December 7, 2023

Grant County Herald

Community news from the prairie to the lakes

Rural Minnesota Is Losing Its Newspapers

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Since 2005, more than 2,500 newspapers have disappeared in America with potentially disastrous consequences for the communities they once served, according to a study by Penny Abernathy of the University of North Carolina. We continue to lose about two newspapers each week.

Hundreds of other newspapers have become ghosts of their former selves as the staff is stripped to the bare minimum.

“In Minnesota, the change can be illustrated in two numbers: 26% and 70%,” a new report on “The Disappearing Rural Newspaper” from the Center for Rural Policy & Development says. The report, written by Vice President of Research Marnie Warner, looks at the cause of rural newspaper plight and what it means for rural communities.

“According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, between 2000 and 2021, the number of newspaper establishments (print-first, not online news outlets) in the state fell from 344 to 254, a 26% drop,” Warner writes. About 60% of the lost newspapers were in the area outside the Twin Cities.

“Employee numbers, however, fell from 9,499 to 2,844, a 70% drop,” she adds.

The Center’s report focuses on the newspapers of Greater Minnesota, which are mostly weekly newspapers.

Falling newspaper circulation was happening even before the internet came along as people began watching more TV news programs in the 1980s, the report states. Then, in the 1990s, more women joined the workforce, leaving less time for leisure time at home to read a newspaper, the report says.

With the advent of the internet, the creation of Facebook in 2004, and the smartphone in 2007, people began abandoning print in favor of a screen.

Over the past 20 years, newspapers have seen the decimation of their classified advertising revenue, severe reductions in display adverting, and a loss of subscriber revenue.

While the internet is principally responsible for newspaper losses, rural population decline, regional shopping centers, consolidation of once local businesses into regional corporations, and Amazon’s decaying impact on main street have contributed. Mergers and hedge fund owners walking away from communities have also accounted for lost newspapers. 

In a 20-year look at six rural newspapers, the Center found that circulation dropped significantly. While adding special advertising sections to newspapers focused on community events, business, weddings, home improvement, and high school sports and arts helped, they couldn’t offset the decline.

Joint regional publications that provided considerable supporting income to the local newspaper have seen their page numbers drop from 36 to 52 pages per week, 8 to 12 pages, or even fewer.

Classified advertising fell by more than 70% at these six newspapers.

“No amount of tinkering with free-market mechanics can restore the business fundamentals that sustained local news in the twentieth century,” wrote Timothy Karr, a researcher and media advocate, in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2022. A print newspaper’s asset of bundling a wide range of news into one product that “no longer functions in a media world where connections are instantaneous and attention is the main commodity,” the Center quotes him.

Into this struggling newspaper economy stepped the vulture capitalists and chains. Some of the smaller chains have been good for the state’s newspapers shoring up their operations, while others have not. 

“Today’s news industry is much more consolidated than it was 20 years ago,” the Center’s report states. “Minnesota-based Adams Publishing Group/APG-ECM owns the largest number of Minnesota newspapers, at 38, according to the 2022 Minnesota Newspaper Association directory, followed by Forum Communications out of Fargo at 16, and CherryRoad, a New Jersey company, with 10,” it found.

When it comes to community news, nothing replaces the local newspaper as a source of civic knowledge.

“When we talk about civic engagement in this case, we’re referring ‘to the ways in which citizens participate in the life of a community in order to improve conditions for others or to help shape the community’s future,’” the Center’s study says.

Research shows that fewer people run for office, fewer vote, and more incumbents get reelected when newspaper election reporting disappears. With no local newspaper, people focus on national and state news that is far more polarizing, and themselves become more divided.

Corruption increasingly seeps into local government when no one watches how public dollars are spent and who benefits from those expenditures. 

Investors know that with a lack of oversight, corruption endangering a municipality’s ability to make its bond payments is more likely. As a result, studies have shown bond interest rates are higher and citizens pay more.

Local newspapers remain relevant because we are citizens’ only source of local news. We are the only source of news that speaks broadly to a community, binding it with the common knowledge that is the foundation of common purpose. The actions of local governments have the greatest impact on our lives.

There are consequences for losing this knowledge. “This would be a great time to be involved in political corruption, because there’s nobody watching,” Dale Zacher, chair of the Department of Mass Communications at St. Cloud State University, said of the last reporter leaving the St. Cloud Times this past February.

“One advantage that small community newspapers may have, though, is that their reporters and other staff don’t need degrees or other formal credentials—they can be trained on the job, and would-be reporters don’t necessarily have to give up their day job,” the Center’s report says.

We take issue with this statement. It demeans small-town newspaper journalism to imply our jobs don’t demand professional staff. We are turning to alternate self-training and association training programs because we can’t find or afford college-educated and trained journalists. 

Local governments have supported newspapers since the country’s founding with public notices. But in the past couple decades public notices spending has been under attack as local governments seek to move notices to their websites.

At the country’s founding and for more than 150 years, newspapers saw very low postal rates with their distribution seen as essential to an informed electorate. But in recent decades, prices have gone up rapidly, biting into the profitability of newspapers.

For more than 15 years, Congress has attempted to pass legislation to help newspapers, but none has passed despite bipartisan support. States are now stepping up to help their community newspapers with more success.

“How do we develop and support these efforts so that the news people need continues to flow? What is not an option is to sit back and do nothing,” the Center’s report says. 

It takes the influence and authority that comes with financial security, the visual reach of a printed newspaper, the knowledge of the laws that protect the public’s right to know, showing up every day, and the trust of your readers to hold those in power accountable. Without the newspaper, no individual, group, or website takes on these qualities.

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