Monday, September 23, 2019

Most independent weeklies will close or merge in the next five years, one of the nation's top small-weekly editors fears

Ryan Craig
Most U.S. newspapers that have closed or merged in recent decades have been weeklies not based in county seats, but now those papers are increasingly at risk, one of the nation's best editor-publishers of a small weekly writes for Nieman Reports at Harvard University.

"I have started to believe that weeklies aren’t as safe as destinations as they once were, that there will sooner rather than later be a vacuum of local news in rural places across the country," writes Ryan Craig, owner of the Todd County Standard, who put the paper up for sale almost two years ago, saying it wasn't enough to support his family and get them the health insurance they needed.

"Until recently I was sure that weeklies, especially good ones, would survive the downturn of newspapers or would hold out a lot longer before the eventual transition to digital," Craig writes. "I was so sure of the fortitude of weeklies that I would encourage the students I advise at the University of Kentucky not to underestimate a career in local newspapers. One could do worse than being a crusading small-town editor. Now, I tell my students to be diverse in their skill sets—good reporting and multimedia skills are welcome everywhere—and warn them to seek jobs at places, regardless of size, where they can practice good journalism in as stable a newsroom as possible."

Craig notes the decline in retail and a loss of jobs in rural areas, which exacerbates businesses' shift to digital. "Real estate, automobile and classifieds have migrated to the internet and will not be returning," he writes. "Many rural weeklies, especially those not in areas with tourism, may face ruin if they lose the local public notices," or legal ads.

Readers, too, increasingly rely on digital media "as cellular service becomes more consistent in rural areas," Craig writes. Now people post photos on social media of events or games or the occasional wreck, and that is enough local news. The hard stuff—the budgets, tax rates and how government operates—doesn’t make it on social media much and many people are OK with that level of bubble-wrapped ignorance.' 

Todd County (Wikipedia map)
He recalls how a group of farmers told him that they didn't show up at a meeting on agricultural zoning because they knew he'd be there. One said, “I’ll read what you’ll write in the paper and decide if I need to be mad or not.”

Craig concludes, "My reluctant prediction is that within five years most independent weeklies will close or merge, and most corporate-owned weeklies will merge or become a de facto bureau of a larger sister publication nearby, something that is already happening. That could mean swaths of rural America with no local newspaper. That would mean no one at the meetings, politicians rarely held accountable, and fewer stories for farmers to read and decide if they need to get mad or not. I hope I’m wrong. I really do."

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