SUGARCREEK, Ohio — The first few pages of The Budget newspaper look a lot like any community paper — stories about local events, local sports and columns by local writers. But open up the second half, also known as “the national edition,” and you get a feel for what makes this paper special.
In the national edition, you’ll find 650 letters from Amish and Mennonite correspondents from around the world — commenting on things like the weather, who held church for the week, who traveled where, who cut their lawn, and who is getting married or having a child.
The letters are written by people within each Amish and Mennonite community, known as scribes. And while the content may seem unlikely for a newspaper, it’s actually what readers of this paper want, and have sought, for more than 125 years.
The Budget prides itself on being the connector for people who don’t have a lot of connectors. Most Amish avoid modern technology like Facebook and using the telephone for social purposes. And because most do not own a car, travel is limited.
Instead, their vehicle is reading and writing. And in Sugarcreek, located in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country, the vehicle of information is The Budget.
Bev Keller, local edition editor for 10 years, said The Budget was doing social media long before it became a thing.
“If you think about it, it’s like Facebook,” she said.
The scribes write letters each week that are similar to what non-Amish people post on their Facebook page each day. Sometimes the post has wide-reaching interest, and other times it’s a post about mowing the lawn before a rain.
But all of that information matters to the 19,200 subscribers who want to know what their friends and family across the country are doing.
Also important is the paper’s dependency on the U.S. Postal Service — to make sure the paper reaches each subscriber. Earlier this year, the paper was selected to participate in a Smithsonian Museum postal exhibit called America’s Mailing Industry.
The virtual exhibit features a half-dozen other newspapers and other companies who have a long history and connection to the U.S. Postal Service. The exhibit can be viewed online at www.postalmuseum.si.edu/americasmailingindustry/.
The goal, according to Keller, is to eventually build a physical exhibit in the museum that would feature some of The Budget’s history and early printing technology.
It’s a history that goes back to 1890, when the first publisher, John C. Miller, mailed the first three editions for free to some personal acquaintances in the western part of Holmes County.
The readers enjoyed it so much that they wrote letters about their own communities, and mailed them back to Miller. After the final free edition, about 500 people agreed to pay the 50 cents a year subscription, and the paper was officially born.
“From the word go, we have been part of the U.S. Postal Service,” Keller said.
The mailings continued, and by 1906 the circulation hit 5,000. During The Great Depression, readership dropped below 2,500, but by 1970, it was up to 15,000 and stands at just under 20,000 today.
Matt Paxton, president of the National Newspaper Association, said The Budget is a “great example of what constitutes a community newspaper,” even though for The Budget the community is spread across many states, and connected through religion.
“Any group of people that share interests, traditions and concerns constitutes a community, and the community newspaper that covers that community reinforces and strengthens it,” he told Farm and Dairy in an email.
Paxton said all of the newspapers featured in the exhibit are family-owned, most with long histories, and all share a reliance on the mail to reach their readers. That’s especially true with The Budget — because most of the Amish and Mennonite readers rely on the mail to communicate.
“The Budget, with its much more far-flung subscriber base, is even more reliant on the Postal Service for delivery,” Paxton said. “That’s why the National Newspaper Association devotes much time and effort to promote a strong, viable and sustainable U.S. Postal Service.”
According to Keller, the newspaper includes a local edition, which covers the happenings in Holmes and Tuscarawas counties, and a national edition, which covers everything else.
As local editor, Keller is quick to point out that she and her staff get involved with the community — everything from food drives to sporting events, celebrations and catastrophes — and anything that concerns the readers.
Although most Amish finish school after the eighth grade, most are open to university research, especially when it comes from Ohio State University Extension. Keller said the paper works closely with OSU, and serves as a pipeline of information into people’s homes.
She describes herself as a “working editor,” one who picks up the camera and the notebook and helps cover stories, alongside the other writers.
“The reality of being a working editor is that you’re out there in the story — you’re in the community and that’s your job,” she said. “Your job is to be part of the community and you serve it.”
The Budget has 16 full-time staff members. In addition to its Amish and Mennonite scribes, the paper also works with local stringers to cover local events.
Unlike a lot of papers, Keller said The Budget continues to grow in circulation at a steady pace.
Printing is now handled by Dix Communications, which operates a commercial printing press in Wooster, but The Budget still has parts of the early press and page-making equipment — artifacts that Keller hopes will one day be on display in the Smithsonian.
Like many newspapers that rely on the Postal Service, The Budget continues to face the challenge of a diminishing postal service, and the basic challenge of getting its product to its people.
Regardless, Keller said she sees a bright future for The Budget, and enjoys the opportunity to help connect so many people, in so many places.
“We really are humbled and feel blessed to be able to tell their stories, because that’s what we are,” she said. “We’re their medium to tell their story.”