Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

By Al Cross

Politicians have long liked to say this or that is “the challenge of our time.” It’s an over-used phrase, but for those of us born after World War II, the coronavirus pandemic is surely that. And it is especially a challenge for community newspapers, because it comes on top of another unprecedented challenge they already faced. How will they respond?

The first unprecedented challenge is the shift of local advertising to the digital space, where most newspapers have difficulty making enough money, so they must get more revenue from the audience – or even expand into other forms of publishing, as exemplified by David Woronoff of The Pilot, a great twice-weekly in North Carolina.

Newspapers have been infamously inept with their audiences. In much the same way that daily publishers were reluctant to make readers pay for their digital products, weekly publishers have been reluctant to raise subscription and single-copy prices. In both cases, many publishers lacked confidence in the quality of their products. In some cases, that lack of confidence was justified. This country has a lot of lousy newspapers. But it has a lot of good ones, and more than ever, they are examples to follow.

I believe that the essential solution to both of these challenges is quality: good journalism, including watchdog reporting and a good editorial page; sharp business practices, partnering with advertisers to innovate, including digitally; and a spirit of community service that becomes a recognized part of the newspaper’s brand. As the saying goes, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

The second unprecedented challenge of our time gives community newspapers an opportunity to redouble their efforts to meet the first challenge. As David Woronoff put it in a March 23 letter to readers, “The Pilot exists for moments like this. Readers and advertisers need us — now more than ever — to be the source of fair, thorough and accurate information as well as a voice for compassion, civility and kindness.” (We noted it on The Rural Blog at tinyurl.com/tfvp67d.)

In Douglas, Wyo., NNA President Matt Adelman and his competitor of 30 years, Dennis Switzer of Douglas Broadcasting, teamed up for the first time to help the town of 6,300 and Converse County, pop. 13,600, survive the economic strain of measures designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus by reminding their audiences that “it’s up to them to help their communities’ small businesses survive the failing economy,” as Adelman said in an editorial. (We put it on The Rural Blog at tinyurl.com/wrf5t7b.)

This wasn’t just another “shop local” campaign; it was a firebell in the night, and local businesses stepped up, buying sponsorships to support the campaign, The Douglas Budget, the Glenrock Independent and the radio stations. In a March 25 NNA webinar, Matt said they collected three and a half times as much as expected.

“This really hit a nerve with people,” he said. “They recognize how important it is to shop local.” And he said they were surprised by “how important they think the local newspaper and radio station are in their life.” In other words, once they contemplated the prospect of life without them, they were willing to invest in them. And they knew, as those of us in NNA do, the quality of Matt’s papers – and presumably the radio stations, too. Converse is a county well served; it just needed reminding.

“People are looking for correct information, valued information, and local news media is where they trust,” Matt said, echoing David’s letter from the editor and giving us a buck-up message in a time of tighter belts and fewer pages.

When Warren Buffett went on a newspaper-buying spree in 2012, he declared, “I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future. It’s your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town. That will mean both maintaining your news hole; a newspaper that reduces its coverage of the news important to its community is certain to reduce its readership as well and thoroughly covering all aspects of area life, particularly local sports. No one has ever stopped reading when halfway through a story that was about them or their neighbors.”

In other words, maintain quality, and you can stay in business and still render public service. Buffett apparently did not anticipate how much local advertising would shift from paper to digital, so he sold his papers recently, saying most newspapers are “toast.” I don’t believe he was thinking about most community papers. In communities without TV stations, especially outside metropolitan areas, they are still the main source of local news and information.

That is still a valuable franchise, but we can’t take it for granted; its value depends greatly on the value that your audience places on your paper, and these days you need to keep reminding them of that value. We need to constantly explain the difference in news media and social media, an example of which we had on The Rural Blog at tinyurl.com/wl9oklv. Here’s a condensed version:

“We practice journalism, which reports facts. To do that, we verify information, or we attribute it to someone else. That is called the discipline of verification, and it is the essence of the news media. Social media have no discipline, and hardly any verification, and they emphasize opinion. Newspapers separate fact from opinion, reserving our own views for the editorial page. Of course, our views influence what news we choose to cover, so if you think we’re not covering what should be covered, or have failed to separate fact from opinion, or make another mistake, we want you to tell us.”

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is director of the University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog at http://irjci.blogspot.com.