By John Edwards
The Smithfield Times
There have been five deaths in Virginia in recent months that were newsworthy and very sad, at least for those of us who care about an informed citizenry.
The deceased are five small, non-daily community newspapers, all of which served small towns, counties and cities. They closed their doors permanently, the cause of death the same in each case. It was summarized by one out-of-state owner. He said the paper he closed was “no longer commercially viable.”
These were not young newspapers – not fledgling enterprises opened by somebody who thought publishing a little newspaper would be a lark, a nice hobby. No, they were established by serious people, often community leaders who saw a need for a central clearinghouse of local information. Their average life span was 134 years. Together, they served those five Virginia communities a combined 673 years.
They were business ventures. Make no mistake about that. In the finest tradition of American free enterprise, they were founded by people who expected a return on their investment. But at their core, they were providing a service that was needed and not easily replaced.
Over the years, the changes in the newspaper industry for papers both large and small have been immense. Decades ago, as the cost of producing daily and non-daily papers alike increased more rapidly than the advertising dollars, the economies of scale came into play. On the same principle that big fish eat little fish, large papers and groups of papers bought smaller ones, consolidating production, sales and other costs, and thus generally realizing the business principle that bigger is better, or at least more profitable.
That trend continued as the internet gobbled up an increasing share of advertising dollars. But at some point, even the economies of scale can’t save some once-viable papers. Three of the five that died in Virginia recently were owned by conglomerates, and two were independently owned. Now, one’s just as dead as the other.
“Newspapers have been called the first draft of history. In small communities, they are often the only draft. The big papers have their own priorities, their own needs. They’re unlikely to spend a lot of time and resources worrying about what’s going on in the small towns of America.”
Will communities pay a price for the loss of their newspapers? Naturally, those of us in the industry think so, but there are others who do as well.
Reporting honor rolls, births, deaths and other community news is an important part of what community papers do, and always has been. But there is far more to a community newspaper that’s worthy of calling itself one. A good community paper, whether it’s on newsprint or digital, is a community’s chronicle, a recording of all that’s important in the lives of its readers.
Newspapers have been called the first draft of history. In small communities, they are often the only draft. The big papers have their own priorities, their own needs. They’re unlikely to spend a lot of time and resources worrying about what’s going on in the small towns of America.
I personally knew the editors and publishers of two of the papers that have recently died. They were serious journalists to the core. They cared about their communities and their papers.
Don Dulin, one-time editor of the Caroline Progress, and I were a classmates in the Journalism Department at Richmond Professional Institute. He’s now retired and when I last heard, was living in North Carolina.
Jay Pace was longtime publisher of the Herald-Progress. We talked by phone almost once a week about our papers. He had a massive stroke more than a decade ago and died within hours. I have missed him immensely, but I am glad he wasn’t here to see the paper he loved close its doors.