Monday, August 25, 2014

Small Town Newspapers: A Thing of the Past?

On July 30, 2014 the Macon Chronicle-Herald of Macon, Missouri printed its last issue. It had been in print since at least 1926 as the Chronicle-Herald. Its owner GateHouse Media decided there was no longer a need for the paper. This ended a long history of newspapers in Macon, and the small town is now without a newspaper, although it will still be served by the The Home Press which is headquartered in nearby La Plata, Missouri. Once upon a time many small towns had more than one newspaper. It was not unusual in the Victorian Era for a town of 12,000 or even as small as 5,000 to have two or three daily or weekly newspapers. Even small hamlets of only a few hundred people had weekly newspapers. As time passed these papers would either go out of business or merge until a small town had only one newspaper. Many of these small dailies are still in business.

A local newspaper was the lifeline of a small town. They could report local news in more depth than radio, and reported on a wide variety of things. In the pages of a local newspaper one could find in addition to major news stories, news on the local government, businesses, birth announcements, announcements of engagements, wedding announcements, death notices, society news, local entertainment, local sports, and more. Local persons were often interviewed about such topics as local history, or the opening of a new business. A wide variety of information was available daily. During much of the 20th century small town newspapers served much the same purpose as the internet does today. One needs only browse such sites as newspapers.com or newspaperarchive,com to see the amount of local news a small town newspaper covered. Beginning in the 1960s and earlier major corporations began buying local papers. Unable to keep up with the cost of printing and distribution many small presses found the need to sell, and were quickly snatched up by large news syndicates. This spelled the beginning of the end for local newspapers.

Many small town weeklies ceased publication after being purchased by news syndicates as they were merged with local daily papers. An example of this was the Randolph County Times-Herald which was purchased by the news syndicate owning the Moberly Monitor-Index. The two papers were merged with the Times-Herald becoming a page in the Monitor-Index. After several years of being published this way, the Times-Herald simply disappeared. Many small town newspapers disappeared this way having been purchased by a large company and then merged with a larger paper in a nearby town. This was actually an extension of a process that had been going on for many years. The newspapers of many small hamlets had already been swallowed up by the newspapers of nearby towns. For example, the Times-Herald had been created by the merger of several Huntsville, Missouri papers over the years.  The Times-Herald in turn purchased the village newspaper of Clifton Hill, the Clifton Hill Rustler. The Times-Herald then was bought up and merged with the Monitor-Index, and so the process continued.

Ownership of small town newspapers by news syndicates has had disastrous side effects. As the news syndicates cut the staff of local papers, less local news could be covered. The local papers therefore had to run more news from the national and international news wires. This arrangement worked fine until the late 1990s when the world wide web came about. Suddenly, folks were no longer reliant on the local small town newspaper to get national and international news in depth. Instead they could simply go to sites like Yahoo News, or one of the major city newspapers' websites. Since much of the news printed by many small town papers was no longer local news people no longer felt a need to subscribe to local papers and circulations dropped. As circulation  of a paper dropped, advertisers sought out other outlets for their ads such as radio and television, not to mention the internet. As ad revenue dropped, the large news syndicates no longer saw the local papers profitable. And this brings us to the Macon Chronicle-Herald. It has met the fate of many small town newspapers across the nation. When a small town newspaper ceases to be profitable in the eyes of a news syndicate it risks being closed. One has to wonder if there will be a time when there is no longer such a thing as the small town newspaper.

There is perhaps a way to reverse this trend. First, in order to increase circulation and thus remain profitable small town newspapers need to go back to running local news no one else will run. They need to print news one will not find on the internet, and that may only get a passing mention on radio or television. Small town newspapers need to take advantage of the fact they can still cover news in depth. They are not hindered by time as are radio and television. Unlike radio or television they are not limited by the amount of time a news show can run a news segment. If a small town newspaper so desired they can dedicate an entire page to a local news story mentioning things that would have been edited out by the local radio or television stations due to time.In addition small town news papers can run news stories that no one else will run such as local society and business news. There is perhaps a way small town papers may be able to survive.

It may be too late for small town newspapers. It certainly was for the Chronicle-Herald. Many may have already reached the point they can never rebuild their circulations so that a news syndicate would not think of closing them. This is truly sad as newspapers have played such a big part in American history. Alas, new technology may have already spelled their doom. One can only hope local news outlets on the internet will rise to take their place. Otherwise, residents may wind up without a way to learn about what is going on in their towns. Television and radio simply do not have the means to cover local news in depth, and thus far for most small towns there has not arisen a substitute for the local small town paper. Only time will tell.