Tuesday, June 07, 2022

The state of rural journalism: Buyers are needed, news deserts are expanding, and social division can be a problem

Second in a series of reports on the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, held June 3-4 by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky. Summit sessions can be viewed on YouTube.

The challenges of rural journalism are mainly the challenges of the communities it tries to serve, and many of those challenges are daunting. But they are not dispositive. That was made clear at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America by some sharp, innovative and courageous editors, publishers, academics and other journalism supporters.

"Community newspapers are still trusted" more than other news media, said Lynne Lance, executive director of the National Newspaper Association, citing at Friday's opening session the recent survey done for NNA in its the markets of its members, mainly weeklies and small dailies.

But more broadly, when you ask how America's rural newspapers are doing, you also need to ask, and answer, this question: "How is rural America doing?" said longtime Georgia publisher Robert M. Williams Jr.. "It's hard for any newspaper to ever rise above the quality of the community it operates in," but there are exceptions, he said Friday.

Tony Baranowski
The biggest problem in most rural communities is shrinking population, and that's a problem for their news media, as well as the shift of retail business to big-box stores that advertise little, Tony Baranowski, co-publisher of the Times Citizen in Iowa Falls, Iowa, said Saturday morning.

For many older newspaper owners in small towns, the biggest problem is finding an acceptable buyer for their newspaper.

"What we see are thousands of independent owners across the country who want to leave their legacy but don't have someone to buy their paper," Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro of Columbia University said Saturday morning. She is founder of the National Trust for Local News, which tries to keep local news media in local hands, rather than profit-motivated chains or politically motivated buyers.

Sharon Burton
Sharon Burton, editor-publisher of the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky., said Saturday morning, "I make money so I can be in the newspaper business. I'm not in the newspaper business to make money," like most recent buyers. "It's obvious by the quality of what they're doing that they're not in it because they love newspapering. I think they're part of our problem, because they hurt our reputation."

Some owners who don't want to sell to such buyers just close their papers, and some such buyers eventually merge or close them, or strip them down so much they create what Penny Abernathy of Northwestern University calls a news desert: a community "with limited access to the sort of credible news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots level and helps residents make wise decisions about issues that will affect their quality of life and that of future generations."

In some cases, that means a "ghost newspaper." In others, it means no paper at all. Abernathy, who has tracked the trend for years, said Friday that the recent rate of mergers and closures is double what she expected, and they are now being seen in affluent communities. She is in the midst of writing an update of her research.

Oregon has lost a fourth of its newspapers since 2004, Jody Lawrence-Turner, executive director of the Fund for Oregon Rural Journalism, said Friday. She said half the incorporated cities in the state lack a local news source: "Nobody is watching them."

Bill Horner III
Social and political divisions are a growing problem for rural communities and their newspapers. Bill Horner, publisher of the Chatham News+Record in North Carolina, said is county is do divided along racial and political lines that it made him and his partners question whether it was still a place for a general-interest newspaper.

Horner said his twice-weekly lost its largest single-copy vendor (three stores, 200 papers) because his sports editor told the owner that the paper was doing a story on the history of lynching in Chatham County. But he said he continues outreach to Blacks and Hispanics, each 12 to 13 percent of the county's population, because sustainability relies on engagement and helping audiences solve their  problems. He said one recent success is a parenting newsletter, because most people are parents, and that crosses the social and political divides.

Baranowski said, "We have to embrace immigration, refugees, wherever they're coming from." His PowerPoint presentation said, "These are facts that are difficult for many of our overwhelmingly white communities to embrace, but we have to illustrate the successes" of embracing immigrants and refugees. He said "The community is not embracing their stories," one exception being an Afghan who was an interpreter for the American military. "Never underestimate the value of people being proud of lifting up an underdog," he said.

Dink NeSmith, a newspaper chain co-owner who came out of retirement to save The Oglethorpe Echo in northeast Georgia and made it a nonprofit staffed by University of Georgia students, said Saturday, "We began to cover the Black community for the first time," The county is 17% Black. He said a Black truck driver was appreciative, and donated $500.

Further reports on the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America will appear later. Topics will include nonprofit status, philanthropy, help from universities, and editorial approaches.

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