April 12, 2024

Will Washington Act To Save Newspapers?

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We have to wonder what we accomplished last week talking to members of Congress and their staffs in Washington, D.C. They meet with dozens of constituents daily. It becomes an endless blur of competing presentations, asks, and pleas from agriculture, industry, retail, finance, states, local governments, medical professions, law enforcement, the military, drugmakers, and causes of all kinds.

Each seeks to shape legislation that meets their chosen interest or passion. Setting ourselves apart in this deluge of demands, especially when we don’t have deep financial pockets to influence our members of Congress, is immensely challenging.

What members of the National Newspaper Association brought to Washington was a message from people whose work and continued survival are inseparably linked to the future health of America’s representative government.

Our message to those serving us in Washington was different from what those insulated in big cities and centers of political power often hear. It clearly pointed out the difference between publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, or the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and a rural community weekly newspaper.

We stressed that:

– We matter in rural and small-town America.

– Not all the solutions you propose for the big media will benefit our small-town publications.

– Our need for help is urgent. Every day you delay, you ensure more community newspapers are lost. Every day you delay, more stories essential to a citizen’s role in a representative democracy disappear.

We also pointed out a few realities they must consider as they assess the depth of the threat rural America’s newspapers face:

– In America, 76% of the cities and towns are under 5,000 population, according to the U.S. Census. That is a number around 14,600.

– Digital revenue comes to between nothing and 5% of the total income for newspapers in these communities. We do not have the population base to provide the millions of hits required to bring in meaningful digital revenue. But our businesses don’t need millions of hits, much less tens of thousands. They need to reach their local customers, and the newspaper is their best vehicle, in concert with our digital presence.

– In a digital advertising-only world, community newspapers and all the news they provide their communities disappear. Rural America becomes a news desert. Its residents are left with a social media and internet toxic wasteland. They are left with false and deceiving information that will only become more sophisticated with the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence (AI.) 

Based on what has already happened in communities where there is no longer a newspaper, we know people are more divided, less tolerant of differing views, and less connected, making it harder to bring them together to work for the common good of their communities.

While the internet is substantially responsible for the lost revenue at community newspapers, we also face other forces undermining our financial security:

– Rural population loss means fewer people to subscribe and less support to keep our businesses alive and advertising. Many of our small towns have seen a transition from active retail stores to services lining the main street. We’ve seen many once vital and active businesses shuttered.

– Regionalization and nationalization of businesses move advertising budget decisions to a metropolitan or distant headquarters with no ties to the community from which they siphon off money. They have no sense of the value of the community newspaper to local advertisers and its importance in connecting community citizens through the stories we publish. They take tens of millions of dollars out of our communities, returning little or nothing.

In our rural communities, we can point to implement dealers, pharmacies, car dealerships, and others where the once loyal businesses have been replaced. Still, we have some very loyal businesses who support us and play a vital role in ensuring our readers have the stories they need to stay informed.

– Amazon is eroding the revenue earned by our local stores, spending that keeps them healthy and advertising locally. Amazon doesn’t spend a dime in our communities, but takes millions.

We explained that financial security for community newspapers is essential to:

– Giving young people faith in the future of community newspapers so they will take journalism courses in college and then work for a community newspaper. 

– Giving those young journalists the financial assurance they can buy into the community newspaper business, representing a new generation that holds power accountable and provides their communities with the stories that create a sense of community.

We brought these messages to the nation’s Capitol in hope that our elected representatives will act to protect our crucial role in educating America’s electorate – the foundation of a representative democracy. We’ve been carrying this message for over a decade with little success. We hear promises of action, see bills drafted and entered into debate, only to see one after another die. 

Supporting community newspapers isn’t a partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats alike know the value they provide their constituents.

“Unlike the New York Times or Washington Post, local newspapers tend to be founded, funded, and operated by people who live in your community,” conservative Republican Texas state lawmaker Glenn Rogers wrote last September. “These reporters, editors, and writers spend countless hours researching and investigating local issues with direct impacts. The community newspaper keeps the town informed on elected officials’ meetings, local acts of heroism, and, of course, the high school sports teams. Inside each issue is a beautiful microcosm of the culture of any town — large or small.”

We hope our persistence in bringing these messages to Washington, D.C., will lead to action before too many more communities see their newspaper die, and along with it the information essential to knowing our neighbors, holding those in power accountable, and binding our communities in common purpose to make them better places to live.

This is National Newspaper Week, a time to reflect on the value a community newspaper brings to its people.

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