Thursday, December 13, 2012

Candidates avoid buying ads in weekly newspapers, show they're 'clueless' about rural communities

Editor-Publisher Ross Connelly of the Hardwick Gazette in northern Vermont looked at 12 other weekly newspapers published in the area during the week before the November election, and found that candidates running for the state legislature advertised in those papers, but those running for statewide and federal office mostly steered clear of weeklies.

Elections at least every two years boost weeklies' advertising, but Connelly's observation is not just about money. "Vermont weekly newspapers, almost all of which are independent, are small businesses owned by people who live in this state . . . employ local residents and are integral parts of the economy in their towns," but statewide candidates bought ads on "distant, often corporately-owned television or radio stations that broadcast over large regions of the state."

"The candidates, who preach about the importance of the economy, who preach about the importance of strengthening the job market, of the importance of buying local, did not find it in their interest to support these small businesses by buying local," Connelly writes. "Statewide candidates, many of whom came up through local ranks, should not forget the lessons they learned when they held local office or served in the state's legislature: retail campaigning works, and is useful, for them and citizens . . . If we're not important enough for you to come to our towns to meet us and support our local businesses, why should we think you are important to us? We don't like to be taken for granted. Why should we vote?"

Connelly's editorial appears in the December newsletter of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, the cover story of which is an editorial from Steve Andrist of the Crosby Journal in North Dakota. He writes about the $16 million U.S. Senate race between Republican Rep. Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, who defeated Berg by fewer than 3,000 votes.

Berg wanted to travel through Crosby and Tioga to speak with local newspapers on a last-minute campaign swing; Andrist, right, writes that Berg's campaign staffers were "peeved, or disappointed, or maybe just surprised, when we politely said 'no'." Berg wanted these interviews to happen on a Tuesday, deadline day. Andrist says that proved the campaign's cluelessness about rural places and people.

"You'd think a congressman hoping to be senator of one of the country's most rural states would have a clue about life in a rural community," Andrist writes. "Rural communities, you see, have weekly newspapers. That means they have only weekly deadlines. Tuesday is drop-dead day at most weekly newspapers, which you would think might be well known to a person who grew up in a rural community and represents a whole bunch of them and often has reason to communicate through local media. Unless he's here to announce a multi-million dollar grant to the local hospitals, or to blow up the local courthouse, there's no way we're going to hold a deadline for him."

Andrist also says neither Berg nor Heitkamp spent "a red cent on community newspaper ads in oil-patch hotbed communities like Crosby or Tioga or Bowbells. ... We do know that during this heated, protracted, expensive campaign, not so much as a classified ad was placed in most weekly papers across the state. But there were plenty of requests for free coverage and letters to the editor."

However dismaying, or angering, those pieces might be for local newspaper reporters and editors, former Minnesota editor Jim Pumarlo, right, reminds them in his latest monthly column that election coverage shouldn't be over just because the election is, because followup stories can hold the winners "accountable. It also can enrich your reporting and interpretation of local public affairs." All three columns and several more can be found in the ISWNE's December newsletter, here.

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