Walk in to a town council meeting in Pinedale, Wyoming, and you’re likely to find as many as three local reporters scribbling notes and asking questions.
That news in a town of 2,030 residents is covered by two newspapers and a website is partly explained by the abundance of mineral wealth in surrounding Sublette County, which produced $3.6 billion in natural gas last year. Add to that the urgent concern about breaching a local dam threatened by record snowmelt coming from the Wind River Range, and you’ve got a recipe for a small-town media frenzy.
This scene is also illustrative of how rural journalism is surviving, even thriving, in the rural West and across the United States, in an era of precipitous decline for major metropolitan newspapers.
In the United States, some 7,500 community newspapers – papers with under 30,000 in circulation – still hit the streets, front porches, and mailboxes at least once a week. A 2010 survey conducted by the University of Missouri, Columbia for the National Newspaper Association produced some enviable statistics: More than three-quarters of respondents said they read most or all of a local newspaper every week. And in news to warm the heart of any publisher, a full 94 percent said that they paid for their papers.
“The community newspaper business is healthier than metro newspapers, because it hasn’t been invaded by Internet competition,” says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “Craigslist doesn’t serve these kinds of communities. They have no effective competition for local news. Rural papers own the franchise locally of the most credible information.”
This is not to say that rural papers are simply going gangbusters. Rural newsrooms make for lean living and busy workweeks. Reporters have to wear many hats to put out a local paper, interviewing Eagle Scouts, snapping photos of the butter queen, writing editorials on the local rec center and stuffing supermarket circulars. And many of these papers are an advertiser or two away from red ink.
All of this is in the service of developing a relationship with the local readers that some people say that mainstream journalism has lost, a relationship with all the complications that intimacy and proximity bring. “You have only one day a week to beat the daily on timeliness,” wrote the editor and publisher Bruce M. Kennedy in his 1974 book, Community Journalism. But “weeklies can add a personal touch,” he added. “There’s license to ‘visit’ more. You have time and space to be a small-town citizen talking with another about your community.”
“Emus Loose in Egnar”
“It is more than a little ironic that small-town papers have been thriving by practicing what the mainstream media are now preaching,” writes the broadcast journalist and USC professor Judy Muller in her new book, Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns (University of Nebraska Press).
“’Hyper-localism,’ ‘Citizen Journalism,’ ‘Advocacy Journalism’ — these are some of the latest buzzwords of the profession. But the concepts, without the fancy names, have been around for ages in small-town newspapers.”
Inspired by the local weekly in the working-class Rocky Mountain town of Norwood, Colorado, Muller embarked on a lively, funny and engaging tour of small papers that took her across the country, from Concrete, Washington to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
“I was surprised to find that they’re doing as well as they were,” says Muller, whose book looks at feisty family-owned papers like The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, whose founders survived a firebombing, the Guadalupe County Communicator, the “sixth smallest weekly in New Mexico,” whose new owner had been a national correspondent for the Rocky Mountain News, and the Dove Creek Press in Colorado, whose editors are so reluctant to deliver bad news that when doctors estimate a car crash victim’s chance of paralysis at 99 percent, it writes “the family reports that Kelsi is looking to the 1 percent chance she still has.”
According to the publisher Bruce M. Kennedy, “the study of weekly journalism is inescapably the study of small towns.” Muller writes movingly about the close bond between small town papers and their populations. She describes the elation in the depressed Skagit Valley town of Concrete, Washington, when a young outsider came to revive their newspaper, the Herald. “People were – I’m not kidding – crying and hugging him, “says Muller, “and the paper’s not all that good, frankly, but what it represents to those folks who are so isolated up in that canyon is really powerful.”
