Small town newspapers have been an integral part of American life for centuries, which is why it’s easy to think that they’ll always be there. Yet, like their big city cousins, small-town …
Small town newspapers have been an integral part of American life for centuries, which is why it’s easy to think that they’ll always be there.
Yet, like their big city cousins, small-town and rural papers are grappling with the slow erosion of a subscriber base that is aging by the day and an up-and-coming generation that obtains virtually all of its information, and considerable misinformation, from the Internet. It’s now easy to imagine the day in the not too distant future when printing presses across the country finally grind to a halt, like so many past victims of technological change.
The question then becomes: Who will cover the news, especially in small communities?
While some of the largest newspapers in the country have had success navigating to the web, they still rely on their print product for the vast majority of their revenue. For small town papers, Internet sales, for both online subscriptions and online advertising, currently amount to less than five percent of their total sales on average. With a very active website, we do somewhat better than that here at the Timberjay. Even so, the bottom line is that every small town newspaper is dependent on their print product to survive. If and when print newspapers disappear, local news coverage in small town America could well go with it.
Think of what that would mean in your own community. When people lack basic information about the place where they live, how do they engage in the democratic process? How do they find out that their city council is planning to hike their water bill, or that the school district is being led down the primrose path toward a major new facilities project that will take a big whack at their pocketbooks? Who will they rely on to uncover mismanagement or corruption at city hall? It’s no surprise that one recent study documented that where newspapers fold, the cost of government goes up. The disappearance of the public’s watchdog won’t come without consequence.
But it’s not just the loss of reporting on government. For centuries, small towns across America relied on their local newspaper to inform them about all aspects of their community. It’s where they read about and see photos of their local sports team or learn about the latest offering from the local community theater. It’s where they discover what’s happening at their local schools, churches, or civic organizations, and when the potholes on their street are scheduled to be filled. It’s where they turn for the menu for senior dining, or to learn a little bit more about the lives of their neighbors. It’s where they turn to see a picture of the new baby born in town last week, or the photo of a long-time friend or neighbor who has reached the end of their time here on Earth.
These are things that matter to a community. They are the ties that bind.
If you think social media will replace newspapers, think again. While there is some reliable information available on Facebook or Twitter, it’s only when such posts are linked to a story from a credible news organization, usually a newspaper. Other than that, social media is the modern version of getting your news from local barroom banter.
In the vast majority of cases, the people who put out small town newspapers across the country are dedicated to their craft and understand the importance of checking their facts before going to press. They also recognize the continuous fight that’s necessary to preserve access to those facts. Newspapers and related organizations, such as the Minnesota Newspaper Association, are instrumental in the fight to maintain public access to information. Those fights are never easy. While there are many in government who remain dedicated to transparency, there are always some who push relentlessly for the right to keep government information from the public. And it’s not just government officials. As our readers know too well, it is also big corporations that stand to benefit from government decisions that would love to keep their machinations secret. Without the organized efforts of newspapers consistently pushing back against such efforts, our rights to public access would quickly erode.
Random people sounding off on Facebook won’t have the resources or the clout to effectively push back against those who would undermine our collective rights to government records.
So, what’s the solution? We wish we had an answer, because the stakes here are high. The founding fathers recognized that a democratic form of government was not possible without an informed electorate, which is why they put freedom of the press at the very top of the Bill of Rights. But what will those rights matter the day the presses stop running?