The world isn’t as mean as the news might indicate

I know this may seem ironic coming from a newsman, but does the news make you feel good on a regular basis?

Television news broadcasts can be depressing. Your social media feed can be worse.

Admittedly, some news in your community newspaper can bring you down from time to time as well.

More and more often, people may feel more afraid, angry, cynical, and hopeless after watching the evening news.

Broadcast news has developed over the years to compete with entertainment for TV ratings.

Back in the days of Walter Cronkite, the evening news was a loss leader.

CBS made money on “I Love Lucy,” not the “Evening News.”

Not anymore. Network news is a cash cow these days.

As a result, they tend to sensationalize danger and wrongdoing, evoking fears of corruption and impending doom.

Media nerds like me learned in graduate school about the negative effects this has on society. But the implications for everyday people are worth discussing. A communications writer, George Gerbner, coined a phrase for this: “Mean World Syndrome.” It deals with the impact watching television has on how we see the world.

The Mean World Syndrome goes one step further, describing the perception that the world is more dangerous than it really is, based on what’s shown in mass media.

There are thousands of studies that suggest a strong connection between television watching and aggression.

Over the decades, much has been done to shield children from violence on television, but some say that is missing the point. Instead of focusing on ways to hide the violence, some question the ways in which the violence is portrayed.

Violence on television and video games can normalize aggressive behavior and make viewers become desensitized.

Gerbner said the mind then becomes “militarized.”

The more dangerous the news shows the world to be, the more we believe them. We become fearful and anxious, depend more on authority, and take other precautionary measures.

“Growing up in a violence-laden culture breeds aggressiveness in some and desensitization, insecurity, mistrust, and anger in most. Punitive and vindictive action against dark forces in a mean world is made to look appealing, especially when presented as quick, decisive, and enhancing our sense of control and security,“ Gerbner once said.

Sound familiar?

He wrote that back in the 1970s.

Where, then, have we come now?

Did you know that crime is at a 30-year low in this country?

We are safer than we’ve ever been.

In every category: murders, rapes, drug use… every category… crime is down.

You couldn’t tell it by watching the 10 o’clock news.

The average newscast is about 26 minutes. There are about six minutes for weather and five for sports.

That leaves the station 19 minutes to grab and keep your attention.

The advertising is more effective that way.

When 15 minutes of the newscast is doom and gloom, leaving only two minutes, after commercials, for something positive — what is the mind supposed to think?

I’ve been guilty of this too.

As a newsman, I know what sells newspapers. A terrible car wreck or controversy at the school board meeting wins every time.

It is what it is.

But we err on the side of positive whenever possible.

I don’t think the TV guys do that as much.

At the end of the day, you are responsible for the media you consume. If you take in violence, you will be in a violent mood and that is not good.

We need to keep up with the world around us, but take it with a grain a salt. For every story about a violent crime, there are thousands of stories about communities coming together.

Seek out those stories.

Seek out the good stuff. There is always more good than there is bad.

Darrell Royal was right, and newspapers should pay attention

Darrell Royal was famous for his formula for winning football:  You gotta dance with the one what brung you.  In football, you have to keep doing what made you good in the first place. If you were undefeated by running the ball, you keep running it in the playoffs.

And that concept works for newspapers, too.

The doom-and-gloom crowd always focus on the “paper” part of the newspaper compound.  Paper is a dying medium, they say.  And they may be right.  But if we’re going to succeed, we have to focus on the first part of that compound – the one what brung us.  And that is news.

Newspapers aren’t popular because they’re printed on paper. They grew to popularity because they gave people the news they wanted.  Local events.  Names. Faces. Calendars. Sports. Opinion. Pictures. Information.

And guess what?  Scholarly research confirms what we have always known.  A Northwestern University study last year showed that regular reader habit and strong coverage of local news were the key factors in keeping subscribers.  But they wondered … was that also true for small news outlets?

So they did a follow-up study on 12 small news outlets.  Not surprisingly, they found that the same local news emphasis that causes people to read metros also sends them to your newspaper.

One of the things they found was that the more frequently subscribers connect with you, the more likely they are to hold on to their subscription. Large newspapers realize that even publishing daily isn’t enough, so they have rolled out a number of newsletters to make their brand more valuable for readers.

