When the well goes dry

The Commerce Journal has covered the news of its community for over 130 years — or at least it did until October 31, 2019, when the last edition of “The Official Paper of the Bois D’Arc Capital of Texas” was published.
Sad news for the 400 residents who still subscribed to the Commerce Journal. Sad news, too, for the nearly 9,000 other residents of that community, who did not subscribe but should have. They may have no idea what they missed. Yet.
Of course, the Commerce Journal is not altogether gone. It has actually merged with the Herald-Banner, published in nearby Greenville — a move that Publisher Lisa Chappell said “will allow us financially to continue covering Commerce news on a regular basis.”
The plan, she said, is to devote a section of the Herald-Banner to Commerce content each Thursday, and to maintain the Journal’s website and Facebook page with regular updates. It is a welcome alternative to complete abandonment of the local news, and we hope it will rescue Commerce from becoming the next victim of this country’s rapidly expanding news desert.
Still, the loss of any community newspaper is alarming and its potential impact worth considering, as one of the Journal’s readers — Commerce Mayor Wyman Williams — did in a poignant letter to the editor. 
Trimmed slightly for length, here it is:

“I am saddened … at the recent Commerce Journal headline indicating that our city would be losing a 130-year friend … the print version of our newspaper. 
“I am embarrassed … that I have been mayor of Commerce for over three years and have not prioritized explaining the unique role that print media could and should play in the most unusual marketplace that is Commerce, Texas.
“I am embarrassed … that I have not explained to university administrators, faculty and staff the difficulties for local merchants to succeed in a market that has four months out of each year (three months in the summer and one month between fall and spring semesters) that population drops 40 to 50 percent. Because 80 percent of university employees do not live in Commerce, merchants have great difficulty deciding how to invest limited advertising dollars to reach this lucrative market. 
“If the print version of the Journal was displayed in every dean’s office and departmental office...every employee would benefit by becoming aware of not only the retail available near their workplace, but also the reports about the city, county, school district and hospital district board meetings that together support the work environment of all employees.
“I am embarrassed … that I have not challenged the leadership of the Chamber of Commerce to support the Commerce Journal by buying a page a week for Chamber news instead of competing with a monthly advertising-supported newsletter. If there were distribution on campus as explained above, advertisers would quickly recognize a reason to be regularly seen in the Journal. 
“I am embarrassed … that I have not brought together our campus storytellers, namely marketing and communications, which includes our 100,000-watt KETR radio station; journalism instruction, which includes the campus newspaper,The East Texan, and our radio and TV instruction to visit with the ownership of the Journal to bring opportunity to our students to get real-world experience covering campus and community news, thereby improving interest in reading the newspaper.
“I am determined … to bring these conversations about for the purpose of assuring CNHI that our community will support the Commerce Journal print version, so it will be sustainably profitable.” 

Mayor Williams’ letter pinpoints a few of the factors that may well have led to the Journal’s demise. It also suggests some simple solutions to those issues, though somewhat too late. And that begs the proverbial question: How many wells must go dry, and how long must we thirst, before we realize what an essential resource we have lost?
While Williams may not have saved his local newspaper, he has provided a perfect set of talking points for a conversation that every community still blessed with its own newspaper should be having today. It’s a conversation that newspaper publishers throughout this state and across the nation should initiate and amplify and insist their community leaders engage in. 
We should not wait until the presses stop running, the doors of another legacy business close, and the local news becomes mere fodder for the ignorant and ill-informed on social media.