The importance of the community of a local paper is something that John Wylie, publisher of the Oologah, Oklahoma Lake Leader argued for in a 2007 speech to a rural journalism conference:
To our readers, we are not the newspaper, we are THEIR newspaper. Down the block at Rogers Mini Stop, we sell more than a hundred papers every week. If our press run is late we get frantic calls from the Rogers family. They have a store full of irate customers who want THEIR papers NOW…. We all know the traditional reasons — the little stories that never would be considered ‘news’ anyplace else. Our readers really care about those things.
So what are townsfolk waiting for so urgently? “I think the holy trinity of the small town paper is obituaries, the police blotter, and high school sports,” says Muller. “That’s what people care about. The police blotter is where you find out who’s doing what to whom. The school superintendent beating his wife, from there it gets blown into a bigger story. The high school sports thing is so huge, I can’t even explain it to a person who doesn’t live in a small town. And births, not just obits, tend to dominate. If you leave town, and you subscribe online, those are the things, ‘Oh my God, old Pete just died’ — that might seem insignificant to someone outside of a small town, but every single birth and death means something.”
But surely local journalism has to be about more than recording comings and goings, nighttime calls for help, and salutes to BearCat pride? Muller finds ample journalistic inspiration in the pages of small-town papers, what she calls “this wonderful crucible of telling the truth, weighing that against living with the people you’re writing about.”
Muller describes the Ezzel family’s courage in publishing their Canadian Record in a conservative Texas panhandle town. Throughout the ‘60’s, the paper gave full-throated support to the civil rights movement and later, opposition to the Vietnam War, despite broken windows and a local business boycott (which was announced in a newspaper advertisement, no less). More recently, the second-generation publisher, Laurie Ezzel Brown, successfully crusaded against plans for large-scale hog farming operation that would have brought jobs but, as she persuaded residents, would have tainted the area’s precious groundwater supply.
Perhaps it is in the American West where brave editorial stands can make the most difference to a town’s future, where the character of a community can turn on a dime according to the departure or arrival of an industry. Muller writes about the evolution of Jim Stiles, the editor of the Moab, Utah Zephyr, who rallied successfully against energy and timber development in the 1980s, only to turn equally against the ensuing tourism boom that transformed the area into a mecca for cyclists and second-home owners. “When we talk about changing the rural West,” he tells Muller, “we’re threatening the traditional lives of some very nice people.”
Muller takes us to the town of Hardin, Montana, which built a $27 million jail complex on spec, then launched a doomed campaign to house Guantanamo Bay inmates. The issue touches off a furious wrestling match among the local paper, the Big Horn County News, the local gossip sheet, the Original Briefs, and the Crow tribe’s newspaper, the Apsáalooke Nation. Muller’s storytelling shines as she leads us through the maze of conflicting agendas, local feuds, and the befuddlement of a newly arrived national reporter at the News, who tries to play it straight and gets virtually run out of town for his efforts.
His editor laments, “Mike came in with what I call the ‘Tin Man’ reporter concept: you are protected, you don’t associate with the people you cover, you have no relationship to them, nor do you have the desire to develop one.” Muller says that the reporter is now working for a small paper in another state. “He gets it now,” she says. “You can still tell the story, but you write it in a way that makes it clear you are part of the community.”
Rural journalism analyst Al Cross says, “The best of these newspapers hold local governments and institutions accountable, by covering meetings and asking for records. They’re prophylactics, by exposing bad things that are going on.” But he says, at the same time, “a lot of papers are timid editorially, they don’t take stands. One is a social reason, they’d rather make friends than enemies – although personally I think they’re in the wrong business. Then you have the business reasons. In these smaller markets, some of these papers are an advertiser away from red ink, so they’re cautious by nature. ‘Don’t get sued, they say. It’s like they never heard of libel insurance, which is pretty cheap.”
To Muller, biting the hand that feeds you is the definition of courageous journalism: “Papers that – faced with the loss of revenue from a big advertiser – who speak the truth anyway, that’s just pure heroism.”
Pinedale’s Media Scene
Back in Pinedale, the century-old Roundup and its 10-year-old rival, the Sublette Examiner, reach about 3,000 and 2,500 subscribers, respectively. The Examiner was started by disaffected reporters from the Roundup after an ownership change in 2000.
