Local news has become, if not an endangered species, an animal with a target on its back.
A 2018 study from the University of North Carolina noted that 20 percent of all metro or community newspapers—1,800 in all—have shut down or merged since 2004. Many of those that continue on have cut staff or become shells of what they once were, running less local news and sharing stories among multiple outlets.
The after-effects of the coronavirus could make those numbers worse. Newspapers were in a dramatic decline during a period of economic expansion. A recession or depression could massacre them. While most disappearing papers in recent years have hit suburban towns and cities, rural America is more likely to be without a newspaper at all. Local television news is still functioning, but very little has filled the space for in-depth news or watchdog efforts that small newspapers once did.
“Everybody has a story—you just have to dig for it sometimes,” said Cheryl Keenan, editor at the Montgomery Herald and the Fayette Tribune, based in Oak Hill, West Virginia, near Beckley.
Keenan has worked there for over 30 years. “Starting out, the papers were family-owned and we had tons of employees and we all had our own beats,” she said.
As southern West Virginia’s coal economy declined, however, shrinkage was inevitable. The average age of subscribers crept up, ad revenue declined, and staff wouldn’t be replaced after they left for another job or retired.
“When you don’t have people, you don’t have time to develop original copy,” Keenan said. To an extent, that’s changed the focus of the papers’ reporting.
“A larger paper buys a smaller one in a nearby community and the smaller one slowly fades away as the titles merge their coverage efforts,” Tom Stiles noted for Poynter when covering the UNC study. Breaking news coverage disappears along with public service journalism.
“As far as community papers versus daily papers are concerned….I think ‘newspaper’ is sort of a misnomer,” Keenan said. Fewer printings means fewer stories on local government, crime, or the economy. With social media becoming the place where people go for breaking news, community papers take a longer view for stories. “We like to focus on obviously the important things that affect people’s lives, but we like to do a lot of features and history pieces—people really enjoy history. Things like that,” Keenan said.
The community papers also have some charms and quirks that have disappeared from many larger, regional papers. When a journalist came to West Virginia from the Denver Post, they noted, “This is the first time in decades that I’ve been at a newspaper where they still want a daily Bible verse.”
A loyal readership wants what it’s used to. Losing that familiarity could hurt the paper’s brand and its readers’ trust. “They want the national headlines basically, but they want more local things that they’re interested in and things that they’ve always known,” Keenan said.
The problem at the Montgomery Herald and Fayette Tribune, like in many other places, is attracting subscribers. “The daily [paper] at least has a pretty robust online presence,” Keenan said, “but everybody wants everything for free.” Complaints about the paywall are routine.
With younger readers who don’t have the habit of buying a Sunday paper or paying for a subscription, community papers face a crisis. They’re short-staffed as they fight an uphill battle to get younger readers to invest in a traditional product.
“As the world changes, we have to find out ways to reach out to people who aren’t reading the paper, and younger people, and non trad subscribers, or we won’t—we’ll cease to exist,” Keenan said.
That threat isn’t unique to Appalachia or the rural regions of America, but it’s one that’s been extremely difficult to solve. When those papers get hollowed out or disappear, another link in the community disappears. A sense of history does, too.
“So much, a wealth of information, is being lost and I think history is important for all of us to focus on,” Keenan said. “Roots are something that you don’t see a lot anymore because the world seems to be moving so fast and we’re so connected in some ways that I’m afraid kids don’t get a sense of their history and heritage and why things are the way they are.”
Without local papers to highlight the stories of the past and connect younger readers with their elders in the region, a community starts to lose its character. History, tradition, and the strength of communal bonds atrophy. Even a local dialect can disappear.
As the past recedes, another problem appears: Looking toward the future with clear eyes. Many people long for the return of the coal industry. A tourism sector is rising in southern West Virginia, thanks to the New River Gorge, but it’s an open question whether tourism could replace the wealth generated by coal and timber. Without strong local newspapers to report on business and government actions, it’s harder for the general public to keep up—or build faith in people to stick around for the long-term.
For her part, Keenan couldn’t stay away. “I think I would cope well somewhere else, but I don’t want to deal with the homesickness,” she said. “The sense of community and sense of belonging has been very strong…It’s something that feeds your soul and I don’t want to give that up.”
A newspaper can’t be the only backbone of a place, or an economy. It can serve, though, as a weathervane for the health of a place.
“The fate of communities and local news organizations are intrinsically linked—socially, politically and economically,” UNC researchers noted. “Trust and credibility suffer when local news media are lost or diminished.”
The pride and sense of community a paper can instill matters as much as its watchdog function in keeping elected officials and businessmen accountable.
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Anthony Hennen is managing editor of expatalachians and managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina.