What Can Be Done About Rural Newspapers (Even Though It Probably Won’t Be)?

Yesterday I wrote that Another Local Paper Changes Hands. With the failure of legacy publishing, what are rural communities to do?

(Obvious point: FREE WHITEWATER is not an online newspaper – never aspired to be, never will be. This is a website of independent commentary: aligned with no faction, beholden to no faction.)

A few thoughts on rural newspapers:

1.  Begin with a commitment & a focus on content. If a publication doesn’t have a message, no one will care that the publisher aspires to be a messenger.  No message, no messenger.

2.  Conviction comes first, everything else (including consensus) comes later (if ever).

3.  The context of it all for rural communities: economic stagnation and relative decline.  Publications that flack the status quo – subsidies for business buddies, tax incremental districts, boosting a few self-promoting local notables along the way – face the same dark future as the publications that have already changed hands.

A few – pushing a kind of pro-government conservatism of their own enrichment – have benefited only at the expense of the many.

If that’s one’s outlook, it’s an outlook appealing only to a desperate or deluded – and declining – demographic.

Speak truth to power, even at the local level.

4.  Pick tried and tested software. For almost any community group, and for homegrown publications, too – an existing software platform like Facebook, Instagram, etc. is more than adequate to reach lots of people. Public institutions will still need standalone websites, and the occasional blogger may find a standalone website useful (as I do), but for most people, Facebook is more than enough to reach a rural community.

Facebook does skew old, and but if one keeps one’s content punchy, younger people will visit, too. Mix it up with Instagram, and a publication will be in good shape.

5.  Never, ever pay someone to publish a Facebook page on one’s own behalf. I can’t stress this enough: no publication or community group should spend even one copper coin on someone else’s Facebook work.  I’ll write more about this another time, but anyone selling you what you can do better on your own is nothing more than a greedy peddler.

Write your own ideas in your own voice. When I write, this is truly how I speak. When others write, they should write as they truly speak.

No one needs a vulgar new man to sell him or her only banal, lifeless words.

(Along these same lines, no rural community needs a ‘communications specialist.’  Honest to goodness, learn about Facebook and Instagram and have at it.  Learn by reading successful sites each day.)

6.  Forget advertising, forget subscriptions. There’s a necessary shift in publications from advertising (which makes little for most publishers) to subscriptions (which may make more for some highly-sought writers).  See The Media’s ‘Post-Advertising’ Future.  Subscriptions, however, will pay the bills only for a few publications.

The newspapers in our area planning to go behind a restrictive paywall will never make a go of it: they won’t find enough subscribers for their anemic content.

They’ll go under in a few years after the new publishers have sucked the marrow from each paper’s bones.

Worse: in small towns, the few subscribers and advertisers one collects will often prove risk-averse, and insistent on bland content.  Appeasing advertisers like that will come at the price of readership growth among creative, vibrant readers.

7.  Self-fund. That’s why existing platforms like Facebook and Instagram (or content management solutions like WordPress) are a good idea: they’re inexpensive. If you write with conviction and in your own voice, you’ll gain an audience, but you need to be independent of others’ financial pressures.  Stay lean.

8.  An example.  Consider this: The Libraries Bringing Small-Town News Back to Life (‘As local news outlets disappear in America, some libraries are gaining new relevance’).

Why say, after all this, that what can be done probably won’t be done (at least in the short term)?

Because small-town officials and notables who have run cities like Whitewater into the ground, while extolling their own supposed accomplishments, will do what they can to manage their communities’ narratives right to the time that those men will prove unable to manage anything at all.

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5 years ago

The whole area is a news wasteland.It’s true that these old publishers ruined their family assets. There aren’t many educated people who will miss them.

Who knows about all the towns that are facing this problem, but you are right about Whitewater. To speak the truth about what’s wrong is to mention that Whitewater has been run like a small southern town. It’s changing but no thanks to the local newspapers.

Joe has correctly described where we are with mostly prep sports and such. These guys will never investigate a problem thoroughly.