The papers came under common ownership in 2006, when the Examiner was bought by the NewsMedia Corporation, an Illinois-based chain that runs 76 papers in nine mostly western states. After moving their publishing dates to opposite ends of the week, the new owners left the two papers largely alone. “They compete with each other, try to scoop each other,” says Jeff Robertson, who publishes both papers and a third in Eastern Wyoming, the Torrington Telegraph.
Such an arrangement is not surprising, says Al Cross. “Newspapers develop a subscriber list,” he says. “People in that community had to make a choice, I’m only going to subscribe to one. So why not keep them both going?”
Despite consolidation, weekly newspapers actually have a lower rate of chain ownership than dailies, with 60 percent owned by chains, compared to 80 percent of dailies, according to the National Newspaper Association. Nevertheless, the quality of newspapers does not strictly correspond to ownership. (To see the spread of newspapers across the U.S. over time, go here.)
“If you’re in a chain and you have financial resources to support you,” says Al Cross, “you’re willing to take more risks, to lose an advertiser over coverage, to buy libel insurance and pay lawyer’s fees. But at same time, because chains are accountable to investor pressure, they can hamstring editorial operations.”
Judy Muller says that she expected to hear complaints about chain ownership of rural and small town newspapers. “I expected to hear that only family owned multi-generational papers had high standards,” says Judy Muller, “but I did not find that. Either way, you can have weak unethical people working for corporations or weak unethical people who cave in to people from the bank.”
The Roundup and the Examiner are similar in form and content, each of them recently flush with color photographs of local events like the high school prom and graduation, horseshoe pitches, cattle brandings, and reader-submitted wildlife photos (which, in this region, are spectacular).
And surely to the lasting pride of Mariah Strike’s parents, both papers published the full text of the Pinedale High School valedictorian’s address, a sign not only of hyper-local interest, but also of papers with ad pages to spare, positively groaning with legal announcements like foreclosure listings and regulatory filings, the kind that have long fattened newspapers in county seats like Pinedale.
The newsrooms of both papers – which stand only 30 to 50 feet apart in an office complex made out of a former grocery store – are comprised of almost uniformly young reporters, like the 24 year-old editor of the Roundup, Casey Dean. The pay is low, says Dean, but it is supplemented by the free housing that the company offers.
“One of my reporters, my intern and an Examiner reporter live in one house,” says Dean. “The ad director and one of the Examiner’s reporters live in company housing. Their office manager and myself live together, and that’s actually because she used to work for both offices.”
At both papers, the staffs are small and efficiencies are everywhere. NewsMedia maintains their nearly identical websites, and the newspapers are laid out in South Dakota. “I’ve never seen her in person,” says Dean, “but I’m on iChat all day long with my designer.”
The editors take pride in their reporting on local issues, like the dam breach, federal redistricting, wolf management and the 800-pound gorilla of economic development, the natural gas industry.
Dean, the Roundup’s editor, grew up in Pinedale before going to college in North Carolina. She thinks the industry should disclose the chemicals they are using to extract gas through hydraulic fracturing, but she acknowledges the benefits that the boom has brought. “I’m with a lot of the community as far as understanding how much it has made possible economically,” she says. But the community also wants to be “very careful and monitoring it and protecting the things that make Wyoming what it is,” she adds, “because this boom won’t last forever. We don’t want to be a ghost town in 20 years.”
Like a number of rural newspapers that target advertisers with niche-oriented supplements, the Roundup has a monthly section for the gas industry called “The Roughneck.” “We try to keep it positive for the industry,” says the publisher Jeff Robertson, “But if something more newsworthy comes out that’s against that, we won’t shy away from publishing it.”
Ron Aiken, until recently the editor of the Examiner, took a more skeptical stance on the energy bonanza, focusing on the disruption to the large herds of mule deer, elk, moose, and bighorn sheep that have made Pinedale a magnet for hunters and adventure sports enthusiast.
