Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Rural publisher proposes temporary USDA-type 'prevented printing' subsidy for struggling community papers

Reed Anfinson
When farmers weren't able to plant crops in 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture compensated them for the money they would have made. The federal government could similarly compensate struggling community newspapers through a temporary subsidy program, rural publisher Reed Anfinson writes in an op-ed for the StarTribune in Minneapolis.

The "prevented planting" subsidies were meant to help farmers because, among other reasons, they're an important part of local rural economies. But local newspapers serve their communities too, Anfinson writes, so they deserve a similar subsidy that he dubs the "prevented printing" program.

"What we have learned from communities that have lost their newspapers is that fewer people vote," Anfinson writes. "Citizens don’t understand why the school district cut course offerings. They know little about who is running for office. They don’t know why the county is bonding and raising taxes by $30 million. Without a newspaper, the cost of issuing those bonds goes up [at least according to one study]. Fewer people run for office. We lose the stories that create a common bond to get things done."

For farmers, the problem was mainly terrible weather. For newspapers, the storm comes from waning advertising dollars. Some of that is because of digital competition, and some of it is because businesses have reduced advertising during the pandemic. Over the past 15 years, more than 2,000 American newspapers shuttered, many of them in small towns. As of early 2020, 198 U.S. counties no longer had a newspaper, Anfinson notes, citing news desert research by the University of North Carolina's Penny Abernathy.

Some plans have been proposed to shore up newspapers, but so far, all have targeted large papers. Anfinson argues that a "prevented printing" program can be easily scaled for each newspaper, no matter what its circulation, Anfinson writes. He is a former president of the National Newspaper Association and the publisher and owner of several small Minnesota papers: the Swift County Monitor-News, the Grant County Herald, and the Stevens County TimesRead more here about his idea.

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