All Digital World Means No Community Newspaper

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Last week we received an email through the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editor’s listserv from a journalism student at a university researching when community newspapers would go all digital. She was talking about the day there would be no more printed newspapers.

When this question has been asked by other young people it is asked with the assumption that when print goes away there will be plenty of sources from which to get the news you need to be an informed citizen. You’ll get all the news that connects you to your community’s life from your schools, to your clubs, to the births and deaths, marriages and anniversaries, to the farm community, to business news, letters and opinions from fellow citizens, and much more. You’ll also get all the information that keeps you up-to-date with what your city, school district, county and hospital are doing.

These assumptions are based on a naïve belief that there will be revenues to pay for someone to gather all the information and provide it to you. Here is what we told Samantha in response to her question:

To have a common point of reference, we first need to know what people are talking about when they say, “community newspaper.” Some may define it as a suburban weekly nestled in a larger city of more than 1 million people. Others may think of it as a 30,000 circulation regional daily. There are small circulation newspapers serving towns just outside larger metropolitan areas. Many of us living in rural America think of it as a small town weekly newspaper.

What digital means for each of us in terms of potential revenue, in terms of necessity in our portfolio of offerings, and in the information we provide our residents changes with each demographic.

In small town rural Benson, Minnesota (population 3,250), the Swift County Monitor-News sits in the center of a county of 10,000. At the state’s western edge, our congressional district stretches from Canada to nearly the Iowa border. We are farm country. We have more than 100 weekly newspapers in the congressional district with the vast majority having circulations under 3,000.

There is one essential truth for these newspapers and their small towns: There is no digital revenue source that will pay for the journalism they provide their communities. In a digital-only world they cease to exist. Most of these newspapers earn 0 to 5 percent of their gross revenue from digital. We simply don’t have the business numbers to generate enough digital pennies to pay for staff – including our own time as owners.

What would be lost if these newspapers shut their doors? Nearly all coverage of local government as well as coverage of community life. What is the impact? A less connected community and government that could easily slide into corruption.

Facebook and government web sites are not going to provide the consistent, professional, trusted coverage of local government. This truth is illustrated in three experiences that we are certain are repeated across the country.

“… there were times when I was the only person in the audience at meetings of the city council, the planning board, or the school board,” Kathryn Olmstead once a correspondent for the Bangor Daily News, writes. “Why aren’t there more people here, I wondered.

Suddenly I felt the burden: I was the public. I represented the people of the Caribou. They trusted me to report what they were missing, and city officials knew their actions would be publicized. I was the fabled ‘watchdog.’”

While covering a recent Benson City Council meeting, a conference call was conducted with a consultant in Minneapolis 120 miles away. The city manager introduced the people in the room - the council, city staff, and then looking across an empty row of chairs, he said, “And the newspaper representing the people of Benson.”

Every two weeks when the Swift County Board of Commissioners meets, there is a time reserved for citizen comments at the start of the meeting. Even as he looks out at the empty chairs in the room, Chairman Pete Peterson still asks if there are any citizens with comments. “I guess not,” he says.

In small town rural America we don’t have a wealth of electronic media covering our communities – no blogs, no radio station reporters, no television stations, and no web sites with their thin reporting staffs.

But the loss of local reporting is far more important to America and our democracy than what one small community would suffer if its newspaper disappears. Consider the demographics of America.

The 10 most populous states in the country have more than 174 million residents, many living in media rich environments. Those 10 states have 232 U.S. Representatives. The 10 least populous states have fewer than 10 million residents and just 13 representatives.

The residents of many of these states, especially out in the rural west, rely heavily on their small town newspapers to keep them informed. Their U.S. Senators rely on their community newspapers to keep them in tune with what is happening back home. Why is this important? While those 10 big population states carry considerable clout in the House, those little population states have the same number of U.S. Senators as the big states – 20.

We need to keep our Senators informed and they need to hear the stories of our communities. At times, reaching our members of Congress with our editorials and letters to the editor is essential in the national dialogue on critical issues where we want to see change.
Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm wrote a piece for his newspaper on the failure of gun control measures to pass Congress with the headline “Rural senators’ clout misrepresents America.”

“We don’t count for much down here in Florida. Not in this particular democracy. Not like the someone from the sparse reaches of rural America,” he says. “When it comes to settling the great national issues of the day, the opinion of a cowpoke from Wyoming or a roughneck from North Dakota carries considerably more weight than some no-account from Florida.” That cowpoke and roughneck most likely get their news from a community newspaper.

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