Newspapers around Minnesota have been making a point in recent days, and we’re joining that chorus in a full-page advertisement that appears in this week’s edition. At a time when so much has been written about the imminent demise of newspapers, a recent statewide survey in Minnesota found that the vast majority of Minnesotans still regularly rely on newspapers, either in print or digital, to stay informed about their community.
We suspect that the percentage of regular newspaper readers is even higher in small towns and rural parts of the state, where residents are more community-focused than in larger cities. Despite all the changes in how we access information today, most newspapers still remain the most credible source of local news and information.
At the same time, we’ve reported regularly over the past few years about the closure of some longstanding newspapers in our region. Newspapers in Two Harbors, International Falls, Hibbing, Warroad, and Chisholm have disappeared, while the Duluth News-Tribune has gone from daily to twice-weekly.
There’s no question that the industry is in trouble, in large part because the basic business model of newspapers— which dates back to the mid-1800s— has all but collapsed for many papers in the Internet age. Yet, we know from the feedback we receive every day that residents in our region rely on, and look forward to, the arrival of the Timberjay each week. And because so many area residents continue to rely on this newspaper, business owners continue to recognize the value of advertising here, both in print and on our very active website.
In a very real sense, the traditional newspaper business model can still work, when newspapers make the commitment to quality news coverage. That was the message that Timberjay Publisher Marshall Helmberger brought last month to the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, where he was a featured speaker. The event, sponsored by the University of Kentucky-based Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, brought about 50 invited guests together just outside Lexington to discuss the challenges that print journalism faces today and to highlight some of the ideas that are helping newspapers remain successful in today’s challenging environment.
Helmberger, and other speakers at the summit, talked about the many ways they had worked to build and maintain their newspaper’s relevance to their communities. Newspapers that are engaged in their communities and that go beyond mundane reporting and reliance on press releases, are maintaining readership and advertising.
One key factor that helps newspapers maintain success is independence. Attendees at the recent summit were well aware of how profit-focused corporations were playing a major role in the demise of many papers. Too many newspapers have vanished as a result of a predictable downward spiral. Corporate vultures, like Alden Capital, swoop in as new owners and they quickly gut the newsroom in order to wring more short-term profits from the business. But as the newspaper’s coverage declines along with the number of reporters, readers lose interest and subscriptions dry up. Then the advertising follows suit and as the profits fizzle, the corporate owner shuts it all down, selling off the equipment and real estate to squeeze the last few bucks out of the deal. The impact on the employees and on the communities that have now lost their only reliable source of local news isn’t even part of the equation. It’s just about money.
This same process has left communities across our region and around the country without sources of local news— and that has consequences. Studies have shown that local officials in areas without regular news coverage are more likely to make questionable decisions. Taxes tend to be higher as well because the local watchdog died an ignominious death.
Our nation’s founders understood that accurate information was key to any form of successful self-government and it’s why they enshrined freedom of speech and of the press as the first order of business in the Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson viewed the press as just as important as the government in that it made it possible for voters to make informed choices about who would lead them.
While the internet these days is full of “information,” much of it is nonsense, generated by bad actors and bots to manipulate the gullible. Smart users of the internet know that when they want credible information online, they turn to newspaper websites. Despite the changes in the industry, Minnesotans still trust newspapers, whether in print or online, to deliver them the news they need to be effective, contributing members of their communities. Newspapers that live up to that trust still have a viable future here.
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