The takeaway for community newspapers: We have a hot commodity – news.  But we can’t just deliver that on paper once a week.  We have to be the go-to medium for news in the community every day.  At TCCJ, we used to say that you could be a weekly in print but you had to be a daily online.  That seems short-sighted now.  We can’t just put news up daily on our website – we have to use social media and newsletters to get that news in front of our readers.

Websites assume that readers come to them.  But social media and newsletters don’t wait for readers to come to them – they go to the readers.

We still have a commodity readers want.  We just have to get the news – branded with our name – in front of readers, and do it more often.

Is community journalism the last bastion of news objectivity?

If you’re reading a community newspaper, chances are you are reading what seems to be a dying story format:  an unbiased account of the news.

A president who has been overly critical of journalism has driven newspeople on the national level to disregard time-honored canons of objectivity. In years past, we would have reported what a president said or did, and what others said about him.  Now many think they have to put a label on the newsmaker – calling the president a racist instead of just reporting his words and actions and letting the reader decide whether that represented racism.

But what about readers?  Does it matter to them?

Surveys say it does:

  • A recent Knight Foundation study reported that 66 percent of Americans said most news media do not do a good job of separating fact from opinion. Back in 1984, 42 percent held that view.
  • On a media trust scale with scores ranging from a low of zero to a high of 100, the average American scores a 37.
  • Unfortunately, media trust has itself become a partisan issue, with Democrats largely trusting the media and Republicans distrusting the media.

The recent flurry of news mergers and buyouts also concerns the public.  More than 9 in 10 Americans in a Gallup survey are very (68 percent) or somewhat (26 percent) concerned that corporate views would influence coverage if a large company purchased their local news organization.

When you talk with readers about these issues, remember that they don’t see the media landscape like we journalists do.  They look at newspapers, TV news, online news and other outlets and just see journalism.  We see hard news, news analysis, news advocacy, infotainment and lots more.

So tell your readers that you’re committed to presenting the news fairly and objectively – to airing all important sides of stories.  And that no matter what they may see on MSNBC or Fox or some national newspaper or news show, your newspaper is committed to the best traditions of objectivity, neutrality and fairness.

An old definition of public relations is “doing right and telling people about it.” At community newspapers, we’re committed to doing right.  But we need to be more about the business of telling people about it.

Rethinking how we cover the opioid epidemic

Rural communities have been disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic, but rural newspapers have been disproportionately quiet about it. They seem to cover it as a criminal-justice problem, when it is primarily a health problem. Smart law enforcers and first responders will tell you that, but many if not most rural papers seem reluctant to cover it that way – to dig into the reasons for addiction, the struggles to overcome it, the search for treatment and the stories of success.

Part of this, I know from experience, is the natural reluctance of community journalists to report facts that reflect poorly on their communities. In many places, they probably think there’s already enough bad news.

Another big factor is the stigma that still surrounds people with drug problems. That is more prevalent in rural areas, and it keeps people from seeking help – and clings to those who do, putting them at risk for relapse. The role of stigma was well researched by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, and The Rural Blog reported on it at https://bit.ly/2MhNYlq.

The folks at Oak Ridge said local news media can counteract stigma with reporting. To help rural journalists cover substance abuse, behavioral health and recovery, they and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (which publishes The Rural Blog) are planning a one-day workshop in mid-November. Watch for details on it soon.

Meanwhile, start reporting. Get local data. Ask your coroner each month for death certificates, and for advice on what families might be willing to talk about the struggles of addiction that ended in death. Talk to people in the treatment community, and then to people with substance-abuse disorder.

See how the problem developed in your area, by using the pill-distribution database that The Washington Post and the Charleston Gazette-Mail uncovered. Aaron Nelson of The Paintsville (Ky.) Herald did, and gave his readers the names of the stores that sold the most pills. The Rural Blog took note at bit.ly/2MjX4Os.

The opioid epidemic has had a disproportionate effect on poor areas, but prosperous farm counties are part of it, too. The Farm Bureau and the Cooperative Extension Service are active on this front; we had a blog item about their program in Ohio at bit.ly/30RIMc2.

