Small town newspapers adapt to changing world of news

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.

Juggling 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.”


Small town snippets: Proposed rural solutions

Closures of post offices across the country have made headlines. In Dickinson County, 17 families have been without mail delivery since 2009. Geraldine Kohman, 75, has worked to make her voice heard but to little avail.

A primary topic of discussion at the recent Kansas Rural Opportunity Conference was the status of the state’s water supply. The drought has worsened the problem, which is now raising concerns in certain rural areas of the state.

The need for doctors in rural Kansas is becoming a key issue in the southern community of Arkansas City. Hospital officials are hoping to begin recruitment soon, but a lack of resources to draw potential doctors in could pose a problem.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to support rural business owners. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the creation of the Rural Business Investment Program on April 21.

An expansion of the Medicaid program in the state could help the economy, according to a Kansas Center for Economic Growth report. According to the report, rural hospitals and those looking for jobs could benefit if the expansion were approved.

Ethnic diversity hard to find in rural communities

Diversity is lacking in small Kansas towns.

Many of these communities have populations that are at least 90 percent white, according to U.S. Census data. This is not a far cry from the percentages for Kansas and the country as a whole. The 2012 Census reported that Kansas had a population which was 87.2 percent white and the U.S. reported populations of 77.9 percent white.

While these small communities do not differ greatly from state and national percentages, the situation does not appear to be improving for Kansas. A March 2014 Census report showed a loss of nearly 27,000 people to other states with international migration to the state totaling only 17,000. For an ethnic breakdown of 15 small Kansas towns, check out the infographic below.

Click image to view larger.

Click image to view larger.

Small town acceptance
With the lack of ethnic diversity in small towns across the state, acceptance of ethnic minority groups can be an issue in these communities.

Brett Akagi, KU Media Coordinator and Content Strategist, grew up in the southwest Kansas town of Ulysses. Ulysses, population 6,200, has a primarily Hispanic population. As a Japanese-American, Akagi said he did not consider himself different.

“My parents didn’t want us to think we were ethnically different from everybody else,” Akagi said. “We lived in Ulysses, Kan., and that’s what we knew. We weren’t the Japanese family from Ulysses, Kan.”

During his career as a photographer for various TV stations, Akagi traveled a lot, including trips to many small towns. Akagi recalled one particular instance of racism at a small town diner in northeast Kansas.

“We went to go grab some lunch and I’m sitting there with the reporter and I don’t say anything and my reporter said ‘Hey, we’re hungry for lunch. What do you got?’” Akagi said. “This gal starts laying out the menu and she looks at me and she goes ‘Did you understand that?’ looking right at me and I said ‘I sure did, ma’am’ and her eyes got really big and she was like ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t think you were from around here.’”

Akagi was able to laugh this instance off and said he doesn’t get offended by moments like these, especially in small towns where they don’t see much ethnic diversity.

Bridging the gap
Kelsi Shannon, a KU junior majoring in social work, is from Meade, Kan. Meade is one of many small towns with a primarily white population, but said those of ethnic minority groups were accepted in her hometown. She said her hometown’s football program has helped with this.

“Growing up where I did, football was extremely important to not only the high schoolers but our whole town,” Shannon said. “We had Hispanic and African American players on our team and they were just like the other players. They all united as one and didn’t see those people for their skin color.”

Increasing diversity
With the lack of diversity prevalent in many areas across the country, organizations like the National Diversity Council are working to improve the situation. According to the NDC website, its vision is to “advance diversity and inclusion by transforming our work places and communities into inclusive environments where individuals are valued for their talents and empowered to reach their fullest potential.”

National Diversity Council Founder and CEO Dennis Kennedy said limited job availability, housing opportunities, social networks and cultural services have increased the homogeneity of small towns, but he thinks this trend could be reversed. However, this is not something that will happen overnight.

“These communities need to brand themselves as minority-friendly,” Kennedy said. “They need to show potential newcomers that they are willing to accept difference. Community leaders must seek partnerships with businesses that value diversity in order to bring in more diverse talent. Minorities need to feel respected and accepted as part of the community.”

Small town snippets: Business, medicine developments; veterans struggle with homelessness

The University of Kansas School of Business is working to make retirement easier for business owners. The RedTire program helps to match retiring business owners with buyers.

For parents and caregivers of children with autism in rural areas, a new technology could make it easier for these children to receive treatment. The care training is transmitted via interactive television to educate caregivers in the science of applied behavioral analysis.

While the problem of homelessness among veterans is improving in metropolitan areas, it is still an issue for veterans in more rural areas. With many veterans in rural communities living far from Veterans Affairs Department offices, these resources are often not being used to their full advantage.


