By Reed Anfinson
Not long ago, we received a phone call from a newspaper owner asking if we knew the name of a company buying up weekly newspapers. Now in his 80s, the strain of publishing weekly was taking a toll, and his motivation and skills weren’t what they used to be.
His efforts to find a buyer had come up empty. He would have liked to bring on a young person to mentor and then sell his publication to that person, but his hopes were at a dead end. The more rural, the more isolated a newspaper from a larger metropolitan area, the harder it is to find young people willing to take a job.
We’ve read too many stories of small newspapers closing in recent years because the owners were burned out. Pleas to their communities for someone to step forward to take on the civic responsibility of continuing to publish the local newspaper went unanswered.
Finally, exhausted and demoralized, they walked away. We can’t imagine the pain of abandoning a community you’ve devoted your life’s energy to for decades. We can’t imagine the anguish when people in the community urge you to just keep going a little longer when you’ve been going a little longer for far too long.
While attending a recent National Newspaper Association convention, we talked with the members of an extended family that had been in the newspaper business for four generations. A young girl sitting near us had the possibility of becoming the fifth generation to carry on the family legacy.
When we asked her if she would be pursuing a career in newspaper journalism, she replied: “No, it will be played out by then.” She saw no financial future in newspapers. While we wanted to assure her that newspapers were, and always would be, fundamental to civic knowledge in their communities and therefore, would always be valued, doubt and fear lay behind those words.
More than 2,200 newspapers have disappeared from America since 2004 with too much talk about their essential value to citizens in a representative democracy and too little done to save them. More than 200 counties in America no longer have a newspaper. Too many of these counties no longer have local news other than what passes for “news” on social media. Local governments go entirely uncovered.
Many of our readers know the devastating impact the internet has had on newspapers. Facebook, Google, and other internet companies steal our work, distribute it as their own, and make billions of dollars. But their role in our financial struggles today is only part of the story.
Rural population loss has had an impact on the strength of our newspapers and our communities. Amazon with its free shipping and ease of not having to leave your house, has weakened our main streets. People will order toilet paper from Amazon rather than going to their local store.
Regionalization of businesses is hurting our main streets, too. Where a local owner was a faithful advertiser and community supporter, the chain store that steps in often feels no local connection or responsibility.
Young people stepping into decision-making positions over where advertising is placed who know nothing about the singular value of a community bypass us.
Community journalism isn’t just threatened by lost advertising revenue. It is also threatened with too many publications stopping their presses because they don’t have the staff required to produce the newspaper.
Under one proposal put forward by the farming community in the Minnesota Legislature this session is a request for $2 million to support emerging farmers. Minnesota’s newspapers should be seeking the same level of support to help finance bringing journalists to rural communities. We would use the funds to provide them higher wages as well as benefits.
The federal government has a loan program for beginning ranchers and farmers to assist them with buying a farm or ranch. Newspapers need that same support to create the incentive for young people to buy a community newspaper.
Those who would consider buying our newspapers also need to see a guaranteed commitment to financing their future. That security isn’t coming from main street advertising, and it’s not coming from the internet. There is no internet salvation for community newspapers. We don’t have the vast number of hits required to monetize advertising on the web into a sustainable business model.
Newspapers are a public good like our roads, libraries, schools, and law enforcement. We inform citizens, protect them from government corruption, and bind our communities together with a common purpose to achieve goals that make our communities better places to live and work. In many communities, especially in rural America, we are the only local news source.
“The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press,” the investigative reporter and author Ida Tarbell wrote in 1892. A healthy community is an educated community where people know the issues and whether or not their leaders are successfully addressing them.
Rural America is not only running out of newspapers, it is running out of journalists. For a Democracy dependent on an informed citizenry, that is a recipe for disaster.
With the loss of knowledge of the actions of our local governments, we lose the knowledge of how they work and the necessary role we play in ensuring they work with our interests in mind.
Founding Father Thomas Jefferson saw a real danger in the general population becoming disengaged from what their leaders were up to and where that could inevitably lead. “If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, judges and governors shall all become wolves,” the nation’s third president wrote.
Reed W. Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News, Benson, MN
Grant County Herald, Elbow Lake, MN
Stevens County Times, Morris, MN