Farmers have been struggling for years with financial instability, loneliness, lack of insurance or access to mental-health care, and the pressure to not quit what may have been a way of life for generations. Now they have to deal with a trade war and unfavorable weather, and are five times more likely to commit suicide than other Americans. The federal government is funneling more money to hep them. Read about it at bit.ly/2GuQjpk.

Suicide and drugs go hand in hand. In rural areas, jail suicides are increasing, and the trend is linked to drug withdrawal and mental Illness,” says The Crime Report, a publication of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, a good source for cutting-edge information on those topics. Read more at bit.ly/2GvQvF1.

Suicide is another touchy subject for community journalists, but it’s time to stop being timid about it. Did you know rural residents are more likely than those in large cities to think about, plan or attempt suicide? They are, and The Rural Blog took note at bit.ly/2yhmcgy.

Here some other topics we’ve had on the blog lately that you can localize:

A U.S. Senate report revealed nearly 400 poor-performing nursing homes whose problems were not made clear by a government website. Local papers picked up on it, and we did at bit.ly/2SOCqra.

Many rural hospitals are in trouble, but some have found ways to overcome adversity, survive and thrive. “The secret sauce is always … strong, collaborative leadership,” National Rural Health Association CEO Alan Morgan told U.S. News and World Report. This is just one of many hospital stories on The Rural Blog; read it at bit.ly/2Y8DUlH.

Rural electric cooperatives are overly reliant on coal, the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs and two other nonprofits charged. We contacted the co-ops’ national trade group, which said they are moving to “cleaner energy sources.” What’s your co-op doing? Start reporting with our blog item at bit.ly/2ZcJNuV.

Electronic cigarettes are an epidemic among young people, but many school districts are lax about it. Not in Fairbury, Neb., which requires any student in grades 7-12 to be subject to random nicotine testing if they participate in extracurricular activities. We took note at bit.ly/2GwGHKO. What is your school district doing about “vaping?” (By the way, it’s not really vapor, as the tobacco companies say; it’s an aerosol, and it has a lot of nasty stuff.)

Community newspapers increasingly charge for obituaries, an unfortunate result of digital media’s erosion of their advertising base. But the news columns of the best papers still include news obits about people who made their mark on the community or region. And sometimes a paper will double down and run a long tribute to a truly unique individual. The Valley News of Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt., did that with the moving, funny and insightful eulogy for a well-known dairy farmer and former state legislator, David Ainsworth. We picked it up at bit.ly/2YhoW8k.

Valley News Editor John Gregg sent us that story. If you do or see stories that should be on The Rural Blog, email them to me at al.cross@uky.edu.

 

For newspaper readers, advice can add a lot of spice

Former magazine editor Rix Quinn writes a weekly feature for 100-plus newspapers, and business biographies for trade magazines.

What writing format has flourished in American newspapers – and magazines – for over 200 years? If you answered “advice columns,” give yourself a warm handshake.

Yes, these features have been around longer than this country. Even way back in 1722, Ben Franklin wrote a question-answer column (“Silence Dogood”) for his brother’s newspaper in Boston.

An advice column offers three distinct advantages: (1) It gives the reader a chance to interact with the writer. (2) Experts can offer ideas on virtually any subject, and the column can even be sponsored by an advertiser. (3) Most important, advice columns are often cut out of the paper, saved, and quoted around the home or office.

Expert advice is big business

Think of all the famous writers who’ve offered advice over the years. We’ve all heard of Ann Landers and Dear Abby, who offer personal advice. And there’s also Miss Manners, and Hints from Heloise, plus loads of other columns about religion, and car maintenance, and animal care, and clothing selection, and internet use, and…well, you name it.

I’ve often heard that advice and self-help is a gigantic business. Americans reportedly spend $11 billion a year on self-help!

Let me share a personal story about how I discovered the power of advice features.

Many years ago, I worked for my Dad’s trade magazine company. He was a former newspaper editor.

He told me one informal way to gauge a story’s impact was to find out how many times it got forwarded to another person, or displayed in an office or home. This meant the reader cared enough to clip the article out of the publication.

What stories do people clip out?

I researched more, and found out folks displayed clips on office bulletin boards or home refrigerators. (Did that mean the news had gotten cold?)

In homes, people posted family photos, children’s artwork, obituaries, invitations, grocery lists, and advice articles.

