Like I said, real community journalism.
The Daily American is no more. The closing of the coal mines crippled the town’s economy and the paper’s revenue and readership dried up. The chain that bought it after I worked there saw no future and shuttered the century-old paper, adding West Frankfort to the “news desert” spreading across rural and small town America — that is, areas that no longer have a hometown source of news.
My second stop in journalism, the Daily Southtown in Chicago, a once-scrappy paper, is now a husk owned by the Chicago Tribune, which once called itself “The World’s Greatest Newspaper.” In the past decade, The Trib has gone through bankruptcy and has been gobbled up by a vulture hedge fund.
Such is the state of the newspaper industry which has been savaged by the implosion of advertising and circulation in the past 20 years. According to Pew Research, Sunday circulation for locally focused newspapers dropped from 28 million in 2015 to 15 million in 2020. Forbes said Sunday circulation in 1990 was 63 million. Revenues, and staffing, have similarly plunged.
I know, some blame the “lame stream media” — I got such an email yesterday — but it was the historical, and inevitable, surge of the Internet that almost instantly caused lucrative classified ad revenue to vanish, while eating away regular advertising and subscriptions. Today, we must do more with less.
Local news is vital because it is reporters living in your town who go to City Hall for answers, dig through court files, attend school board meetings and try to weave an objective sense of life as it happens.
Last week, Northwestern University released a report that said about 2,500 dailies and weekly newspapers have closed since 2005. Less than 6,500 survive. That means towns across the country increasingly have no one watching their public officials or printing graduation photos.
Another report said the big dailies, who are mostly still standing, have lost 80% of their print circulation since 2000. Newspapers are replacing some revenue with money coming from the digital side, although the gain is not restoring the dead tree money as well as we’d like.
Recently, my boss, Kevin Riley, wrote a column touting the wonders of the ePaper, the product subscribers can receive without having to walk to the end of the driveway or dirty their hands with ink. He mentioned the inevitable demise of the printed edition in the industry, although adding the Sunday version should stick around for a good long while.
It’s certainly a tough slog. Printing and delivering words on paper is a 19th century manufacturing process in a digital world.
But there are those who express (guarded) optimism. Take Dink NeSmith, Jr. the retired co-owner of the Athens-based Community Newspapers, Inc., which publishes about 25 small newspapers.
Not long after he retired last year, he heard that the Oglethorpe Echo, a small weekly where he lives, was set to shut down. He called the owner, asked him to donate the soon-to-be-defunct paper to a non-profit foundation he dreamed up and it is now being operated in conjunction with budding journalists from the University of Georgia. It’s a real-life laboratory for the students and the residents of Oglethorpe County can still read about local events.
“It’s the conscience and soul for the county; it just can’t go away,” said NeSmith, who now sells ads to keep the paper afloat. “I won’t live in a town without a newspaper.”