Musings - On the editor's mind

 


Journalists, self-reflective navel gazers, are quoting studies that 2.5 newspapers a week – 10 a month and 130 annually – closed in 2023. Is there a future for small newspapers?

Yes there is. Here is one way to succeed.

In the March issue of the national political magazine, The Nation, D.D. Guttenplan offers a brief lament on the continued collapse of local newspapers, a tragedy stretching back 30-plus years. He follows Nation contributor John Nichols’ December “Build Back Better,” an article which posited that, worse than news deserts, is “the death of local news.”

It is great that The Nation offers a clarion call, but Nichols writes from 30,000 feet, not acknowledging that there are probably hundreds of successful independently owned newspapers across the country like mine, the La Conner Weekly News, or the Eugene Weekly or Kansas’ Marion Record. The owners of many are – like me – past retirement age and with little prospect of getting the market value of the business when they retire. That is the quiet tragic crisis of local journalism, not getting the attention that the median age of farmers being near 60 has received for decades.

My publisher-editor peers run award winning newsrooms and manage robust, financially successful businesses. Like farmers in every state in the U.S., it is not that farms are failing. It is that too few younger people understand the possibility of continuing our legacies. Small farms fail and local newspapers die because no one picks up the plow – or the pen.

The solution is as simple as it is straightforward: career journalists, whether 35 or 55, need to pair up, cobble their resources together and buy small newspapers, one community at a time, to maintain each’s legacy of covering local news and – yes – continue to profit into their futures.

Those papers are fairly worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, as mine is. Others are worth $1 million and more.

Many failing small newspapers are not very good, a result of small conglomerates growing into increasingly larger regional empires. After buying independent papers, a cookie cutter strategy hollows out and homogenizes formerly vital publications until readers no longer find them useful, even if some advertisers stay.

Nichols is right, legislative and philanthropic band aids will “never establish a local journalism that is strong enough.” The $500 million invested in Press Forward, a coalition of foundations, creates nonprofits and supports some hand-wringing processes but will it inject vitality into shell newspapers or make news deserts bloom?

Here is the response Nichols seeks to the “crisis of journalism that is sufficient in vision and scope to address the void that is swallowing up civil society:”

Buying $500 million worth of small newspapers is the direct way to energize local democracy.

Purchases are needed of the newspapers themselves, investing in reporter-owned and managed newspapers.

The political movement Nichols wants is organizing resources in newspaper towns so residents create and maintain local ownership. Both the interest and monies are out there.

Needed is the marrying of the thousands of journalists who have lost their jobs with the many newspapers in every state needing younger, energetic and experienced journalists on local beats.

Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and other laid off and fired journalists can invest their pension funds in buying their own jobs in probably every state in the country. Yet not one responded to my ad in The Nation last summer of “Weekly Newspaper for Sale.”

Where is the entrepreneurial spirit and independent leadership going back to Benjamin Franklin? For 300 years journalists have opened newspapers in frontier communities. The frontier is long closed but those towns and cities are in need of the vital organ that is the beating heart of democracy.

Opportunity awaits. The funds exist. Progressive bootstrap initiative is needed to marry the journalists in need with the communities much too quiet from the absence of clacking keyboards.

 

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