Home Town News Center

 
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Army Information Digest

Introduction

Important to concerned families on the home front during the Korean War was any news about their loved one serving in the military, particularly if they were stationed overseas in the combat zone. Prior to 1951, there was inadequate distribution of information about servicemen and women to home town news media.  That changed, however, with the advent of the Army's "Home Town News Center" in Kansas City, Missouri, in July of 1951.  Major Walter A. Pennino was its initial Commanding Officer. 

Although Pennino is no longer living, his son Walter Pennino Jr. of Fredericksburg, Virginia, is.  He provided the following text from the Army Information Digest to the Korean War Educator.  No date is listed on the publication, but we guess it to have been produced in late 1951 or early 1952.  Open hostilities were still going on in Korea when it went to press.

 

Written by Major Walter A. Pennino

There was a time, not long ago, when many Eighth Army soldiers were beginning to consider themselves forgotten men, their individual activities almost unknown to their neighbors back home.  Yet public information officers trying to get recognition for them in their home town newspapers could only hope to scratch the surface because they lacked facilities and personnel to cover all the men who deserved mention.  Those public information officers who concentrated on volume of coverage frequently spread their efforts too thinly.  The result was sketchy, incomplete, sub-standard copy.  Thus, while editors were crying for home town news material it was difficult to provide as much usable copy as they wanted.

Today, however, thousands of hometown releases are getting into print, the editors and the reading public are happy, and the individual soldier has the satisfaction of knowing that the folks at home are following his career with interest.  All this is the result of the Army's Home Town News Center in Kansas City, Missouri.  Established in July 1951, it acts as a clearing house for all home town news and feature stories from the field.

Before its inception, unit public information offices mailed material directly to any media at any time they chose.  Such a system had weaknesses.  A public information office at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and another at Fort Ord, California, for example, might send material to the same editor on the very day he was flooded with dozens of other Army releases.  The result was often a disgusted editor.  To eliminate just such a reaction, the Army Home Town News Center was given the authority under AR 360-20 to "improve, supervise, and control the flow of informational material to home town news media."

The Center's chief product is an expanded version of the personal news story commonly used in many newspapers.  Since about 85 percent of the daily and weekly publications use this type of story, it is an effective way to create public understanding and support and boost troop morale.  Nothing contributes more to the average soldier's esprit.  President Eisenhower, when he was Supreme Commander in Europe, summed it up by saying, "I know of nothing which so improves a soldier's morale as to see his unit or his own name in print just once."

Good home town stories are practically unlimited.  They are pegged on individual accomplishments in training or combat, awards and decorations, arms qualifications, promotions and athletic feats.  Even the most commonplace military event makes good home town copy.  When Private Joe Doe reports to a division overseas, his arrival may seem quite routine.  But back in Plainsville where he went to school, it is news and will be gladly treated as such by the local editor.

From wide experience with all types of media, the Center has established standard procedures to be followed by field public information officers.  What it wants, for example, are good, well-presented stories about the soldier as an army man.  Some public information officers have a tendency to delve too deeply into the subject's civilian background, which is really unnecessary. If the local editor wants to color a home town release with background facts, he can get it from his files or by a telephone call to the soldier's relatives.  Actually, home town newspaper readers are usually familiar with Joe Doe's pre-Army exploits.  What they are interested in now is Doe's Army activities.  If he is an infantryman, the story should describe him further as a rifleman, machine-gunner, company clerk or cook.

No longer is it necessary for field public information officers to list media on their releases to the Center.  Not only has the Center a complete file of newspapers, radio and television stations in any given town in the United States, Puerto Rico and Alaska, but it has compiled data showing exactly what newspapers and stations cover a particular area.  For instance, a story about a soldier from Elko, Nevada, would be dispatched to the Elko Daily Free Press, The Progress, Wells, Nevada (a weekly), The Elko Independent (a weekly), Radio Station KELY and Radio Station KELK.  The only media which need be specified are trade magazines, house organs, college or fraternal publications requested by the soldier himself.

The Center also has simplified the purely mechanical efforts of the field public information officers, freeing them for more creative work.  Only one copy of any story or picture is needed, regardless of the number of agencies involved.  The Center does its own duplicating and reproduction of news stories, photographs and tape recordings--the number of each being determined by the automatic distribution lists on file.  The average home town release is distributed to six outlets.  Roughly the breakdown is: one daily newspaper, two weekly newspapers, one special media (such as a trade or college publication), and two radio stations.