Small town snippets: Budget cuts and program grants

The legislature’s allocation of school funds and elimination of teacher tenure left some school administrators in smaller districts feeling uncertain about the future. School officials in LaCrosse and Ellinwood said they think the decisions made by the legislature could potentially be more of a burden than a benefit.

Transportation in southeast Kansas will be undergoing changes due to redistribution of funds by the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation. Those who rely on these services in Pittsburg will see changes in the near future. The Southeast Kansas Community Action Program is working to minimize the effects of the budget cuts.

A family farm in Atwood, Kan. will be able to develop new technology allowing for mobile slaughter and processing of poultry. Chris Sramek was awarded a grant from the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program for the research and development of this new mobile unit.

Small town snippets: Outward migration, rural innovation

New census data indicated that more people are leaving the state rather than moving in. From April 2010 to July 2013, Kansas experienced an increase in overall population change, but a net loss of approximately 10,000 residents due to outward migration.

Innovative programs are being implemented in the educational system. Schools in Lyon County are taking learning outdoors to teach math and science and give students a more hands-on experience.

The central Kansas communities of Claflin and Ellinwood are coming together to help promote local events and attract more people to the area. Through the new joint venture, community leaders hope to bring more opportunities to the region.

Small towns provide opportunities for entrepreneurs

Baldwin City may be a small town, but that hasn't stopped this community from supporting unique businesses.

Baldwin City may be a small town, but that has not stopped this community from supporting unique businesses.

When soon-to-be college graduates begin their job search, rural communities typically are not the first place they look, but maybe they should be.

Many college students immediately look to the big cities as the land of opportunity. While larger communities may boast a greater variety of industries in which to find work, rural America could provide the chance for young entrepreneurs to create some of these same types of businesses.

For Mike Bosch, co-founder of Reflective Group in Baldwin City, he decided to start a business which would usually not be found in a small town. Reflective Group works on a variety of projects, including graphic design, app development, telephone service, tech support and video. Since its opening in 2011, Reflective Group employees have worked on a number of projects, including putting Wi-Fi in the underground salt mine in Hutchinson. While this was a challenging task, the “self-proclaimed geeks” at Reflective Group decided to tackle it anyway.

“That was a challenge that a small community brought to us and said, ‘this is what we’d love to have. This is the quote we got which we clearly can’t afford. Can you guys create something in between?'” Bosch said. “We said ‘sure, we’ll take a look at it.'”

Video Transcript

Reversing the rural brain drain
The rural brain drain has posed a problem for communities like Baldwin City. This concept refers to the migration of young people from their small communities to larger cities, according to an article from the Huffington Post. The brain drain has posed problems in Midwestern states like Kansas, but Bosch and Reflective Group are doing their part to reverse the rural brain drain.

“Ultimately if they don’t return home, what we’re left with is an aging population and we don’t get the new vibrancy that youth bring,” Bosch said. “Reflective Group being a technology geek shop essentially, that’s definitely something that the millennials, that 16-36 age group, really draws to. Being involved in an industry that attracts millennials really helps.”

Although small towns may not be the ideal destination for young people, small businesses, those which employ five or fewer, in both rural and urban areas do comprise roughly 80 percent of businesses in Kansas and create a large number of jobs, according to Will Katz, KU Small Business Development Center Director.

While Katz said he thinks being from the community in which you start a business could help with investment and a beginning client base, small communities are looking for new businesses to come in and will not turn away new faces.

Obstacles for small town entrepreneurs
Katz and the staff at the KU Small Business Development Center think small town businesses are worthwhile investments, but they also recognize the challenges associated with these areas.

“Are there really enough people in the small communities that will pay money for your product or service that you’re hoping to provide?” Katz asked. “It can be a challenge when the population is smaller.”

In his work with approximately 1500 young entrepreneurs, Katz said he has heard many reasons for wanting to start a small business. He said he wants to remind those looking to make it big that many small business owners will not take home the big bucks.

“People start businesses because they have a vision,” Katz said. “They see some service that isn’t provided or maybe they don’t think it’s provided at the standard they’d like to see it or they just think ‘I could do that a little bit better.'”

Bosch and Crawford both mentioned that small business owners wear a lot of hats, including the role of janitor. They said it is just part of the job.

Additionally, Bosch said the stigma associated with small towns is one obstacle his business has had to overcome.

“People who don’t live in small towns have images of Mayberry running through their mind,” Bosch said. “Here we are, a cutting edge software company, and a lot of times it takes them a second to say ‘they just happen to live in a small town, but these guys can do great work.’

“We do this because we’re good at what we do and we love being in small towns.”