a pleasant surprise when Davis invited him to lead the new partnership between The Oglethorpe Echoand Grady College. As the adviser for The Red & Black from 2018 to 2020, Johnston was familiar with working with students and had an extensive journalism background.

Most importantly, he believed in the project.

“We’ve heard about other newspapers closing, especially in rural counties,” Johnston says. “When that happens, it means their only source of news and the only thing that holds people accountable is closing.”