Back in 1897, James Ross Clemens was ill. Not-so-careful passing on of information resulted in word that Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name of Mark Twain, was dying in London. When an enterprising reporter decided to check on Twain before publishing his demise, the author responded, “The report of my death was greatly exaggerated.”
Morley Safer, during his Jan. 6 “60 Minutes” report about the newspaper industry, glibly stated, “The facts of life are that newspapers are folding all over the country. It's a dying business.” His example was the New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune, which recently cut back from publishing seven days a week to three days.
When it comes to newspapers, there are two cousins – large metro dailies and community newspapers. The latter includes weeklies and small dailies (publishing three or fewer days a week). Safer as well as reporters and broadcasters from media giants across the United States and around the world owe it to the public – and to community newspaper owners and staffers – to perform due diligence to determine which of the newspaper cousins is near death and which is alive. Only then, should they should report their findings.
It is the large metro daily newspapers, which make up less than 5 percent of all U.S. newspapers, that are struggling from declines in readership and advertising, printing less often or ceasing publication entirely.
While it is painful to see our metro-daily-newspaper cousins faltering, we, the community newspapers, are not dying. Like Twain, community newspapers say, “Reports of our dying are greatly exaggerated.”
Much has been published and broadcast about the decline of metro dailies. It is time to shine a spotlight on the health and vigor of community newspapers and on our role in rural and suburban communities across the country.
Readership of our newspapers, mostly weeklies, is increasing and new community newspapers are being birthed. That the great investor Warren Buffett bought more than 60 community newspapers in 2012 suggests there is present and future value in the weekly and small-daily arm of the industry.
Community newspapers are doing well because people want to read about the actions of their town council and local school board, the results of high school sporting events and what’s happening in the business community. Readers turn to community newspapers for public notices, for obituaries and police reports and for engagement, wedding, anniversary and birth announcements. They expect keen and thoughtful editorials as well as a forum for their own opinions – letters to the editor. They read the advertisements, look at every photo and clip articles and photos to post on bulletin boards and hang on refrigerators.
A 2011 survey by the National Newspaper Association and the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism found that 74 percent of people in areas served by newspapers with circulations under 15,000 read one of those papers each week. They spend nearly 40 minutes reading the paper. Then, they share their newspaper with 2.3 more people.
We are watchdogs in our communities. We protect the public’s right to know and keep our readers informed about their communities – essential elements in a democracy.
As 21st century technology keeps enhancing the gathering and dissemination of news and information, community newspapers aren’t standing idly by. We are in the fray, taking advantage of the immediacy that technology offers. We have developed revenue-producing websites, and we interact with our communities and our readers on email, Facebook and Twitter.
Community newspapers are very much alive. As Bill Tubbs, publisher of The North Scott Press and a member of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, wrote in an editorial Jan. 16, “Morley Safer, you’ve done us wrong, but here’s an offer you can’t refuse. Come to Eldridge (Iowa) and spend a week with our staff.”
Any of the more than 8,000 community weekly newspapers in the U.S. extend a similar invitation not just to Safer but also to everyone who wants to see the healthy cousin. Interview the folks in Freeman, S.D., about the Freeman Courier; the high school students in Pittsfield, Ill., about the Pike Press; the families in Falmouth, Maine, about The Forecaster; the government officials in Espanola, N.M., about the Rio Grande Sun; or the business owners in Woodstock, Ga., about The Cherokee Ledger-News and set the record straight.
Cheryl Wormley is publisher of The Woodstock (Ill.) Independent and president of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.