At the office, workers displayed quotations, business cards, calendars, cartoons, and advice articles.

Of course, today that “clipping” is mostly electronic as readers link to the column in social media or forward a link by email.

Clip-ability equals memorability!

We made consistent efforts to shorten news and feature articles to under 250 words. We carried many brief quotations from industry executives.

We posted famous saying on the back of subscription renewal cards. And we regularly carried advice features from business experts…not only from the industries we served, but from experts in other professions too.

How to get started?

How many experts could offer advice in your community? Do you have an accountant, or a dentist, or an exercise studio, or somebody else who might want to write – and sponsor – a question-answer column?

I’m convinced that each column should be under 250 words. Each column should offer an e-mail address, and ask questioners to write to that address.

Here’s what we did: After we received a question, we did not publish the questioner’s name unless they gave us specific, written permission.

And…each column carried a disclaimer that said something like this: “Answers offer the views of this column writer only, and not this publication.” I am NOT an expert on this! You should check with your attorney for specific wording.

Finally…

I’ll be glad to talk to you more about advice columns…for free. Just call me at 817-920-7999 or email me at rix@rixquinn.com.

 

 

In today’s world, journalism really does matter

The bag that I carry gets a variety of reactions from an assortment of people.

A stark black bag with a simple white font featuring the phrase, ‘Journalism Matters, #Nottheenemy’ is met by some with scoffs, others with disdain and even a few positive, ‘Hey, I like your bag!’

Those I suspect come from closet journalists or perhaps subscribers to a newspaper.

“Journalism Matters!” takes on different meanings for all kinds of journalists.

June 28 will mark one year since five individuals who worked at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland were killed.

Gerald Fischman, 61, the newsroom’s editorial page editor; Rob Hiaasen, 59, an editor and features columnist; John McNamara, 56, a sports reporter and editor for the local weekly papers; Wendi Winters, 65, a local news reporter and community columnist; and Rebecca Smith, a sales assistant, all lost their lives.

The shooter took revenge about a story that had been published in the newspaper, a piece similar to ones that our papers have previously published. I would hazard a guess that the majority of publications throughout the newspaper industry have also published similar articles.

Their journalism mattered.

Last week, as yet another shooting unfolded in downtown Dallas, and Dallas Morning News photojournalist Tom Fox was caught in the middle.

When many of us, even trained professional journalists, would have simply hidden from the shooter, Fox captured images that would grace front pages across the nation.

His forethought, bravery and dedication to his craft were on display as the portrait of a shooter in an active shooting situation was captured.

His journalism matters.

For a local newsroom in neighboring Hunt County, staffers at the Greenville Herald Banner stood in shock after severe weather ravaged their community Wednesday, June 19.

Pushing aside worries about their own homes and safety, they reported to work capturing history and providing essential information to their citizens. They embraced the fact that journalism matters.

With no electricity, in oppressive Texas summer temperatures, they picked up the pieces and went to work. They put out a paper and continued to update mobile applications.

In a time of crisis, their journalism mattered. A lot.

With the fourth anniversary of the July 7, 2016 Dallas Police shooting on the horizon, many of us can recall images captured from both professional journalists and those citizen journalists who added to their reporting efforts.

Their memories helped honor the five heroes who tried their best to save lives and countless other officers who stopped the shooter.

Their journalism matters.

And so does ours.

Last year, 53 journalists across the world were killed for their efforts to bring the truth to light. Some died covering wars. Others were murdered over their work.

Without boots on the ground, facts and essential stories would remain hidden.

Truth, such as that brought to light by Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, would remain in the dark.

Khashoggi was killed in a Saudi Arabian consulate after criticizing the Saudi state.

Democracy dies in darkness.

Though not dodging bullets or avoiding car bombs, a passion for local journalism is a feat in itself. Long hours, limited resources and interacting on a daily basis with those who you report on is not for the faint of heart.

In this world, my passion for journalism has only grown. And so has my dedication for covering it.

If you aren’t a subscriber of The Times, or any of our other publications, I encourage you to do so. It’s one of the best investments $33 can get you.

After all, journalism matters.

