With the economy of print journalism shifting, small-town editors continue to fill the niche of reporting and “verifying” the news, all the while living alongside the people they cover. Julianne Couch reports on the delicate balance for two Nebraska newspapers.
It is no secret that the newspaper business is struggling in this era of immediate information from television, Internet and social media. If big city papers, full of national stories and analysis of events that affect millions of people are struggling, then small town papers have got to be all but dead. Right?
Not so fast. It turns out that there is still an important niche for the weekly community paper, the one where a local soldier’s deployment is the lead story, four-generations-of-a-family photos fill the features pages and the success of a ninth-grade girls volleyball team fills three columns in the sports section.
Along with church, school and grocery store, the local weekly paper is vital for maintaining community, especially in the smallest towns.
So says Tim Anderson, who teaches journalism at the University of Nebraska. He’s worked at publications in Omaha, Lincoln, Kansas City, Fort Myers, Florida, and Rochester, New York. He spent nine years at New York Newsday and another nine years at the New York Times. A Nebraska native, he got his start at his hometown weekly newspaper, the Oakland Independent, and also worked for the Albion News and the Seward County Independent, two other Nebraska weeklies. He notes the differences in how weeklies work.
“Any publication that comes out weekly is not primarily interested in breaking news,” he said. “People already know about the high school football game, the town council meeting. But small-town papers acknowledge and assign importance to things. For instance, having an obituary in the paper isn’t announcing you died but that you were important to the community, and so are the people you’ve left behind. That is one of the most important functions.”
Anderson recalls his days at one Nebraska weekly, shooting photos of high school basketball players that appeared in the paper as part of sponsorship ads. Players’ parents, or their business associates, or neighbors, would contribute money to sponsor the photo. He said it felt odd to him at the time that the money would not go to the player or the school, but to the newspaper. He realizes now that’s part of how the paper supported the school, and the school then supported the paper. “That’s the web of community. It is an intricate set of connections that keeps everybody in the town going.”
Anderson said the nature of a community paper editor’s job can be quite different than the job of a big-city editor. It isn’t the news content that speaks to this difference, though. It is the constant personal contact between the community and the editor.
In a small town there is no anonymity, Anderson noted. Instead, there is personal attachment. “Whether you are writing about the superintendent of the school or a farmer, everyone knows him, knows their spouse and children and has an opinion. That changes the way you approach writing stories.” That doesn’t mean small-town editors sugar coat the truth. It means they know they are writing about the real people behind dollars on a budget sheet or statistics in a report. By contrast, Anderson said when he left work at the New York Times at the end of the day, he walked out into the crowds of Times Square. “At a large daily like that, no one knows who you are, which allows you to write about people in more abstract ways.”
When his former paper in Oakland, Nebraska, came for sale, Anderson said he thought very briefly about buying it and becoming a small-town newspaper publisher. But he realized he prefers the anonymity of big city paper, not to mention the fact that working at a community paper is “extraordinarily hard work.”
Anderson said there were as many people in the New York Times newsroom as were in his small town. And yet, there are moments when editors at both community weeklies and big city dailies think along similar lines, not just about news but about their role in their community. The week Anderson started at the Times, the editor ran a story on welfare reform on the front page, not because it was a new development (the story had been years in the making) but because of its historical significance.
“That was how the editor noted the importance of this story to the community and the newspaper’s responsibility to acknowledge its role,” Anderson said.
In highly rural Nebraska, there are roughly 150 weekly newspapers. In Knox County, citizens have access to no fewer than four weeklies: the Verdigre Eagle, the Wausa Gazette, the Crofton Journal and the Niobrara Tribune. Kevin Henseler has been the publisher and editor of the Crofton Journal and Niobrara Tribune since 1977. That’s 36 years of covering public meetings, high school basketball games, house fires and golden wedding anniversaries. The paper, usually 12 pages, combines news from both communities into one weekly paper. Henseler lives in an old hotel that he remodeled into newspaper office on the ground floor and a home for himself on the second floor. While he has an editor in Niobrara working on the Tribune, he has no other employees, save some freelance writers. He writes and edits stories, lays out the paper, sells the ads, fills the news racks.
“The job of a publisher is hard to nail down” he said. “We are there to report the news, but a lot of times I think that I should call paper the Crofton Verifyer. When you have a weekly, news happens, like a major fire at the grain elevator, but it will be a week or 10 days before my paper gets in readers hands. Breaking news is often broken by the time we have a chance to report it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t report it or find a unique angle, but it’s a challenge.” Henseler said his job is to report the “truth” of what happened, which is different from the version of the story being told around town. “In a small town somebody can trip and fall, but by the time that information spreads, it is totally inaccurate. I can put in what actually happened. I verify the truth.”
Besides presenting accurate news, Henseler feels a community paper has the responsibility to provide leadership. He writes a weekly column that is sometimes musings on a local issue, sometimes an opinion about a national story and sometimes a reflection about a personal issue. For example, Henseler said many years ago he was diagnosed with depression and has been on medication for that condition ever since. “It is just something about how my body and brain work, and I just live with it.” But living with it is not quite all he does. He’s also written about it for the paper. “For many years the subject of depression was shunned, or just whispered about.” But now, he says people tell him they appreciate what he writes. His columns may prompt people to think about it and go for a checkup.
