On a long trip back from the Gulf Coast last month, I had plenty of time to think about the interesting people I’ve met and the wealth of information I’ve gleaned while traveling the regional press convention circuit.
I thought in particular of one speaker who marveled at the public attention newspapers have given to their shrinking numbers, observing wryly that we are probably the only industry that announces its own impending demise.
While I appreciate the irony of that, I was also reminded of the dual roles we play as privately owned, for-profit businesses whose role is to provide a public service by ensuring that citizens are well-informed.
Yes, newspapers are in distress. And yes, it is a matter of great public concern. Our readers need to know it.
In the last two years from 2017 to 2019, 18 newspapers in Texas have closed. Several others have pared down their news operations and publication frequency.
We are not unique.
A recent study by UNC’s School of Media and Journalism and the Knight Foundation revealed that, in the last 14 years, one-fifth of this country’s newspapers have closed. Most of those more than 1,800 newspapers were weeklies. In many cases, they were the only non-governmental link between local government and residents.
That report, and many others that have since followed, described a growing news desert in the United States. An accompanying map illustrated the stark truth of that assessment.
“Half of the 3,143 counties in the country now only have one newspaper, usually a small weekly, attempting to cover its various communities,” the report said. “Almost 200 counties in the country have no newspaper at all. The people with the least access to local news are often the most vulnerable — the poorest, least educated and most isolated.”
As newspaper professionals, we already know the impact our work can have on our communities. We know the good things that have happened because we wrote about them and the bad things that haven’t, for the same reason. We are aware of the lives and deaths we’ve chronicled, the news we’ve documented, the hours we’ve logged in public meetings that the public never attends.
We know, too, the pride and profound sense of ownership our readers have in what they unfailingly refer to as “our newspaper.”
Many of us who are growing older and wearing out — and yes, I include myself — wonder and worry what will happen when we can no longer do this fulfilling but often demanding and difficult work. Some have children or younger employees ready and willing to step up and take over. Some do not.
Most of us who have wondered what the transition in ownership would look like are aware that selling a newspaper is a less viable option than it once was, and that a more creative approach to sustaining our businesses may be necessary.
What I keep thinking about, though, is the wave of cutbacks and layoffs that has also decimated the newsrooms of daily newspapers around the country. Where have those writers gone? How can we find them? How can we convince them that community journalism is equally rewarding and worth pursuing, and that opportunities for partnership and ownership abound in these smaller towns and cities whose residents hunger for real news?
M.E. Sprengelmeyer worked as Washington correspondent for The Rocky Mountain News until it went out of business in February 2009. A few months later, he became owner, publisher, editor, writer, ad salesman, photographer and deliverer of the weekly Guadalupe County Communicator in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. He recruited a few veterans from his old newspaper to work with or contribute to The Communicator and produced a helluva newspaper for eight years before selling it and moving on.
“If a house burns down, everybody here knows it, saw it, knew the people, probably hugged them,” he told a New York Times reporter, “but they still want to read about it in a paper that comes out four days later.”
“...It feels like it matters,” he said.
That, in a nutshell, is the message we should convey to those journalists when we offer them the chance to re-imagine and sustain community news for the next generation of readers.
If you, too, are thinking about retiring and are hoping to find some way to keep your newspaper alive, I’d like to hear from you. Tell me a little bit about your business and what kind of transition you envision for it. Call me at 806-323-6461, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or send me a letter at The Canadian Record, P.O. Box 898, Canadian, TX 79014.
I promise your information will remain confidential, but this might help the TPA executive board determine whether there is some way we can keep any more newspapers from closing their doors.
Because it feels like it matters.