Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Rural journalists tell how their newspapers, determined to survive and serve the public, made it through the pandemic

This Oklahoma paper expanded into marketing.
"How did so many local news organizations – especially newspapers – manage to survive the pandemic?" Louisiana State University journalism professor William Thomas Mari asks on The Conversation. "Weeklies beefed up their daily online news coverage, business models were blown up, and existing rationales for why journalism matters became more than theoretical to rural journalists," who showed a "determination to survive and serve as a public health lifeline for their communities."

Mari and Teri Finneman of the University of Kansas interviewed "28 journalists across seven states in the middle of the country . . . North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana," he reports. "We learned how locally owned and family-owned newspapers made it through Covid-19. . . . There were no easy answers."

"Reporters and editors found new ways of paying the bills," Mari writes. "That meant accepting government subsidies in the form of Paycheck Protection Program loans. It meant, for some, going door to door and asking readers to subscribe, or keep subscribing. It meant consolidating newspapers, putting out more online editions, or taking pay cuts. . . . But there was still hesitancy over what newspapers had to do to adapt. Some journalists are uncomfortable with receiving government funding and would rather rely on community support."

The Kingfisher Times & Free Press in Oklahoma, was among the papers that "took on side hustles to bring in revenue, creating ad copy for local business or doing marketing work," Mari reports. "Some papers worked out advertising deals with local businesses as consumers shopped more locally. Local publishers did whatever it took to stay afloat. As some of our initial findings have shown, that showed both opportunity and hesitancy about change."

Letti Lister, the president and publisher of the Black Hills Pioneer in Spearfish, South Dakota, told the researchers, “We’re gonna have to rely less on advertising revenue and more on subscription revenue, and so we’ve got to make sure we’re offering a unique product that they want to pay for.”

"We saw tentative signs of hope, as journalists got financial and moral support from their readers during a fraught election," Mari reports. Amy Wobbema, publisher of the New Rockford Transcript in North Dakota, said, “If anything, it’s rallied the troops, if you will, in our community because they trust us, they know that we’re going to report the news in a timely manner and keep the public up to date.”

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