It’s not easy being the emissary from the digital world in Amish country.
For two weeks this summer, Jessica Best, a 22-year-old journalist from Wales, fell into that role as the intern at The Budget of Sugarcreek, Ohio, a weekly that is the largest newspaper serving the Amish.
Her self-assigned task, supported by a traveling scholarship from the Welsh Livery Guild, was to study The Budget’s transition to the Internet and the willingness of the Amish to accept that transition. It led, she said, to many a friendly, if awkward, conversation, some of which she chronicled in a blog written from Sugarcreek.
There was the Amish man where she was a houseguest who asked her what an “ip-id” was. “He had read about an iPod,” she explained. “I wish I had had mine with me to show him.”
Her experiences taught her a general rule: “it is difficult to explain a Web site to someone who hasn’t seen one.”
Yet for all the gaps among the technology-shunning Amish — grist for stand-up comics — Ms. Best said she was struck by what was familiar in the way news spread among the Amish.
The national edition of The Budget, now available in print only, is largely composed of submissions from hundreds of volunteer “scribes” from across the country. Typically, a scribe talks about the weather and segues into the goings-on in the local community. Around 500 scribe letters a week take up roughly 50 pages, said the publisher, Keith Rathbun, who like the rest of the Budget staff is not Amish. (The local edition covers just the area around Sugarcreek.)
In a letter dated Sept. 3, a scribe from Camden, Ind., told how a great-uncle, Owen, had the family over to “cut down a big tree in the front yard and turn it into firewood. Uncle Owen cut it down while his sons stopped traffic as they had to throw it on the road. He got tired out, but at 89 I think that is doing quite well.”
By assembling detailed reports from around the country, Ms. Best said, the editors of The Budget “have been doing for 100 years what we have only been doing recently — looking at news on the hyperlocal scale and asking each person what is on your mind,” she said in an interview from Newport, Wales, where she is a reporter at The South Wales Argus.
“They are looking at the individuals to make a bigger picture. With the Internet, the power has shifted to many hands, but they have done that for a long time.”
There are 843 scribes, Mr. Rathbun said, and they must write 12 times a year to get their subscription free. For others, a subscription costs $42 a year, and the national edition has about 9,000 subscribers. The local edition has about 10,000 and includes the national.
Like bloggers, the scribes have no editor and no limit on how much they write; like Twitter users, the scribes have followers who track their every utterance.
Mr. Rathbun said that each year, The Budget sends scribes a guide to “keep the letters to a manageable size” (one page per letter, hint, hint) but “some write very small.” Not all scribe letters are handwritten and mailed, he said: some are faxed, and some liberal Amish e-mail in their reports.
And much the way Twitter has enabled regular citizens to report on breaking news, Mr. Rathbun says that scribe letters have been sent from the farm in Pennsylvania where one of the planes hijacked on 9/11 crash-landed and from El Salvador, also in 2001, where a deadly earthquake had struck, though it appeared in print more than a week later.
Another new-media analogy from Ms. Best was how those scribe letters — viewed over the nearly 120-year history of The Budget — represent a database for the Amish, who regularly visit the newspaper’s office to consult its archive of microfilmed pages.
“Basically it is a search engine for them to catalog anything and everything,” she said.
Mr. Rathbun described how the newspaper will “get a call from Illinois, Missouri, from someone who needed to get a birth certificate” to deal with the government but whose home birth was never registered. The government, he said, will say, “If you can get the documentation from The Budget, we can give you a birth certificate.” The caller will tell the staff the date of birth and the scribe who reported on it, and The Budget will send a copy of the report.
For all the new-media analogies, Mr. Rathbun has had very little success in moving the material online. In 2005, when he took the first steps in that direction (“just to protect ourselves so we can give out advertising information, subscription information and own the name online,” he said in an interview), it became national news. And when that news trickled back to the scribes, there was a rebellion. (That some articles reported that Mr. Rathbun had published an alternative weekly in Cleveland did not win him any points, either.)
“I think it was mostly about privacy — uncertainty about the Internet,” he said.
Mr. Rathbun had to quickly explain himself and assure the scribes that their letters would not go online for the world to read, copy and forward.
Mr. Rathbun said he was not an Internet evangelist but rather had genuine questions about whether The Budget could remain a print publication forever, even if its readers preferred it that way.
“My concern is, ‘Are we going to be able to deliver the paper to our readers in any way other than the Internet?’ ” he said. “If they want to keep this communication between their communities, they need to find a way to do this.”
Ms. Best said she could understand the concern of the scribes. “Something I write for my newspaper, I know will go on the Internet,” she said. “Still, it can be a scary prospect, that loss of control.”
“It wouldn’t just be for an Amish readership anymore.”