Editorial submitted by Chad Hobbs
Since the dawn of newspapers, the journalists who write for them have tried to keep their community informed, call it to action, hold people accountable and find a recipe within its pages that also leads readers to buy it. After all, if you can’t pay the bills, no business is sustainable. In the paper business, that means you have to sell more papers and advertisements than you pay to produce it. Employees, printing costs, and everything else involved in getting a paper to the readers’ hands all costs money.
Unfortunately, newspaper companies are one of the fastest vanishing industries in the country. According to the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the United States lost one-fourth of its newspapers between 2004 and 2019. Then COVID-19 hit. Try selling ads to small businesses during a pandemic lockdown. The News Enterprise was a multi-sectioned paper that shrunk to just a few pages for many days last year. The Courier Journal, the biggest newspaper in the state, shuttered its printing presses permanently. Many communities, like Morehead on April 29 of last year, saw their paper close permanently, citing “the loss of advertising revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
This paper, like most others that survived 2020, did it at a financial loss. We are an endangered species more so than many animals that people worry so much about. Sadly, I have heard some in our community imply since the day I hired on at the Messenger express that our extinction wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Chuck Plunkett, formerly of the Denver Post, says that studies have shown when papers close, corruption inevitably starts to grow, taxes start to go up and voter participation starts to drop. He says there is a great need to cover education, to cover health care issues, and to cover rural areas where no one is really having their story told.
So, what does this all have to do with last week you may be asking? As mentioned before, it costs money to have myself or Seth go sit in a Fiscal Court, School Board or City Council meeting to report to the community members who were unable to attend on what would be happening. It cost money to have our Sports Reporter Rich attend sporting events and take pictures of our high school and middle school athletes. Many of you may remember the Industrial Revenue Bond story I wrote about a year ago explaining what it was to a community that even its leaders didn’t know what they were prior to a company coming to town. Well, that took several hundred pages of reading and countless hours of research to produce just that one story. And the list goes on and on with graphic designers, ad sales, billing, and so on.
Long story short, the newspaper industry is financially bleeding out. Then COVID-19 hit and added a whole new twist. Try doing interviews and covering events when everything is canceled and people are afraid to leave their houses, let alone do an interview with a stranger. Editorials increased as events decreased. The sports section dried up to nothing for a time. All the time, we have had to work to find ways to make the paper more appealing to an ever-increasing population that is obsessed with their phone.
Some of you are beyond upset with last week’s front page. I get it. Here’s a few things I’ll say about it. The name on those pieces didn’t read staff report because journalists were too spineless to put their name on it, as some have accused. It said staff report, just as the article about the fatality wreck also did, because no journalist wrote it. They were type set arrest and accident reports with no journalistic input. It is the same reason that there are no journalist names attached to any other public record.
As far as putting arrests on the front page, one, it’s a layout ploy that is old as the paper. I collect the yesteryears articles, and there is not a decade that it hasn’t happened or a paper that hasn’t done it. I was going through some old Messengers from the 70s the other day and they put everyone that was charged on the front page.
Personally, I don’t necessarily like it, but it’s kind of hard to argue with the financial side when those are the bestselling papers. In the last year, the five best selling papers in our community have had the worst arrest narratives on the front page. The fluffy, feel good covers just don’t sell. So, for those calling for “boycotts” and “death to the paper” over one article in an 18 page newspaper that also had a free 58 page magazine showcasing Meade County, what would you have us do?
My co-workers and I love this county. You may not know it yet, but we have some soon to be announced award winning journalists, and other staff members, at the Meade County Messenger now. We have written countless pieces promoting our schools, youth and citizens. We have kept you informed on everything from COVID-19 to government decisions. We have pushed our readers to support struggling small businesses. Beyond all of that though, since the day I walked in the Messenger’s door, we have been under attack by someone. If the community supported their local newspaper with less than a $1 a week all the time, not just when there is a sensational arrest on the front page, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Instead, we have the Meade County Republican Party sending their own newspapers to everyone’s house during an election, to not just promote their candidates, but also to bash the newspaper too. And let’s not forget about the individuals jumping on Facebook calling for others to ostracize the newspaper and talking about how they quit supporting the paper 30 years ago because of an article that was written when I was still in school and some of my colleagues were in diapers. Like any business, only you can decide whether to support us or not. Just realize that when we are gone… who’s going to fill the void? It won’t be the Courier Journal or the News Enterprise. And it won’t be any of the Louisville TV stations. Meade County will just become like so many other counties across the country and nation—a news desert.