|Part of the Canadian Record's editorial page|
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
For a decade or more, community newspapers, mostly in rural areas, have been the strongest part of the traditional news business. That's because they are usually the only reliable source of news about their communities. But that doesn't mean they haven't suffered as audiences move from print to digital and from news media to social media (or even strategic media, some masquerading as news media). Now community publishers are having to deal with perhaps the greatest collective threat they have ever faced, a newsprint tariff that has raised their printing costs by about 20 percent.
There are efforts in Congress to suspend the tariff on Canadian newsprint and get the International Trade Commission to overturn it. The outcome is unclear. But what has become clear is that there is more worry among rural newspapers than ever before about their future. I've heard it in talks with editors, publishers and executives, and have seen it in the papers themselves, as well as other news media. The latest examples I've seen are in The Canadian Record, a superb weekly in the Texas Panhandle, and a story in MinnPost, a nonprofit news site based in Minneapolis.
|Anfinson (MinnPost photo)|
That's a problem in many rural communites, where population is declining and many of those who remain commute to jobs and do their shopping in larger towns, often in other counties, outside the local newspaper's market area. In Swift County, subscriptions to the Monitor-News "are down to about 2,000" from a peak of 3,000, "a trend that has matched the decline of the county’s population, which has dropped by a third since its peak of nearly 16,000 people in 1950," Gregg Aamot reports for MinnPost.
That worries Reed Anfinson, who fears that if the digital trend continues, "newspapers across Minnesota – and the country – will begin to disappear. And that worries him – not only for his paper, but for the vitality of small towns. 'What happens to rural Minnesota if you lose all of your papers?' he asks." And papers don't have to disappear to reduce accountability journalism; staff cuts mean less coverage of meetings like the one Anfinson loves to recount, where the city manager of Benson introduced Anfinson as “the newspaper, representing the people of Benson.” And so he was.
|Laurie Ezzell Brown|
In the other article on the Record's editorial page this week, Brown and her five employees plead with readers to subscribe to, and advertise in, the newspaper, which "is facing an uncertain financial future," due mainly to a local "economic slump" (oil and gas drilling are down, cattle ranching hurt by huge wildfires last year) but also because of the newsprint tariff. "These tariffs are job stealers and newspaper killers -- not just here in Canadian, but throughout this state and this country," she writes. "These are perilous times for the newspaper industry. . . .We will continue to do everything possible to keep this 125-year-old business alive, and to keep delivering a quality newspaper to our readers. But without your help and support, our future is uncertain."
Perhaps they need to be more transparent with their readers, tell them what's at stake and make clear news media must have more direct financial support from their audiences -- as my friends Laurie Brown and Reed Anfinson have done, and as our institute's "Support Democracy, Subscribe" bumper sticker does. They should also consider the strategy of my friend Marshall Helmberger, who like many rural publishers puts out a summer visitors' guide and other magazines. He told MinnPost, “The key, really, for newspapers to be successful is to provide additional value and services and publications – to find the right niche. Just doing a newspaper right now is pretty tough.”
UPDATE: Brown's pieces prompted an outpouring of support from readers, including some new subscriptions to her electronic edition. "None of this will keep our newspaper alive," she wrote. "But it will, without question, strengthen our resolve. It may even provide some much-needed bolstering to our fellow publishers and their employees, who face the same financial challenges and poisonous political environment that we do, and who also labor long and hard to keep their readers well-informed." And she offered our bumper sticker to any reader who wants one. (We have an updated version, with an additional line, which may be explanatory to some: . . . to independent journalism.