Keeping faith through the sounds in darkness

By : 
DAVID PHILLIPS
Reflections from my Notebook

As I was nearing the end of a leisurely run on a dark, damp Thursday evening, I ran past a figure getting out of a car near a funeral home who yelled out “nice editorial this week.” I looked back to make out someone I recognized from a neighboring town, replied “thanks” and continued into the darkness.

Such are the joys, and peculiarities, of small town journalism.

Of course, the personal feedback isn’t always positive. I’ve had people confront me — not on a dark street in the middle of winter, fortunately — about a column they didn’t particularly like.

Not all small towns have that interaction. That’s because not all small towns have newspapers anymore.

Byron and Dodge Center are the latest victims. The Byron Review and Dodge Center Star Herald ceased operations last month.

I had no stake in those weekly publications, except I considered owners Larry and Melanie Dobson distant friends. Still, the newspapers’ demise felt like a death in the family in some ways.

People I know, not always well, realized the connection and took time to talk to me after they heard about the closing. One former local resident who I hadn’t talked to in a decade even reached out to call me, suggesting I might want to go in and revive those community institutions.

The closing came as a shock because I saw the Dobsons earlier in the year at our Minnesota Newspaper Association convention where they won awards for their newspapers. There was no hint of troubles.

However, Larry Dobson wrote on the front page of his last issue that his newspapers have “not been profitable for many years. We have kept it going mostly out of love for journalism and the belief that having a newspaper is important to the sense of identity people have with their community, that it helps build community spirit and promotes cooperation.”

Although running a newspaper is more challenging today than even just a few years ago, our newspapers aren’t on the verge of collapse. However, Dobson’s message is chilling since I also keep my newspapers going for love of journalism and commitment to the community.

I doubt that love and commitment are strong enough to keep me in this business through years when I can’t pay my bills, as they did for Dobson. It’s heart-aching enough that circumstances have forced our newspapers to do more with less. We just can’t afford to cover things like we used to, much to my dismay.

Still, my primary focus is on the content of our newspapers, which perhaps could be my undoing. Some other publishers focus on advertisers, giving them preferential treatment and gifts because they are the ones who provide revenue.

My gift to advertisers is to provide a good editorial product that brings people the local news, ties the community together and offers a forum for issues, all which make the community better for everyone, including local businesses. That may be an old-fashioned sentiment, but it will guide me as long as I am in this business.

How long newspaper publishers remain in business is a real question these days. About 20 percent of all newspapers in the United States — around 1,800 — have gone out of business or merged since 2004. Minnesota has fared better, but has still lost 17 percent of its newspapers since 2003.

The losses are creating “news deserts” across the country. A recent study by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism found more than 3 million Americans in 171 counties in the United States have no newspaper at all.

Again, Minnesota is faring better than the nation as all 87 counties have at least one newspaper and that remains true with the closure of the Review and Star Herald.

The loss of newspapers isn’t just felt by the owners and staff. Communities suffer when a newspaper closes as residents often feel like they lost a family member. It’s not just the loss of personal interaction with the editor, but also the absence of community news, ranging from highlights of local students to features about neighbors who have accomplished great, or even just unusual, things.

The repercussions extend further than just missing the local news and reports of day-to-day activities.

Academic studies indicate that a lack of local media is associated with less informed voters, lower voter turnouts and less engaged local politicians.

Dermot Murphy, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that it may even cost taxpayers more without the government exposure provided by newspapers. His study showed that local government borrowing costs significantly increased for counties that have experienced a newspaper closure compared to geographically adjacent counties with similar demographic and economic characteristics without newspaper closures.

The reasons for the decline of newspapers are varied. Although the internet has destroyed the business model for many newspapers, a bigger factor for small town newspapers is the loss of local businesses. Many local retail outlets have closed down and, in some cases, national chains that don’t advertise locally have moved in.

The news coverage that local residents crave comes at a huge cost since production is so labor intensive. The cost to produce a newspaper each week is borne mainly by the remaining small businesses that advertise in their local paper.

Newspapers don’t get government subsidies and can’t levy a tax on local citizens to operate. They also don’t ask for donations, although a very few newspapers have gone to a nonprofit model.

That means it’s up to each community to support its newspaper. Readers and, more importantly, local businesses may want to re-evaluate how they support their local newspaper so their community doesn’t become another statistic.

I know the industry’s difficulties have caused me to re-evaluate how I operate. More than ever, I treasure readers who take time to give a shout-out in the darkness of night and advertisers who make the commitment to advertise in my publications. I work hard to provide a deserving newspaper because I don’t take that support for granted.

I hope our dedicated readers and supportive businesses don’t take our existence for granted, either. In a way, we are all in this together.