Times get tougher for rural newspapers

By Al Cross, Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Al Cross

For a decade or more, community newspapers, mostly in rural areas, have been the strongest part of the traditional news business. That’s because they are usually the only reliable source of news about their communities. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t suffered as audiences move from print to digital and from news media to social media (or even strategic media, some masquerading as news media). Now community publishers are having to deal with perhaps the greatest collective threat they have ever faced, a newsprint tariff that has raised their printing costs by about 20 percent.

There are efforts in Congress to suspend the tariff on Canadian newsprint and get the International Trade Commission to overturn it. The outcome is unclear. But what has become clear is that there is more worry among rural newspapers than ever before about their future. I’ve heard it in talks with editors, publishers and executives, and have seen it in the papers themselves, as well as other news media. The latest examples I’ve seen are in The Canadian Record, a superb weekly in the Texas Panhandle, and a story in MinnPost, a nonprofit news site based in Minneapolis.

The MinnPost story, which explains rural newspapering to its largely urban readership, focuses on three weekly papers and their publishers, two of whom I know: Reed Anfinson of the Swift County Monitor-News in western Minnesota and Marshall Helmberger of the Timberjay in the north woods of the state’s northeastern “Arrowhead.” The other is Chuck Hunt, managing editor at the Faribault County Register in Blue Earth, Minn., near the Iowa border. He offers a basic truth about rural weeklies: “They kind of follow the trend of their town, so if a town is struggling to keep businesses open and the population declines, then the newspaper follows right along with that.”

That’s a problem in many rural communites, where population is declining and many of those who remain commute to jobs and do their shopping in larger towns, often in other counties, outside the local newspaper’s market area. In Swift County, subscriptions to the Monitor-News “are down to about 2,000” from a peak of 3,000, “a trend that has matched the decline of the county’s population, which has dropped by a third since its peak of nearly 16,000 people in 1950,” Gregg Aamot reports for MinnPost.

That worries Reed Anfinson, who fears that if the digital trend continues, “newspapers across Minnesota – and the country – will begin to disappear. And that worries him – not only for his paper, but for the vitality of small towns. ‘What happens to rural Minnesota if you lose all of your papers?’ he asks.” And papers don’t have to disappear to reduce accountability journalism; staff cuts mean less coverage of meetings like the one Anfinson loves to recount, where the city manager of Benson introduced Anfinson as “the newspaper, representing the people of Benson.” And so he was.

In Canadian, Texas, the Record got much less respect at a government meeting last month, where a county official said “Nobody reads the newspaper anymore,” according to an editorial by Editor-Publisher Laurie Ezzell Brown. “He was dead wrong, as anyone holding this newspaper in their hands today, or reading the Record’s e-edition on their computer or iPad or smartphone, could easily attest,” Brown writes. “But our readers were not present in the commissioners’ courtroom. . . .The public rarely attends these public meetings. . . . For the past 26 years and counting, the one consistent witness to this particular slice of Hemphill County history has been a Record reporter.”

Perhaps they need to be more transparent with their readers, tell them what’s at stake and make clear news media must have more direct financial support from their audiences — as my friends Laurie Brown and Reed Anfinson have done, and as our institute’s “Support Democracy, Subscribe” bumper sticker does. (We have a version with an added line, “to independent journalism.”) They should also consider the strategy of my friend Jay Helmberger, who like many rural publishers puts out a summer visitors’ guide and other magazines.

He told MinnPost, “The key, really, for newspapers to be successful is to provide additional value and services and publications – to find the right niche. Just doing a newspaper right now is pretty tough.”The Record, one of America’s best weeklies, will find it easier to survive than maintain its quality. All across the nation, I see the quality of rural newspapers declining because they have been forced to lay off staff who cover meetings, do enterprise stories and hold local officials and institutions accountable.In the other article on the Record’s editorial page this week, Brown pleads with readers to subscribe to, and advertise in, the newspaper, which “is facing an uncertain financial future,” due mainly to a local “economic slump” (oil and gas drilling are down, cattle ranching hurt by huge wildfires last year) but also because of the newsprint tariff. “These tariffs are job stealers and newspaper killers — not just here in Canadian, but throughout this state and this country,” she writes. “These are perilous times for the newspaper industry. . . .We will continue to do everything possible to keep this 125-year-old business alive, and to keep delivering a quality newspaper to our readers. But without your help and support, our future is uncertain.”

The bumper sticker Al Cross developed and has been offering to newspapers and state press associations

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