In the rural heartland, indie newspapers survive with a back-to-basics approach

It’s something I’ve seen over and over in tracking the state of local news for the past dozen years. Despite the very real challenges community journalism faces from technological and cultural change, news organizations that are not burdened by corporate chain ownership can continue to serve as vital, financially sustainable operations.

A new report by Tony Baranowski, director of local media for Times Citizen Communications in Iowa Falls, Iowa, makes the point. While he was a fellow at the West Virginia University Reed College of Media and the West Virginia Press Association’s NewStart Program, he studied several newspapers in the Upper Midwest in depth and surveyed more than 50 small newspaper publishers across the country.

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What he found was that, despite the narrative that local newspapers are dying, these independent papers were keeping their heads above water. Baranowski writes:

The strongest community news outlets are locally owned and managed by families or individuals with local ties that stretch back decades. That’s not an easy circumstance to replicate for a would-be publisher looking to buy or launch a news organization in a rural town, but it’s not a prerequisite, either. In fact, the common denominator is less longevity than fostering community spirit and pride within both staff-generated content and advertising in a traditional newspaper’s pages.

Among the people interviewed in Baranowski’s report is Jim Slonoff, the co-founder and publisher of The Hinsdalean, a free paper launched in suburban Chicago in 2006. I wrote about The Hinsdalean a couple of months ago to highlight its practice of signing up members of the community to write essays on a variety of topics. Although running unpaid columns is hardly new territory for local newspapers, The Hinsdalean actively recruits writers and limits them to a two-year term, ensuring a steady stream of fresh voices.

Like many of the people Baranowski spoke with, Slonoff said The Hinsdalean’s emphasis remains on print rather than digital. Slonoff said:

That’s the thing I don’t get about newspapers in general, because so many of them put so much money and resources into their websites with no return. We took the 180 degrees approach and said our money is coming from display advertising and real estate advertising. Why would we not focus on that? Facebook doesn’t bring us any money, Twitter and Instagram don’t. There’s nothing I get out of it that I know of, except we’re there. And we get a lot of likes and things and get a lot of this and comments and that feels good.

That might seem like a retrograde approach, but it’s one I’ve heard from a number of publishers who have to figure out how to break even.

The Provincetown Independent actually charges more for digital subscriptions than for a print-plus-digital combination, telling readers that “if we were to go online only, the savings in not having to print and mail the paper would not be anywhere near enough to make up for the loss of print advertising revenue.”

Last week I interviewed Jerry and Ann Healey, who sold their Colorado Community Media newspaper group earlier this year to The Colorado Sun, a start-up digital news organization, in a deal put together by the National Trust for Local News. They told me that, in many cases, when they offered a package combining digital and print, their advertisers weren’t interested — they wanted to be seen in the print newspaper. “In the community newspaper space, print is still a viable thing,” Jerry Healey said, “and the advertisers know that too.”

Then there’s Kris O’Leary of Central Wisconsin Newspapers, who told Baranowski that her readership includes Amish and Mennonite communities. Not much digital potential there.

Another of Baranowski’s findings is that newspapers with offices in the communities they cover tend to be healthier than those that have consolidated operations far from the people they serve.

If this sounds like Baranowski is recommending a back-to-the-future approach, it may be because he’s surveying local journalism in the rural heartland. A digital-first approach makes sense in affluent urban and suburban areas where readers can be persuaded to sign up for online-only subscriptions.

But in some parts of the country, technological advances have not changed the media all that much over the past several decades. It is in such places that journalism can do well by following a model that would have been familiar to our grandparents — independently owned newspapers, rooted in the community and supported by local businesses.

How one news outlet uses volunteer opinion writers to build civic engagement

Graue Mill, Hinsdale, Illinois. Photo (cc) by Lyle.

Now here’s an interesting idea for engaging the community in local news. The Hinsdalean, a free weekly paper in Chicago’s suburbs, has a stable of 10 local opinion writers who take on such weighty topics as Christmas memories, moving back to town after living abroad, and thoughts about the meaning of regret. And here’s the best part: they’re term-limited.

I learned about this recently in a conversation with Julie McCay Turner, managing editor of The Bedford Citizen, a nonprofit website northwest of Boston. Julie is from Hinsdale, and she keeps up with her hometown through the paper’s lively website. She discovered this unique exercise in civic involvement through a column by the paper’s editor, Pamela Lannom, who was soliciting new writers to replace the five who were cycling out. One slot will be reserved for a high school senior. No politicians, please. And writers are not allowed to use these unpaid positions to tout their businesses or nonprofit organizations.

“Over the years I’ve come to think of many of these writers as my friends,” Lannom wrote. “I might not see most of them more than once a year, but the stories they share create a connection. Reading their columns each week is one of my favorite parts of my job.”

Local opinion can help drive interest in community news and help to overcome the polarization that characterizes national culture these days.

Several months ago I wrote a piece for GBH News about a study conducted by three scholars on what happened after The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, dropped from its opinion pages all syndicated columns and references to national politics for one month.

The researchers compared The Desert Sun’s readers to those of a control paper and found that polarization was less than what might otherwise have been expected. The numbers were small and didn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But, as the three observed, the effect was salutary regardless of the actual numbers since the experiment pushed the paper to pay more attention to what was taking place in its own backyard.

“Local newspapers are uniquely positioned to unite communities around shared local identities, cultivated and emphasized through a distinctive home style, and provide a civil and regulated forum for debating solutions to local problems,” they wrote. “In Palm Springs, those local issues were architectural restoration, traffic patterns and environmental conservation. The issues will differ across communities, but a localized opinion page is more beneficial for newspapers and citizens than letters and op-eds speckled with national political vitriol.”

The Hinsdalean itself is a great story, and characteristic of what happens when the legacy news outlet falls victim to market failure. Hinsdale once had a paper called The Doings, which ended up getting absorbed by the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune was subjected to years of downsizing and bad ownership under Tribune Publishing — a situation that only grew worse recently when Tribune was sold to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

The Hinsdalean, meanwhile, was founded nearly five years ago and has established itself as an award-winning news source. Here’s how its About page begins:

The first issue of The Hinsdalean was published Sept. 28, 2006. This weekly newspaper is dedicated to covering Hinsdale, focusing on the people who live and work here. The founders built the newspaper around the philosophy of community journalism the way it was meant to be. That philosophy recalls simpler times when one newspaper covered one town. The Hinsdalean, which is delivered free each Thursday morning, is the only newspaper that delivers every issue to every home in Hinsdale.

Independent local news is succeeding in hundreds of communities across the country. We need more.

This post was adapted from the Media Nation Member Newsletter that went out last Thursday, July 1. If you would like to receive early exclusive Media Nation content sent to your inbox, please become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month.