For thousands of rural communities across the U.S., the local newspaper is the prime, if not sole, source of credible and comprehensive news and information. The University of Kentucky’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues assists rural journalists and news organizations in producing strong reporting and commentary around national issues, such as the opioid crisis and health care, that have significant local impact. Director and veteran journalist Al Cross has run the Institute for nearly 15 years, and oversees the Rural Blog, a digital digest of national events, trends and journalism from and about rural America. Here’s Cross take in an edited interview with the Woodford (Kentucky) Sun News on the state of rural and community journalism.
What’s the state of community journalism these days?
It is always important to distinguish journalism from the news business, which pays for journalism (through advertising and subscriptions). Here’s a bad indicator on the current state of the news business: The main organization of community newspapers in this country (the National Newspaper Association) had a big drop in membership this year, and suffered a big financial loss as a result. They attributed that to the increase in (newsprint) tariffs. The prospect of an increase prompted newspaper owners to cut expenses, and the first expense to go is membership a national organization that you may not think is doing you much good. But, in fact, the National Newspaper Association mobilized the small newspapers of this country to go to talk to their members of Congress and the U.S. Commerce Department and say, “Look, this is an existential threat to us. You’re incurring a 20 to 30 percent price increase in our second-largest cost of business” (after salaries).
There have been about 1,300 largely small newspapers close in the last 15 years. These tend to be newspapers in non-county seat towns. … My general rule has been if a community is doing well, its community newspaper is probably doing OK. Many papers are suffering from digital erosion – people spending more time with digital media and social media than the printed newspaper, but even so, rural newspapers still reach an average of 40 percent of households in a community, which is better than any other medium.
What can a good community newspaper bring to the community?
It brings information of all types, from commercial information that people need about local businesses to information that serves democracy – information about local issues into which people need to have some input. A good community newspaper helps set the public agenda for the community; it makes residents in a community face up to the issues confronting them. I teach my students that a good newspaper does three things: It informs; it convenes – it has a public forum, an editorial page where people can contribute letters and longer pieces – and it leads. It doesn’t have to have an editorial in every edition or even most editions, but when the editor sees something that needs some insight, some leadership, from the newspaper, a good newspaper provides that insight – either through a traditional editor or a column from the editor or publisher.
How do you respond when someone says, ‘Nobody reads newspapers anymore’?
The readership in newspapers in the United States is just as great as it ever was. The problem is that newspapers are not getting paid for online access. Stories get shared on social media and people read news on these platforms for free. If you have a national platform like USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post and produce stories of national interest, then you can attract a large number of readers and can make money in the digital space. But it’s really difficult for smaller newspapers to make money in the digital space because the stories they publish are usually of interest and relevant only to people who live in a specific county.
So what do you see as the future for community newspapers?
I think they’re going to be around for a long time. In some respects, a weekly newspaper is more like a magazine than a daily newspaper. It stays around the house for a week. People don’t feel like they have to read the whole thing at once. Advertisers appreciate that, too. The audience for community newspapers is a little older than average, so I think we’ll see print editions of community newspapers in this country for at least another 15 to 20 years, and probably longer. On the other hand, I think you’ll find daily newspapers, such as the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Louisville Courier-Journal dropping some print days. A number of dailies around the country have already done that. It’s an erosion, it’s not a collapse.
It seems that journalists are under attack in an unprecedented way. When someone challenges your integrity or seems to believe that because you’re a journalist, you lean in one direction, what do you tell them?
Generally, I would say that most newspapers in this country are conservative. Just because the most prominent newspapers in this country have liberal editorial pages that doesn’t mean that most newspapers in this country are liberal. That’s just silly. People need to stop and consider the difference between the newspapers that the president and conservative critics attack and the newspapers that are published in their hometowns. They’re not the same. I think it’s important for people to understand what journalism is.
Journalism has done a bad job of defending its reputation. Journalism is being undermined by social media because people no longer know what to trust. People are inclined to believe what they want to believe, and they get all this information from an unverified source. There is no verification on social media. Journalism practices the discipline of verification. That is the essential difference between the news media and social media. The news media are about getting the facts and delivering them to the people so they can use them to make informed judgments about their role in a democracy.