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, tell the story of its people, 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.
Now the closing of small town media has in itself become a national pandemic, and even more, a national topic of conversation on more widespread media outlets such as television.
On Oct. 15, 2021, a segment of the TODAY Show series, “Mr. Smith goes to...”, visited a small town newspaper called The Storm Lake Times located in Iowa that is barely hanging on. Although it is the only newspaper for that area, they have taken unheard of measures to try and keep their newspaper alive in a digitally dominated world. Both the Editor Art Cullen and publisher John Cullen, his brother, have stopped drawing salaries in order to be able to fund keeping their paper alive for their community.
Who here in Meade County would be willing to give up their paycheck so that their neighbors could stay informed of the political, social and cultural news that could affect their day-to-day life? For understandable reasons of which we all hate, mainly bills, I doubt many would do that at all. Yet, that is what just one newspaper is having to do to try and keep their readers and their families informed. If that’s not a sacrifice to community service, I don’t know what is.
The prognosis for this paper is dire, yet the staff there stays hopeful everyday that they come to work that things will change, whether it be from an increase in advertising or new reader subscriptions.
The nearby News Enterprise in Elizabethtown was a multi-sectioned paper that shrank to just a few pages 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 have survived 2020 and 2021, did it at a financial loss. U.S. newspapers are facing an extinction-level crisis. 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. Other studies show that crime rates increase, as well. The power of small-town shame from making the paper for breaking the law is real.
As mentioned before, it costs money to have Seth Dukes or myself go sit in a fiscal court, school board or city council meeting to report on to the community members who were unable to attend on what would be happening. It cost money to have our Sports Reporter Rich Fairman 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 over a year ago explaining what they were to a community whose leaders didn’t even understand prior to a company coming to town. Well, that took several hundred pages of reading and countless hours of research just to produce 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. 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.
My coworkers and I love this county. 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. 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 simply become, like so many other communities across the country and nation, a news desert.