Does the reportedly mixed reaction to the death of a small weekly newspaper on the Lake of the Woods show we have entered “the golden age of ignorance,” as Minnesota Public Radio blogger Bob Collins declared?
Perhaps, if newspapers can’t convince communities that they are an essential civic asset.
Collins’ declaration came in a follow-up to MPR reporter John Engler’s report on the May 7 demise of the Warroad Pioneer, one of three weeklies in Roseau County, on Minnesota’s northern border. Engler paraphrased New York Times reporter Richard Fausset: “He said he spent a week in Warroad, talking to locals about the paper closing. He admitted that most folks, outside of the Pioneer staff and their husbands, didn’t seem too broken up about it.”
Fausset disputed that, in an interview with me: “I talked to a lot of people who were very worried the newspaper was going to quit. What MPR reported does not accurately reflect what I found in the town. There are a number of people concerned about what happens next.”
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.
A year ago, Donald J. Trump surprised most of the world and probably himself by winning the presidential election. He couldn’t have done it without rural America.
The numbers in the exit polls were clear. Trump won 62 percent of the rural vote, more than any modern president. And here’s the statistic that shows just how rural his victory was: If you divide up the vote by the rural continuum of the Department of Agriculture – which has nine steps, from most rural to most urban – the smaller a place’s population, the stronger its vote for Trump, with one very small exception inside the error margin.
Trump’s percentage continued a recent trend of Republicans winning more and more of the rural vote. The biggest gain was actually made when Mitt Romney ran, but rural turnout was down significantly in 2012, especially among Democrats, so that boosted Romney’s percentage. But there was a better rural turnout in 2016 – and that was a key to Trump’s victory in the big swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Last month I shared the story of a community newspaper editor who showed an effective way to respond to concerns of readers, often not politely expressed, that his newspaper was liberally biased. Brian Hunt of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin is an experienced editor, but an intern at a Kentucky weekly newspaper took a very similar approach in a manner that was just as professional. Here’s an adapted version of our report on The Rural Blog:
Josh Qualls was having difficulty finding a source to help him explain how the House health-insurance bill might affect seniors on Medicaid in Lincoln County, Kentucky, where he recently completed a summer internship with The Interior Journal in Stanford. So he went to the Boone Newspapers weekly’s Facebook page.
“The very first response echoed some of the most disheartening, gut-wrenching rhetoric we’ve seen directed toward journalists in recent months. Its author offered a scathing indictment of the news media and accused us of being liberally biased,” Qualls wrote in his intern report to the Kentucky Press Association, relying on memory because the poster had deleted the post. “She talked about how much ‘Obamacare’ didn’t help her health-hindered family, so I saw a way to connect with her.”
Trust in “the mass media, such as newspapers, TV and radio” in polls taken by the Gallup Organization was at 32 percent last year, the lowest ever – and was significantly lower than the 40 percent recorded in 2015. Rural newspapers have often presumed that such trends don’t affect them, because they’re in closer touch with smaller communities, where readers know the people at the paper. That is not as safe an assumption as it once was, based on some events, trends and issues we’ve reported lately in The Rural Blog.
For example, a Feb. 5-6 Emerson College poll of registered voters, weighted to reflect turnout in the 2016 election, found them evenly divided about the Trump administration’s truthfulness, but by 53 to 39 percent, they considered the news media untruthful.
The Pew Research Center found in early 2016 that there was little difference in the trust of local and national news outlets. About 22 percent of Americans said they trust local news outlets a lot, and 18 percent said that of national news sources. Recently, rural and community journalists have voiced concern that the attacks on “big media” are hurting “little media,” too.
At The Rural Blog we watch events and issues, but also trends and ideas in rural America – especially those that offer opportunities for localizing stories. We’ve had several examples lately.
The Wall Street Journal reported on a trend you also may have noticed, but didn’t see as a story: a rural boom in electronic commerce, which makes it easier for your readers to buy goods that may not be available locally. The downside is freight charges, which are often higher for more remote areas, and the damage that e-commerce does to local retailers. We excerpted the story at http://bit.ly/2ci7X15.
Stateline, the wonderful news service of The Pew Charitable Trusts, had an interesting story about the difficulties farmers and independent repair shops face because manufacturers aren’t required to make parts and repair information available to customers and independent repair people. I’ll bet you can find some such people among your own readers. Read the story at http://bit.ly/2d46Tzr. Continue reading “Watch for chance to localize stories”
By AL CROSS
Institute for Rural Journalism
University of Kentucky
At many community newspapers, treatment of the presidential election may be limited to online polls of your readers’ opinions, or their letters. But this is a race for president like no other, where facts and issues have taken a far back seat to entertainment, personality and character assassination, and it’s unlikely to get better now that we have the two most unpopular nominees in the history of polling.
Why should smaller newspapers devote more space to the race? If dailies rely on the Associated Press, the coverage won’t be localized. If weeklies just stick to local news, they will ignore a major topic of discussion among their readers, many of whom don’t read a daily. Covering the race can help you build and maintain a brand as the most authoritative local source of news and information.
As the primary campaigns ended, many journalists acknowledged that they had done a poor job of holding the nominees and other candidates accountable for their statements, and vowed to do better. But at last month’s conventions, timely fact-checking was rare. All of us in American journalism need to share the load.