An anonymous person commenting on our website described me as a “rich” newspaper owner who ignored a story to protect my “media empire.” I don’t respond to anonymous opinions and will only say the person was wrong since the incident in question did make our newspaper. However, what was amusing about the comment — and worth exploring — is the supposed “media empire” I have created with my small weekly newspapers.

When I tell people who don’t know me what I do, I sometimes get the response: “People still read newspapers?” They’re usually chuckling to let me know they are joking, but there is no denying that all media, particularly print media, are facing some challenges in this wired world that may leave newspaper owners feeling they are hanging on for dear life.

The truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes. At our annual newspaper conventions, I don’t see media royalty holding empires in their small towns across Minnesota. I also don’t see a throng of publishers holding community newspapers that are on their last legs.

The world wide web doesn’t affect small town newspapers as much as larger media because it isn’t lucrative enough for online companies to market to such small populations. That’s not to say the internet hasn’t had an effect on community publishing. Although most small town news is only available through community newspapers in print or online, there are many options for consumers — and that creates challenges for all newspapers.

However, the greater challenge for community newspapers is the state of small towns. Newspapers depend on revenue from small business advertising for survival and the business climate in small towns has been changing almost as fast as technology.

There was a time when small town merchants were considered better off financially than the general population.  That served small towns well in some ways because the local business owners often banded together to donate time, use their influence or allocate money to get important community projects done.

Today, it seems, the core businesses in a small town are more likely to be owned by someone from out of town or to be part of a group or chain. Also, there just aren’t as many businesses in small towns as there used to be.

Some of that change is due to the influx of big box stores in neighboring larger communities. Small town stores that feature clothing or jewelry or shoes or children’s items, or even variety stores, are rare these days.

Part of the decline was forced. The previous presidential administration encouraged the consolidation of automobile dealers as part of a bailout to help the industry. The theory was that instead of many dealers making a comfortable living, fewer dealers concentrated in larger cities could make more money.

Private industry tended to follow that centralization trend. For example, people used to be able to get cell phones in many small communities. Now the industry is more concentrated in the larger cities with a very few exceptions.

The modern business climate has also changed in all sizes of cities. The new reality has forced many small town establishments to combine to get bigger or to just get out, resulting in groups or chains spread throughout small towns in an area.

Although a small chain with regional ownership is preferred over a national chain, even those groups of area local owners won’t stop the consolidation. For example, a regional agricultural company apparently has plans to shut down some of its local shops in area communities, combining them in one location. And, to be fair, I should mention even my newspaper group has had to shut down local offices over the years to keep our overall operation solvent.

The new businesses that now set up shop in small communities are often convenience stores that provide much more than gas or dollar stores that have a little bit of everything, thus competing with local business people who are still operating in small towns.

Even medical services are endangered, but not because of lack of clients. The bigger problems are finding medical people to work in small towns as well as justifying the economy of operating separate units for smaller populations who have shown they will travel for life’s other necessities.

Although many of the examples are gross generalizations — there are businesses doing great here — it is generally much harder to operate small businesses in small communities these days and the challenges seem to increase every day.

Still, it isn’t all gloomy. Although most small town business people will never get rich, there are other intangibles that make it worthwhile to accept the hard work and unknowns of where this is all heading.

Business owners in small towns work on a human scale where they know their residents (anonymous online comments aside). That smaller scale also allows them to see what impact they are making on their communities, leading to a sense of satisfaction owners of a huge company will never experience.

Owning a business, newspaper or other, in a small town may not lead to an empire, as some people might imagine, but it can bring fulfillment of a different order. I hope our residents also see this non-monetary, human-scale fulfillment in their lives when they support the small town businesses that are still here to serve them.