Among its facilities, the Center utilizes a photo-engraving machine which produces one-column plastic engravings.  Most small newspapers and many of the dailies utilize these and print directly from the plastic.

In the main, the Center exerts its control over the flow of incoming copy to insure uniformity of style, consistency of policy and a fair distribution to all media.  No guesswork is allowed.  If home towns are not clear or facts do not seem to support a story, the material is killed.  If the story is important enough, however, the Center checks with the unit public information officer by the quickest means possible to get the facts clear.

Incoming copy is classified into two categories--flat and roster. The flat story is a better than usual home town story presented in such fashion that it stands on its own merits.  It is preferred to all others, but it must arrive complete with nothing left to be done except minor revisions, copying and mailing.

The roster story is the type which applies to every individual in a platoon, company, battalion or graduating class.  The basic story remains the same.  Slips indicating each man's home town, address, relatives and the like are attached to the basic story and mailed to the Center.

The roster story is the daily grist from the public information officers in the field. It may be a promotion, qualifications at arms, transfer or new duty assignment.  Since it is the simplest to prepare, this type of report eliminates a considerable amount of work and affords the widest coverage for a unit in the field.

To date the Center has mailed out over two million home town stories.  The staff of two officers, 51 enlisted men and 15 civilians turns out an average of eight thousand releases daily. In the order named, the following are types of stories which are given priority in handling: personal stories with a strong, timely news peg; awards and decorations; promotions; assignments of distinction; graduation from service schools; notable participation in a major field exercise; joining a unit in combat or overseas; top proficiency in weapons or equipment handling; and recognition as "soldier of the week" in a regiment or higher unit. Always the preference is for stories featuring the fighting Army either in combat or hard at work training for combat.

In submitting material to the Center, public information officers are urged to write in language which the layman understands, avoiding technical terms that are obscure to the average reader.  Street addresses and towns must be given, no matter how small the town.  This includes addresses of relatives.  When parents live in one locality and a wife in another, the center will move the story in both directions.  When only one parent is listed, the Center wants to know whether one is deceased or whether they are separated, so that neither will be slighted, a serious matter in this kind of public relations.

It is not within the authority of the Center to issue casualty reports.  Frequently, though, a local public information officer finds that a soldier on whom he submitted a story several days previously is now a casualty. In that case, he should notify the Center by the fastest means possible so that the story can either be withdrawn or timed to coincide with the official notification to the next of kin.  Because of the ever-present possibility of a misunderstanding, public information officers are urged to date all their releases, making the time peg in the lead unmistakably clear.  Editors are happy to co-operate in these matters, since they do not want to run misleading copy, and few if any parents object to a late story which indicates that their son was a good soldier doing a creditable job.

A commendatory story, however late, is far better than no word other than a casualty report.  Such an article may give a family considerable solace and pride despite their bereavement.  On the other hand, all relatives are upset and will object to an unchecked story getting into print which indicates a soldier is either alive or well after they have received an official notification to the contrary from the Adjutant General.

Already this experiment is highly centralized and supervised home town news coverage has been conspicuously successful.  Not only is the Center in direct support of all field units it serves, but the units themselves are placed in direct support of Army-wide information projects.  Since it is the desire of the Chief of Information to place emphasis on the role of the combat man, the Center can easily fulfill this requirement and at the same time offer unit public information officers a particular project upon which to peg part of their home town programs.

The vast majority of editors are highly satisfied with the service.  In practice, the Center provides each of them with as much material as possible in one envelope, but not too frequently.  The result is more economy and better relations with editors. Today more than 11,950 newspaper, radio and television editors, or about 85 percent of all daily and weekly media in the United States, are on the mailing list.  With many editors actually appealing for the material, the Center has hundreds of complimentary letters on file, proving that the old days of the cold shoulder and the wastebasket have passed. 

Gone, too, is the soldier's feeling that he has been forgotten at home.  The apparent lack of interest which came close to public apathy was actually more a problem of troop morale than public relations.  It is a little known fact that when a soldier's home town newspaper goes for weeks and months without some mention of him or his unit, he somehow feels that his community has let him down.  He wants to be mentioned favorably once in a while, because no matter how faithful his platoon leader or company commander is in patting him on the back for a job well performed, the praise and the medals do not have the same effect unless friends, neighbors and relatives write him to say "We read about it in the paper."

As one regimental commander in Korea wrote, "I observed the miracle of increased combat effectiveness produced by publicity.  As my men read about themselves they began to know they were hot and invincible.  Their morale and pride actually rose in geometric proportion...."


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