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Plight of a Newspaper (Hunter Field Editor’s Note)

Hunter Field Editor's Note
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A recently widowed woman waited hours for me to return to the newsroom of the Jonesboro Sun, where I worked at one of my first jobs out of college.

She said my name in the parking lot, and when I turned, began to cry.

As she composed herself, she thanked me profusely for a short story about her husband published a few days earlier under my byline.

I’m embarrassed to say that I had no interest in writing that short article about a man who hadn’t held public office or built a company from the ground up. He was a relatively anonymous member of the community who had spent a lot of time volunteering.

In truth, the only reason he appeared in the paper was that I happened to pick his name out of the obituaries when it was my week to write the Postscript, a standing feature on someone from the area who had recently died.

That interaction taught me a great deal about the impact of community newspapers. This is why I read our Assistant Editor Kyle Massey’s recent column on the plight of the Johnson County Graphic with concern.

Fortunately, the Graphic has bought itself some time, thanks to its staff’s sacrifices and a clever decision to publish a blank front page earlier this year, prompting a wave of community support.

You’ll also find the Graphic on today’s list of Arkansas’ oldest companies, among many other newspapers. Daily and weekly papers are still well-represented on the list, but their number dwindles by the year.

For the most part, I don’t think that’s because they grew worse at their jobs or the quality of their journalism declined. When the internet and social media use became ubiquitous, the revenue model for published news was flipped on its head. Print advertising revenue plummeted, and Google and Facebook gobbled up most of the ad revenue online.

Not even the best newsrooms were spared; perennial Pulitzer finalists saw rounds of layoffs and budget cuts. Small, community newspapers, undoubtedly, have been hit the hardest.

I don’t know what the answer is, or if there is one. I’ve worked at daily newspapers, small and large, nonprofit newsrooms and, now, at a niche weekly.  Niche publications have a sustainable business model; nonprofit newsrooms have also shown promise.

The upshot for general-interest newspapers is dire. I hope I’m wrong. I hope someone figures out how to make them sustainable. I hope individuals and businesses step up to support them.

There’s so much to lose. Coverage of youth sports, local events, notable deaths, elections, public notices, community businesses and more. I haven’t even mentioned a newspaper’s critical role as a watchdog of government.

These are the ties that bind communities, and their loss will be and has been costly.

But when I think about the stakes of losing local papers, I think of that lady waiting patiently in a Jonesboro parking lot.

Email Hunter Field, editor of Arkansas Business at hfield@abpg.com
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