If we’re going to reach Millennials and Gen-Z, we have to go where they are

Editor’s note:  Far too much of our conversation about reaching new readers is middle-age (and older) white men writing for other middle-age (and older) white men.  So we thought we needed to hear from a young reporter who’s part of the generation we so desperately want to reach.  Meet Brooke Crum (one of Tommy’s former students), who works as a reporter in Waco.

I recently wrote an article about a 15-year-old Waco High School student who was featured in a New York Times piece on Generation Z.

She was among some 900 Gen-Z’ers who responded to a query from the Times on its Instagram story, which simply asked members of her generation to describe how they are different from their friends. This student said she reads the news daily and takes an interest in politics.

While it was refreshing to hear of her interest in news, I was far more excited about how she connected with the New York Times – Instagram, the social media platform almost everyone under age 40 uses. According to Pew Research Center, 67 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds use Instagram and 62 percent use Snapchat, yet every news organization I have ever worked for in the past seven years has only focused on Facebook and Twitter. Yeah, they might have an Instagram account, but check out the date of the latest post. And is there a current story?

Our Instagram accounts lie stagnant, patiently waiting for the next Millennial in the newsroom to take the reins and manage the social media app that will organically allow us to tap the audience we need to survive as an industry.

I have never worked for a news organization that has truly engaged an audience, well, my age. Sure, my friends will read local news stories that pertain to them or if I bother them enough to read my latest story, but mostly they interact with national news organizations that use social media to its fullest potential. It’s just easier for them that way.

The only time we ever interact with those 18-and-unders is when we cover education and sports. They don’t reach out to us. They don’t read us.

Personally, my favorite news accounts to follow on Instagram are the New Orleans Times-Picayune and National Geographic. My love for all things New Orleans plus the Times-Picayune’s incredible photographers provide an endless stream of stunningly interesting photos, and I can witness scenes from around the world via Nat Geo photogs, who also write lengthy captions about what they photograph. I particularly enjoy Beverly Joubert, who mostly photographs big cats in Africa and writes about the importance of conservationism.

And Instagram is only one method of targeting Millennials and Generation Z – the largest and most diverse generation. We should still prioritize Facebook and Twitter. Millennials and the Gen Zs are on there, too, just much more infrequently.

But the thing is, they don’t know what a reporter does. They don’t know who Woodward and Bernstein are. They’ve never heard of the Pentagon Papers. They don’t even watch journalism movies.

I have the privilege of working with one of the reporters who cowered in a ditch for some two hours in 1993, while bullets whizzed past his head and struck the photographer’s car shielding him from the exchange of gunfire between the ATF and the Branch Davidians. He remembers using this strange newfangled device called a cellphone to tell his editor he and his colleagues were caught in the crossfire. He remembers telling another reporter whimpering with anxiety beside him to shut up. And he remembers how that photographer, who still works at the Tribune-Herald, drove that bullet-ridden car until it was totaled.

Tommy “Spoon” Witherspoon recently showed me around our museum at work, which has an entire room dedicated to the Branch Davidian coverage. He walked me through that day, how he got the tip when the search warrant would be served – on a Sunday – and how the Tribune-Herald staff followed the story from there. He did not tell me his source.

I tell friends and family about Spoon and about our work museum, which also has a room dedicated to Robert Griffin III, the famous Baylor quarterback who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens. They are fascinated. Most of them have similarly foggy memories to mine of those weeks in 1993, but we’ve never met anyone who lived through it. We’ve never heard their stories.

My parents grew up in Waco, but we were living in Dallas at the time of the standoff. They remember the news coverage, as do my aunt and uncles who still live in Waco. They don’t know Spoon, and I find that baffling. How can they not know anything about the man who has written some of the history of Waco?

On the other end of the spectrum is one of my former colleagues. She recently left the Tribune-Herald for a job outside of journalism, but you might not know it around town. People still come up to her with news tips and story ideas. They still send her Twitter messages. She deleted the Facebook account that thousands of Wacoans went to for news every day, but that has not stopped fans from tracking her down. They do not necessarily know who she is, but they knew what she did simply because she shared her job on social media. She opened up a window into the newsroom and the Tribune-Herald.

And that’s what the rest of us need to do. We need to open up the windows, claw off the cobwebs and invite the public inside. At the Waco Trib, we could invite them inside our museum and show them just how important and brilliant the journalists working for them are and how they have been honored for their work.  We can’t just assume the reading public knows what we do and how we do it — we need to show them.