“People will say things like, ‘I never had a deer paying a local mortgage,’” he said. Aiken, who spent several years working at a daily newspaper and an alternative weekly in South Carolina, wrote a cheeky column on June 7 that lampooned the county’s boom in publicly-funded water parks, bowling alleys and agricultural halls. “So what is there left that, in keeping with the cautious nature of how oil and gas money has thus far been spent, would best serve Sublette County residents?” he asked, under the headline, “What Sublette County Needs is a Monorail.”
Aiken says that small-town papers have more room to innovate, citing the Examiner’s popular column “Grins and Gripes,” which runs 150-word blind items submitted anonymously by residents. “It’s a way to let people who wouldn’t normally write letters to the editor into the paper,” he says.
Local papers have largely resisted the pressure to offer content free online, sometimes capitalizing on their virtual monopoly on local news. Despite the competition with each other and from the free website Pinedale Online!, both the Roundup and the Examiner limit most online stories to one or two paragraph teases for the print edition and paid electronic downloads.
While they are careful to protect their core product from free online access, they still consider themselves open to new media. The Examiner uploads photographs to Facebook and often “tweets” news items before they appear in print. “These are things that the smallest papers can do just as effectively as larger newspapers,” says Aiken, “maybe more so.”
Al Cross thinks that community newspapers need to embrace the web, in spite of the risks. He says that as rural workers commute farther and farther to work, they will have less time to read newspapers and will be more likely to read hometown news at work on their computers or smartphones.
“One third of papers don’t have websites,” he says, expressing concern about the growth of online-only startups from hyperlocal sites like the Post in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to the over 700 franchise-based Patch sites being propagated by AOL. “None of this is major competition for local newspapers, but like worms eating at their shoes, they ignore it at their peril.”
“Publishers in small and medium communities largely think they are safe from the readership and advertising declines that are eating away at most metro newspapers,” wrote the former publisher and media analyst Alan Mutter in a 2010 blog post. “Are they? Yes, no and maybe,” he concluded.
Internet competition might be the least of the threats to local papers, he wrote, compared to the wider demographic shifts. Rural areas are aging faster than urban and suburban ones, and younger readers may be less likely to buy newspapers, even when they get older. For small papers, long-time subsidies may be at risk as well: as the U.S. Postal Service looks for ways to stem its growing losses, the generous subsidy provided by free in-county mail delivery has once again come under scrutiny, as well as mail delivery on Saturdays.
Perhaps most worrisome of all, rural papers still live and die with local businesses; Wal-Mart, for example, has little use for newspaper advertising, says Al Cross, and most national chains prefer to advertise in national media.
Still, community papers are looking like a haven in the media storm. Near the end of Emus Loose in Egnar, Muller cites a remark by Benjy Hamm, editorial director of a Landmark Community Newspapers, based in Shelbyville, Kentucky: “He is seeing more and more resumés from eager, young editors and big-city journalists who have either been victims of downsizing or growing weary of wondering if they will be next.”
“As the number of journalism jobs in metro papers declines,” says Al Cross, “I think rural journalism will be an increasingly popular outlet for people who want to take it on as a career. The monetary rewards are not as great, but there’s a great deal of personal reward that can come with it, and also an opportunity to get in on the ownership side.”
Muller agrees, “The reason a weekly thrives is because no one else on Earth can cover what they cover, people will not know what’s going on in their town in any other way. They’ve got a monopoly, a little fiefdom, for as long as the advertiser needs the market.”
As for local readers, she adds, “as long as refrigerator magnets exist, there will be things to clip and put on refrigerator, if your son was on the high school football team, it’s going on the fridge.”
Geoff McGhee is the creative director for media at the Rural West Initiative at Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center Center for the America West. This feature originally appeared in High Country News and is republished here with the permission of the Stanford center.