By Ken Stern 

Musings – on the editor's mind


February 15, 2023

What is more American than farmers on their farms? They were the first colonizers, clearing the land, putting down roots, both literal and figurative, forging the future out of the sweat of their brow, the force of their will and the strength of their imaginations, planning and plotting an ordered world as much out of their hopes for tomorrow as from steering a plow.

Who was right behind farmers, chronicling, championing, challenging and questioning their every move? Some romantics might list journalists, maybe ahead, maybe just after the clergy.

Think about it. If the axe cleared the forests and then farmers started planting, publishers were probably taking notes with quill and vellum and then setting movable type in their printing presses. It may be that printing offices were the third set of buildings in town, after the church and the tavern.

Now, when the future of Skagit farming is celebrated and invested in with a $100,000 donation, discussion turns to training new farmers. They are almost as rare as available land is for them. The average age of working farmers is perhaps 58, with many working past 68 to 78 and into their 80s. The old Minnesota joke is, "What is the last thing a Norwegian bachelor farmer says before he dies?" Long pause. Answer, drawled slowly: "Just fine, doc."

There is a national conversation and a focused movement to create a generation of young farmers to work as well as repopulate all those farmsteads and acres so farms stay farms. Similar attention is not being paid to a parallel phenomenon in rural communities, that a critical reason small newspapers are disappearing is that publishers of those gritty, independent journals are aging out and selling out if they can.

Communities all across the country are drying up into news deserts. The drought choking small town newspapers is partly a lack of vibrant new ownership. As much as farmers don't want to see big ag swoop in and buy up the family's heritage, small publishers don't want to sell out to big newspaper chains. Large scale publishers have the same tendencies as giant agriculture conglomerates: come in for the easy profits. These far away strangers will hollow out, suck out, spit out and walk out of town without a care in the world for the ragged project they leave behind, if they leave even a shell of the paper to straggle on.

Are journalists as romantic as farmers? The latter press seeds into the ground and hope the end of the season brings a bountiful harvest and high prices.

Journalists, who used to scratch words on a page but now clack keys connected to the ether, nurture a product that is more ephemeral and possibly, oddly more permanent.

Newspaper futures depend on dreamers and doers who believe in the vitality of their specific communities and know that the future of democracy depends on words on pages that reflect the very real lives of the people around them.


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