“Take another shot of courage. Wonder why the right words never come. You just get numb.”—Don Henley
By Ray Mosby
ROLLING FORK— Twenty-five years.
A quarter of a century. A third of the average lifetime. That qualifies as a milestone, I think.
At very least, that’s a large enough sample to be representative. That’s enough time to accumulate an awful lot of data and that is enough time to adequately test it.
So I think it perhaps time for some evaluation.
It has been 25 years since I gathered up what then constituted my little family and moved to a place I’d never really been, where I knew not one soul to try to do something that I was not at all sure would even work.
The majority of us operating community newspapers have built our operations to support the area businesses that are the life blood of our community. We celebrate their successes and are concerned for their setbacks. We are constantly having conversations with business owners and managers about the best and most efficient ways to market themselves.
Who within our own operations is taking the time to think about how best we market ourselves? Or more importantly, who has time to ask and answer that question?
Many of us are not just operating a newspaper, we are operating a media company. Of course we have our print newspaper, but we also have a robust website, a total market coverage (TMC) paper and in many cases a magazine. For many of us we are expanding our media companies to include a suite of digital marketing services.
Small, rural newspapers can win open-records battles with state agencies and beat larger news outlets at covering big stories in their communities, says a journalist who spent most of his career at a metropolitan daily but has returned to the business of publishing a rural weekly.
Les Zaitz, publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon, made those and other points as he spoke to the annual conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors in Portland, Oregon, on July 12.
Between his ISWNE presentations, Zaitz accepted the 2018 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
Zaitz talked about how the Enterprise pursued the story of a former state hospital patient’s involvement in two murders and an assault in Malheur County shortly after his release. The newspaper discovered that the defendant had been released after convincing state officials he had faked mental illness for 20 years to avoid prison, and after mental-health experts warned he was a danger.
The last couple of years have been an unending barrage against the freedom of the press and the practitioners of this noble trade.
From being called “liars,” “fake,” and “sick” by irate politicians to enduring capricious and punitive tariffs that are an existential threat to newspapers, the landscape for journalists today may be as inhospitable as it has ever been in the 242-year history of this great union of ours.
All this while the public at large seems unable to break free of the social media echo chamber. We retreat there to endlessly bicker with those who don’t agree, or to bolster the confidence of our own positions by seeking solace from those who do.
We’ve devolved into a nation of people who simply don’t want to hear it.
July 17 was a very long day for us in this business and not just because it was a Tuesday, which are replete with production deadlines for most newspapers.
No, this particular Tuesday was the day the marshaled forces representing newspapers across North America appeared before the International Trade Commission to make the case for it to abandon imposed anti-dumping duties and tariffs on Canadian-imported newsprint.
For all of our members, it is the existential crisis of the moment. And it’s a very dangerous one. The tariffs — still considered preliminary until the ITC rules late this summer — are causing newsprint prices to soar and availability to be sharply curbed.
The hearings before the ITC included a parade of dozens of members of Congress from both parties. These people know how important community newspapers are to the towns and counties they represent. And despite all the howls of “fake news” this and “fake news” that, these people know the threat such tariffs could have on principles as basic as those prescribed in the First Amendment.
The biggest problem publishing newspapers today is public perception. Every newspaper, from the largest metro to the smallest family-owned community weekly, is judged by the actions of all the others.
If a large chain decides to reduce the number of day they publish or the size of their news room both broadcast and social media report it as a sure sign “print is dead.”
But print isn’t dead. Newspapers are simply facing the same challenges impacting most traditional retailers in this time of increased on-line marketing. Both newspaper and shopper publishers are often told they are the buggy-whip manufacturers of the modern age. But those who say such don’t consider that, although the buggy-whip business is long gone, the importance, status and value of a fine horse remains.
For a decade or more, community newspapers, mostly in rural areas, have been the strongest part of the traditional news business. That’s because they are usually the only reliable source of news about their communities. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t suffered as audiences move from print to digital and from news media to social media (or even strategic media, some masquerading as news media). Now community publishers are having to deal with perhaps the greatest collective threat they have ever faced, a newsprint tariff that has raised their printing costs by about 20 percent.
There are efforts in Congress to suspend the tariff on Canadian newsprint and get the International Trade Commission to overturn it. The outcome is unclear. But what has become clear is that there is more worry among rural newspapers than ever before about their future. I’ve heard it in talks with editors, publishers and executives, and have seen it in the papers themselves, as well as other news media. The latest examples I’ve seen are in The Canadian Record, a superb weekly in the Texas Panhandle, and a story in MinnPost, a nonprofit news site based in Minneapolis.