Another Community Loses Its Newspaper

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

 

LAST ISSUE the headline in The Range Times read. After 109 years of brining the news to the community of Biwabik in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, the newspaper printed its last edition Aug. 4.

“I’ve always said the weekly newspaper is the soul of the town,” publisher Gary D. Albertson told the nearby Mesabi Daily News in Virginia. “When you lose it, you lose your identity.”

No longer will a newspaper cover the city council, school board or county commission on a regular basis. Neighboring publications will give glimpses of the community, but won’t give the depth a local publication provides.

No longer will there be stories about local athletes, businesses, and community events. The interesting stories about people’s lives will no longer be told. Obituaries, weddings, anniversaries, engagements, 90th birthday parties and 50th wedding anniversaries will no longer be published in a local newspaper.

It has been found that in communities that lose their newspapers participation in community events falls off. People participate less often not only in local activities, but vote less often.

“The weekly newspaper serves small communities unlike any other source of news and information,” former small town reporter Kathryn Olmsted writes. “It helps define and preserve the personality of a town and enables those who have moved away to stay connected. It fosters the local marketplace in a time when people are realizing that the future of their communities depends on supporting local businesses.”

Simply losing the local coverage of the issues debated at their local public meetings will leave the people of Biwabik and surrounding area with little information about issues important to their future. Imagine Benson and Swift County without stories about the Swift County-Benson Hospital, the need for additional funds to support classes and classrooms at the Benson Public Schools, the discussion at the city council meeting about community safety, or at the county board about how high next year’s county levy should be.

But the people of Biwabik also face the potential for corruption to seep in their local government as no one acts as a watchdog on the actions of local officials. It happens. Ask the people of Bell, California. They lost their newspaper and within a relative few years the city manager, chief of police and members of the council saw their incomes soar into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. They were only caught when the LA Times stepped in to do an investigation.

There won’t be anyone at those public meetings other than elected officials and staff. We know this from our experience covering meetings. At the start of every county board meeting Chairman Pete Peterson asks if there are any public comments. The board leaves a time at the start of each meeting for citizens to bring up concerns – meeting after meeting no one shows up.

“There were times when I was the only person in the audience at meetings of the city council, planning board or school board,” Olmsted writes of her experience in covering Caribou, Maine. “Why aren’t there more people here, I wondered? Suddenly I felt the burden: I was the public. I represented the people of Caribou. They trusted me to report what they were missing, and city officials knew their actions would be publicized. I was the fabled ‘watchdog.’” This story is repeated in small towns across America.

At a city council meeting a couple years ago, Benson City Manager Rob Wolfington was introducing the people present in the council chambers to an engineer who was on a conference call from the Twin Cities. Members of the council and city staff were named. Then turning to the back of the room looking across empty rows of chairs, he added, “and the press, representing the people of Benson.”

Newspapers also provide a public forum to debate issues. Our letters to the editor section gives citizens a voice that extends far beyond what their Facebook, Linked-In, Instagram, Pinterest, or list of contacts in their email or texting accounts give them.

Healthy communities need a healthy newspaper to keep citizens informed so they can perform their civic duties of keeping electing officials accountable and so they are informed on the issues before their communities.

Ensuring accountability has three key aspects: It demands the resources to pay for reporting as well as defending reporters and the public’s right to know. It demands independence from government, business, foundations and individuals. And it demands reach in a community.

It must get to those who aren’t connected to the internet. It must get to those who don’t listen to the radio or subscribe to the newspaper – that happens because the Monitor-News, like many other community newspapers, sits in libraries, bars, cafes and other gathering places in a community. People who have no intention of spending the money to subscribe read it.

These three essentials create authority; the ability to challenge power. They create respect because government and industry know someone is watching, that citizens are being informed, and that there will be consequences for wrongdoing.

There is no digital salvation for newspapers. The internet concentrates wealth in a few players like Google and Facebook. There isn’t a newspaper in the country that can provide the same depth of coverage with digital pennies that it did with print dollars.

How many more community newspapers will close in the future? How many citizens will be left without the vital knowledge they need to participate in this democracy in an internet only world? Newspapers fund the core of journalism in America. But due to lost revenues a crisis is building. A crisis for journalism is a crisis for Democracy.  Thomas Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was or never will be.”

A healthy community is an informed community.

Subscribing to your local newspaper is one way to ensure that it will continue provide you news that not only entertains, but that informs you about what is happening in your community. Shopping at local stores is a way to ensure they remain open providing goods and services you need. Small businesses, and we are one, rely on the loyalty of local residents.
 

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