On subjects less personal, he might face some resistance. “My opinion may or may not be the most popular one in town, but at least I’m stepping forward and raising ideas and options for issues. You have to do that in order to be the leader and voice in community.”
The Journal/Tribune might not have the most current information and may lack in colorful charts and graphs, but people want their paper. “There must be 50 people who buy their paper in town on the newsstand even though subscribing would save them money. But that would mean they’d have to wait from Wednesday to Thursday, when it arrives in the mail. Those 50 people want the paper right away,” Henseler said.
During Henseler’s time as an observer of Knox County life, he’s concluded that the most serious problem is the shrinking population. Formed in 1854, the county grew steadily through its first several decades, and at its height in 1930 had 19,110 residents. Population has declined every decade since the 1940 census, sometimes by double digits. Now approximately 8,701 people fill the county’s 1,140 square miles. Crofton’s population in 2012 was 710 people. In the 1980s, Henseler said, the town struggled because it lost retail business as older owners retired. The town used to have clothing stores, a TV repair shop, a flooring place and two hardware stores. Those are all gone, he said. The grocery store is still there, having absorbed an existing flower and gift shop. One of the hardware stores became a consignment store and is now closed. There was a butcher shop. It closed then became a restaurant serving steak, then pizza, sitting empty in between times.
These changes have some effect on newspaper circulation. More pronounced are the changes affecting much of news media. “Now you’ve got a generation coming up that gets information from the Internet, not from a newspaper.” The Journal/Tribune is not online, simply because Henseler hasn’t felt the impulse to keep up with the technology or to spend money on a website. He gets requests for online subscriptions from people who’ve moved away and want to continue reading about their community. Instead, he sells them mail subscriptions, which seems to satisfy, for now.
Henseler’s other paper, the Niobrara Tribune, serves a community 28 miles west of Crofton. Its offices are in one half of a small concrete block building. In the other half is a beauty salon. On the newspaper’s banner, under the name, is the motto: “Where Lewis & Clark passed, paddlewheel boats crossed, and a town survived three moves by always looking to the future.”
The Tribune’s editor is Valorie Zach. She grew up in the area and has worked at the paper for more than 35 years. Her tenure was interrupted by a move to Montana, where she also worked on a newspaper. But, her family is in Niobrara, she said, and her husband’s, too. They wanted the grandparents and grandchildren to be together under the skies of one town. “They enrich the life of kids so much. We are where we’re meant to be.”
Zach said living in Niobrara has been a challenge. “Our town has suffered the last few years,” she said. The population had slipped a bit, from 400 down to just around 350. The Missouri underwent major flooding in 2011 which affected much of the area. That bad weather was followed by a serious drought in 2012. As a result of the drought, the area whitetail herd was devastated by epizootic hemorrhagic disease. “This is a hunting town and tourism town, surrounded by agriculture,” Zach said. “These things really hurt us.”
So the paper did what Kevin Henseler refers to as taking a leadership role. The newspaper held a contest to pick Niobrara’s “word of the year.” A high school student suggested “expand” as a motivational word. That was the winner. Next, the newspaper developed a list of 10 priorities to pull the town ahead. Readers voted on the list:
“We are working on getting these done. Then maybe we can move to the next 10,” Zach said.
Change is in the works for the two papers, and maybe for those people who want to read them online. Henseler has sold the publications to an individual who owns a few other papers around Nebraska. Although the negotiations and paperwork have taken some time, the actual offer to buy the business came within a few months of its being advertised for sale. Now Henseler is moving to Beresford, South Dakota, where his new wife lives and works. “I’m 59 years old, and newspaper work is all I’ve done in my adult life. Now I will only have to go to a girl’s basketball game on a Tuesday night if I want to.”
Tim Anderson, at the University of Nebraska, wasn’t surprised to hear the paper sold rather quickly. Community papers can still be profitable because advertisers want to reach customers in their town, not in Omaha, for instance. Only local papers can provide that sort of targeted advertising. Thinking of his own young journalism students, Anderson isn’t sure how many will be looking for a career with a small town paper. “There have always been some students who’ve liked community journalism, especially those with a high attachment to their family and hometown who want to return there and work on their local paper.” He wonders if they have a rose-colored view of what that work will be like. “They say they want to walk around town and kick the leaves of a small community. I tell them it is not going to be like that. It is hard work, and everyone in town sees what you are doing, all the time.”
Hard work, yes, but this type of journalism is essential to community life, Anderson believes. “We assign a level of importance to a bake sale that is happening to raise money for a church and that is why it is on the front page of the paper. It is important to the community, it is important to the paper, and in generations to come, we want people to know what we valued. That’s community journalism.”
Julianne Couch is the author of Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy. She is at work on a new project about small rural towns, of which this research is a part.