 

Engaging in disengagement: Publisher drops his social media accounts

I joined Facebook about three years ago.

I deleted my Facebook account earlier this week.

I decided I didn’t need it.

Even crazier, I deleted the News-Record’s Facebook page as well.

While these moves may seem counterintuitive for a community journalism professional, I thought I’d air my reasoning out here.

Until September 2016, I had resisted Facebook.

I assumed it was a waste of time and was nothing I was interested in.

I was forced into joining by a graduate school professor who decided he would host all of his online lectures that semester on Facebook Live.

The university offered a perfectly fine video conferencing tool— it was better, actually— but, this professor saw something media savvy in the newly offered Facebook Live application.

While I assumed this was the act of a young Mass Communication professor trying to build his tenure application by trying new things, the mandate required each class member to join Facebook in order to be a member of these sessions.

So I did.

I remember telling my wife then, “You hear about all these people complaining about time wasting on Facebook; I’ll probably become one of those people.”

I was right. I did.

While I think social media is a great tool, I’ve seen its terrible side too.

We witnessed obscene comments— via social media— earlier this year when a football coach wasn’t rehired.

They played out for days as comments on the News-Record’s original report of a school board meeting.

I eventually removed the original post. I figured we wouldn’t print such trash in the actual newspaper— why let it play out there?

Then I was criticized, by some, for trying to “control the narrative.”

I’ve seen seemingly grounded intelligent people share blatantly false news reports on Facebook as if they were the gospel and then not care about them being false when it was pointed out.

This is part of the problem with Facebook.

Facebook told the Washington Post last week, “We don’t have a policy that stipulates that the information you post on Facebook must be true.”

From day one, Facebook has maintained that it is a platform and not a publisher.

But they want the protections of a publisher— first amendment rights and all— without the responsibilities of a publisher.

As a publisher, I am subject to libel laws and standards of ethical practice.

The paramount of which is that what he publish must be true.

Yes, satire is protected; but satire is another story.

Facebook just admitted they don’t care if what they dispense is the truth.

Thereby, they are part of the problem.

They have also admitted their business model revolves about harvesting our personal data.

To Facebook, we are not an audience. We are the product they sell.

All of this legal and ethical stuff aside, me leaving Facebook was a personal decision.

I was just wasting too much time on it. I’d sit down to check my feed and look up and it would be an hour later.

And I wouldn’t be any better for the time I had spent.

I am not the type who can look at it for a minute and put it down for a day.

I am too nosey.

So, it’s time for me to re-center the energy of being nosey to more productive means— enterprising community newspaper reporting.

I was able to do that before Facebook came along.

I was also able to meet my wife, have four wonderful kids, graduate college, build a successful career, grow a great circle of friends and maintain a passion for performing live music— all without Facebook.

While you may miss pictures of what I’m having for dinner, I am still available for cup of coffee and conversation whenever you can stop by the office.

Businesses nowadays are concerned with “engagement.”

The trend is trying to find new ways to achieve “engagement” via social media.

To me, “engagement” is what we used to do before we got so busy monitoring our social media feeds.

It is a place we need to get back to.

In today’s media world, newspapers must fight local complacency by proving they are relevant — and needed

Does the reportedly mixed reaction to the death of a small weekly newspaper on the Lake of the Woods show we have entered “the golden age of ignorance,” as Minnesota Public Radio blogger Bob Collins declared?

Perhaps, if newspapers can’t convince communities that they are an essential civic asset.

Collins’ declaration came in a follow-up to MPR reporter John Engler’s report on the May 7 demise of the Warroad Pioneer, one of three weeklies in Roseau County, on Minnesota’s northern border. Engler paraphrased New York Times reporter Richard Fausset: “He said he spent a week in Warroad, talking to locals about the paper closing. He admitted that most folks, outside of the Pioneer staff and their husbands, didn’t seem too broken up about it.”

Fausset disputed that, in an interview with me: “I talked to a lot of people who were very worried the newspaper was going to quit. What MPR reported does not accurately reflect what I found in the town. There are a number of people concerned about what happens next.”

