Print newspapers are said to be dying, but rural newspaper readership is still alive and well according to a 2010 survey from Missouri’s School of Journalism.
Survey data indicated 73 percent of small town residents read part of the local newspaper at least once a week. Additionally, half of the respondents said the newspaper was their primary source for news.
This marks a victory for smaller publications given the changes in the newspaper industry. However, small town newspapers are working to overcome challenges in order to maintain their readership.
The digital revolution
The change to digital has slowly made its way into community journalism and Baldwin City has tackled the challenge. The Lawrence Journal-World currently operates the Baldwin City Signal. In August 2013 My Baldwin City went online to provide another source for local news.
“The Signal was not covering everything that everybody thought it should I guess,” former My Baldwin City editor Rachel Hamilton said. “There’s kind of a need in a town to be able to cover small town sized stories.”
My Baldwin City is crowdsourced, meaning anyone can submit an article. It mainly promotes upcoming events or important local news. Hamilton said she thinks it has been good for the community.
“It’s giving the people of Baldwin a place where they can get their voice heard,” Hamilton said. “That was our intention.”
Joey Young, owner and publisher of the Andale Clarion, located in Andale, Kansas, has also toyed with a digital news component, but has not quite determined how to best put the internet to use at his publication.
“I think that if you’re going to give away all your content online for free, you might need to look at making your print product free,” Young said. “I know that’s like heresy for a lot of people that are old-school journalists, but I don’t think there’s a business model that exists that has you charging for a print product, but giving away your product online for free.”
For now, Young and the Clarion staff use their website to publish breaking news stories and other content such as video that cannot be incorporated into their print edition.
The many hats of small town journalists
Another problem facing small town newspapers is limited staff. Ellinwood Leader Assistant News Director Mike Courson said this has been a challenge.
“With revenue issues, papers cannot always afford a competitive wage compared to other jobs,” Courson said. “It’s sometimes difficult to land and hold talent that is capable of putting together a quality newspaper.”
Limited staff at Hi Neighbor Publications has resulted in Courson doing a little bit of everything for several newspapers. The infographic below breaks down Courson’s various responsibilities.
Staffing issues have also been a problem for the Andale Clarion. Owner Joey Young has worked to compensate in two main ways.
“I’m a big believer in hiring multi-faceted people,” Young said. “I think there is something to be said for specializing in something, but having the ability to do more than one thing is more and more important in our industry.”
Young’s other solution is using stories from the KU Wire Service. Young said the Clarion cannot afford to have a reporter in Topeka and this has been a good option for the paper.
“We add a sentence or two to localize it and try to explain to our readers why it’s important to them,” Young said. “It helps localize a story that gives us Topeka coverage.”
Small town victories
Small town newspapers have their fair share of problems to overcome. These struggles do not come without occasional victories.
Before Mike Courson began working for the Ellinwood Leader, much of the content was put together in a different town. Courson said he thinks by working in Ellinwood and putting a local touch on the content, he has raised the bar in the community.
“The funny thing is when I started, I said there is no reason we cannot be the New York Times of weekly papers,” Courson said. “That’s what a paper should strive to be. Obviously, based on sheer population and scope, we’re not going to have the same stories as the Times.
“I know I’m not a Times-quality writer, but as Dan Patrick says, ‘Every day is the Super Bowl.’ The readers of our publications deserve quality writing so I have to approach each story as if it is important enough to belong in the Times.”