July 3, 2006
The Plight of Weekly Newspapers

The majority of the people who visit our site may live in areas where these issues aren't quite as pressing because there are healthy daily newspapers available and vibrant alternative papers that push the underground of the journalism world. But, for anyone who is familiar with the weekly newspaper industry or who may have grown up in a rural area where the only paper of record is a local weekly, the plight of weekly newspapers is an important one.

In a lot of communities, these small-operation newspapers are the only major source of local history, the only form of accountability for local elected officials, and the only means of communication for major news stories that aren't so big that they get picked up by regional or national dailies.

In short, it's called the Wal-Martization of local communities that puts community journalism in danger. A lot of people know about the effects of Wal-Mart moving in on a lot of locally owned business that compete with the superstore, especially considering all the anti Wal-Mart documentaries that have been made about the phenomenon.

But few people acknowledge the effect Wal-Martization has had on community journalism. The local businesses that are either impoverished or slaughtered by the low-priced juggernaut are what formerly gave the newspapers the bulk of its revenue. Locally owned small-town newspapers are funded by advertising revenue from local businesses. And Wal-Mart does not run ads in newspapers, neither inserts nor paid ads on pages, except in rare cases.

While some growing communities have maintained ad support, the number of businesses that advertise are dwindling for many places...and the hopes of attracting businesses from bigger towns to advertise in the small papers of distant communities is getting more bleak when television, radio, billboard, direct mail, and other forms of advertising are joined by Web advertising. There's only so much of the advertising budget for these local businesses to give to the print media. I had a friend in the weekly newspaper business tell me recently of a prominent regional car dealer who was dropping all of his print ads for the rest of the year.

Many people are thinking about how to empower weekly journalists, such as former Society of Professional Journalists national president Al Cross at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues through the University of Kentucky.

As I've mentioned, I'm back in Kentucky working for a couple of weeklies this summer "getting back to my journalism roots," and I've been putting a lot of thought to how the long-term integrity of community journalism can be protected. And I think that, while the Web provides many potential dangers for the print media because of the emphasis it takes off the building of local community in favor of national communities built around common interests instead of geographical space, the Web also provides the potential saving grace for community journalism.

The Web may be a contributing factor to the diminished power of a sense of local community, but it also provides the only means for people in our increasingly mobile society to stay in touch with "where they are from." This phenomenon is one of the things that have fueled the popularity of sites like MySpace, as people use the social networking tool to stay in touch with friends back home.

Community journalism may be able to flourish by moving their operations increasingly into this online space and becoming a meeting place for people interested in their small town, not just among the local residents but among the so-called "diaspora" as well...those will are likely never to return to the area due to lack of good employment options but who care about what's happening in the area. Local newspapers can only gain so many readers in a small geographical space, but there are hundreds of kids moving out of these communities every year to college, many likely never to return as a resident. Sites that attract these former residents may be able to draw advertising revenue not just from local businesses but from regional or even national ones as well.

It's something worth looking into and something I'm contemplating spending significant more time researching and writing about. Do any readers have any thoughts while I'm still trying to conceptualize this?