Engler did a little of his own reporting on the point. After paraphrasing Fausset, he wrote: “Out on the streets of Warroad, a handful of locals backed up his assessment,” and cited one who “gets his news from Google, ‘just like everybody else.'”

That comment reflects “monumental ignorance,” said Reed Anfinson, former president of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson in central Minnesota. “There is no local civic reporting from Google. Google captures our work and pirates it – if it is available.”

Anfinson also said, “A reporter finding some disgruntled, or disinterested, people and using them to imply definitive assessment of the community’s feelings about the newspaper, I find troubling.”

Publisher Rebecca Colden told me, “There were people coming in throughout the day who said just the opposite.” Interviewed before Fausset was, she said, “I think Richard’s saying they’re just complacent with the value of a newspaper. They like it, but they don’t value it as they should.”

That feeling, Colden said, helped her decide to close. She said she met with many people in the community, looking for ways to rejuvenate the paper, but “The challenge was that there is a complacency within these small communities, that they just feel like the paper will always be there, especially a paper of this age.” The Pioneer lasted more than 120 years.

And it wasn’t as if she hadn’t warned the whole town, in stark fashion. Colden said the Pioneer was the first of many Minnesota papers to run a blank front page in 2017, asking readers to imagine that there was no local paper. She told me that she did the sort of accountability news coverage that readers expect, and “They’re gonna miss all the information they didn’t know they needed.”

Colden said she could have borrowed more money and taken the risk of converting to free, total-market circulation, “but I need to know that there’s really community buy-in to do that, and . . . the community buy-in was really lacking.” She said that showed in school news, a local-paper staple: “Teachers and coaches just throw some things up on social media rather than send it to the paper.”

Engler reported that Fausset was assigned to “tell the story of the prototypical American small town losing its voice.” If so, he seems to have made a good choice; the paper is like many rural weeklies that have closed in the last 15 years: in a small town outside a county seat, with a shrinking advertising base and independent ownership that couldn’t or wouldn’t negotiate a sale or merger.

We don’t know the whole story. Colden said she couldn’t work out a deal with the paper’s former owners, Page1Publications, who have five nearby weeklies, including one in Roseau County. That was after she’d considered going to free distribution, and then tried to compete more directly with the county-seat paper, the Roseau Times-Region, 22 miles away. As often happens, local loyalties trumped other factors, she said: “Because of that community loyalty over there, we were never able to capture that advertising base.”

She said her local ad base has shriveled because Marvin Windows and Doors, the main local employer, has “a new generation of workers” more willing than their predecessors to shop in other towns. “It doesn’t bug them to drive two hours to go to Walmart,” she said, so more than a dozen of Warroad’s approximately 50 storefronts are empty. “We’re really a community in transition.”

But on the other side of Roseau County, in a similar small town, the Greenbush Tribune is thriving, owner and newspaper broker Julie Bergman of Page1Publications told me. Yes, having five papers in a cluster gives them economy of scale, but the Greenbush editor is a local man, Ryan Bergeron, who came back home to take the job. Bergman said he makes sure that the Tribune has content that is relevant to its readers.

“In order to survive, you have to have something in the paper that people want to pick up,” Bergman said. “They’re going to learn something.

Whatever the causes of the Pioneer’s death, it “is more than a one-off loss of a newspaper,” Anfinson told me. “I am hearing from newspaper publishers and executive directors of state newspaper associations that their concerns about the future of small-town weekly newspapers is growing.”

Almost a year ago, Anfinson was featured in a Rural Blog item headlined, “Times get tougher for rural newspapers.” Now it seems even tougher. As the old saying has it, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Newspapers must prove to their communities that they are relevant, and needed. As Bergman said, “There needs to be more education.”

Community newspapers must change, adapt in new media era

That was a tough but mostly accurate headline The Associated Press put on the 2,344-word story it published at the start of Sunshine Week last month: “Decline in readers, ads leads hundreds of newspapers to fold.” But as usual, the headline didn’t tell the whole story.

The story had a strong central basis, the research of Penny Abernathy and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina. She reported in October that about 1,400 U.S. cities and towns lost newspapers from 2004 through 2015. Most of those were suburban weeklies, but Abernathy counted more than 500 closures or mergers among rural newspapers. Many of those have been in towns that don’t dominate their counties, especially in areas like the Great Plains that have been losing population.

