We've been hearing a lot of depressing news in recent years about the dire financial prospects for big daily newspapers, including the one you're now holding. Or watching. Or, in the argot of the digital age, "experiencing."
But at the risk of sounding like I'm whistling past the graveyard, I'd like to point out that there are thousands of newspapers that are not just surviving but thriving. Some 8,000 weekly papers still hit the front porches and mailboxes in small towns across America every week and, for some reason, they've been left out of the conversation. So a couple of years ago, I decided to head back to my roots, both geographic and professional (my first job was at a weekly), to see how those community papers were faring. And what I found was both surprising and inspiring.
At a time when mainstream news media are hemorrhaging and doomsayers are predicting the death of journalism (at least as we've known it), take heart: The free press is alive and well in small towns across America, thanks to the editors of thousands of weeklies who, for very little money and a fair amount of aggravation, keep on telling it like it is. Sometimes they tell it gently, in code only the locals understand. After all, they have to live there too. But they also tell it with courage, standing up to powerful bullies -- from coal company thugs in Kentucky to corrupt politicians in the Texas Panhandle.
"If we discover a political official misusing taxpayer funds," an editor in Dove Creek, Colo., told me, "we wouldn't hesitate to nail him to a stump."
You might be thinking that attitude would be fundamental for anyone who claims to be a journalist. The Los Angeles Times certainly nailed those officials in Bell to the proverbial stump in its award-winning expose of municipal corruption. But just imagine how much more difficult that job would have been if those Times reporters lived next door to the officials they were writing about -- or, as sometimes happens in a small town, if they had been related to one of them. Practicing journalism with gusto comes with a price tag in a small community -- from being shunned in the checkout line at the grocery store to losing a major advertiser.
Of course, most of these newspapers are not uncovering major scandals on a regular basis. That's not what keeps them selling at such a good clip; it's the steady stream of news that readers can only get from that publication -- the births, deaths, crimes, sports and local shenanigans that only matter to the 5,000 or so souls in their circulation area. It's more than a little ironic that small-town papers have been thriving by practicing what the mainstream media are now preaching. "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.
The "holy trinity" of weekly papers consists of high school sports (where even losing teams benefit from positive spin), obituaries (where there's no need to speak ill of the dead because everyone in town already knows if the deceased was a jerk) and the police blotter. The latter can be addictive, even to outsiders. These items, often lifted intact from the dispassionate log of the sheriff's dispatcher, are the haikus of Main Street: "Caller states that there is a 9-year-old boy out mowing the lawn next door and feels that is endangering the child in doing so when the mother is perfectly capable of doing it herself." Or: "Man calls to report wife went missing 3 months ago."
The business models of these small-town papers are just as intriguing as the local news. In 2010, the National Newspaper Assn. provided some heartening survey statistics: More than three-quarters of respondents said they read most or all of a local newspaper every week. And a full 94% said they paid for their papers.
And what of the Internet threat? Many of these small-town editors have learned a lesson from watching their big-city counterparts: Don't give it away. Many weeklies, from the Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle to the Concrete Herald in Washington's Cascade Mountains, are charging for their Web content, and, because readers can't get that news anywhere else, they're willing to pay.
Meanwhile, some big-city journalists are finding a new life at smaller papers. After Denver's Rocky Mountain News folded, the paper's Washington correspondent, M.E. Sprengelmeyer, decided to buy a paper in the small town of Santa Rosa, N.M. He brought along a photographer and a political cartoonist as well. The result -- a paper that is already winning awards and an editor who is exhausted but happy to be making a living in a beautiful place. "In Santa Rosa," he says, "the future of print is print."
I wouldn't be so bold as to predict the future, not in a media landscape that is constantly shifting. But when we engage in these discussions about how to "monetize" journalism, it's refreshing to remember a different kind of bottom line, one that lives in the hearts of weekly newspaper editors and reporters who keep churning out news for the corniest of reasons -- because their readers depend on it.