Just over 1,800 papers were shuttered in those 15 years, and more than 1,700 of them were weeklies. But the object example of the AP’s story was a daily, in south-central Missouri’s Pulaski County, which closed in September.

The example may seem inapt, but is forward-looking, I wrote on The Rural Blog. That’s because the Waynesville Daily Guide was closed by GateHouse Media, one of the private-equity firms that have bought hundreds of American newspapers and have a bottom-line focus. GateHouse is now the nation’s largest newspaper owner, and it seems willing to close money-making papers because they’re not making enough money.

“GateHouse rejects the notion that their motivations are strictly financial,” AP’s David Bauder and David A. Lieb wrote. Near the top of the story, they wrote of the closures, “Blame revenue siphoned by online competition, cost-cutting ownership, a death spiral in quality, sheer disinterest among readers, or reasons peculiar to given locales.”

My fear is that the Waynesville Daily Guide is the canary in the newspaper coal mine – a harbinger of more deaths to come. And I know some weekly newspaper editors and publishers who feel the same way. At least two Kentucky weeklies took the unusual step of running the Waynesville story, as a warning to their readers.

One was Ryan Craig of the Todd County Standard, judged the state’s best small weekly in 12 of the last 13 years. “I ran it in hopes that the Standard’s readers could understand that the issue with newspapers isn’t just an issue with dailies,” he told me. “I firmly feel that small, rural weeklies were safe from the bloodletting larger papers were going through even up to a couple years ago, but the digital age and smartphones, along with the erosion of public notice advertising are really hurting the bottom line and we, as citizens, run the risk of gigantic swaths of rural readers with no local newspaper serving them.”

My friend Ryan says he sees fewer and fewer people “who appreciate the role a good rural paper plays as the watchdog and advocate for a small place that is often forgotten by larger places or in the state capital.”

I have similar concerns. Here’s what I wrote in a companion piece on The Rural Blog, at https://bit.ly/2Tng4vA, the day we excerpted the Waynesville story:

“For a decade now, I have said community journalism is the healthiest part of the traditional news business, primarily because most people will always be interested in news about their locality, and digital media have not invaded the local-news franchise of most rural newspapers.

“But now I wonder. Americans increasingly engage in online, virtual communities, many of which have little or nothing to do with a locality (West Highland White Terrier owners like me and my wife, for example). The flood-the-zone approach of President Trump and the dominance of social media have placed more emphasis on national news, and the shriveling of many local news outlets has only exacerbated that.

“There is less interest in local news, and certainly in local newspapers, most of which still emphasize the print product that provides most of their advertising revenue. That leaves them with a disproportionately older audience that is gradually dying off. And I can see a decline in many rural newspapers that I did not see five years ago.”

The headline on that opinion piece was: As digital challenge increases for journalism, paymasters must adapt, be reliable and relevant, and be true to values – meaning the values of journalism, not just the news business. They are not the same thing. One pays for the other.

Our Rural Blog headline on the news piece, available at https://bit.ly/2URGCGI, was: AP uses paper GateHouse closed as example of troubles of local journalism, but says ‘This isn’t a hopeless story.’

The AP story included a brief mention of The Pilot in Southern Pines, North Carolina, which thrives on “revenue raised by side businesses — lifestyle magazines, electronic newsletters, telephone directories, a video production company and a bookstore.”

We added that The Pilot’s publisher is David Woronoff, who is going into the North Carolina Media and Journalism Hall of Fame this month. The selection committee “felt he set a new standard for community newspapers and earned well-deserved national recognition for excellence,” member Merrill Rose told The Pilot. The committee is right when it comes to journalism, and they are right when it comes to the news business.

In his roundtable session on “The Entrepreneurial Spirit” at last year’s NNA convention, David talked about his paper’s new products, including The Sway. Named for the movement of southern pines in the wind. It’s an email newsletter and website for people in their 20s, written by one. “We kind of hide our newspaper lineage with The Sway,” he said, adding that most of its readers “probably don’t know we publish it.”

But the revenue from these and other products support The Pilot, helping make it a leader among community newspapers. No, they are not a hopeless story. But they must adapt.