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'Heartbeat' of journalism

Posted: March 8, 2012 11:30 a.m.
Updated: March 9, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Localism is trending today in the realms of food and finance. The institution of the local community newspaper is also popular, but it wasn’t blogged into being - it was born long before videos started going viral. Major-metropolitan newspapers may be a slowly dying breed, but community newspapers prove that American journalism is alive, well and living in the rural areas, small towns and suburbs of our land.

The word “newspaper” may conjure mental images of a big pressroom, delivery trucks and eight-column banner headlines, but 97 percent of U.S. papers have a paid circulation of less than 50,000. Their combined circulations, though, exceed 109 million -- more than three times the aggregate total of the big daily newspapers.

These are the community newspapers. They are staffed by professional journalists, but their news coverage is locally-oriented. High-school sports and academics, zoning issues, petty crime, neighborhood events, clubs, services, organizations, festivities and milestones -- this is the stuff that the local news beat is made of. It is the sort of focus that big-city papers have increasingly lacked both the time and the inclination to provide.

This single-minded dedication to meeting the needs of their audience has set the community papers apart from their big-city brethren. Major-metropolitan newspaper circulations began declining when they lost touch with readers and advertisers, long before the advent of the Internet.  Today, the concentration on consumer demand distinguishes the community newspaper product from that of advocacy journalists and hyper-localists. The faddists are motivated by ideological or topical considerations extrinsic to their relationship with their customers. The bond between the community papers and their readers is organic.

University of North Carolina journalism instructor and textbook author Jock Lauterer summed up this relationship neatly: “Community journalism... is the heartbeat of American journalism, journalism in its natural state.” That heart beats today as robustly as it did in 1953 when the little Tabor City (NC) Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for its expose of local Ku Klux Klan activities. It was the first Pulitzer award ever made to a weekly newspaper.

The category “community newspapers” includes small daily newspapers, whose skeletal structure mimics that of the major-metro papers but which cover little or no metropolitan, state, national or world news. The term is also broad enough to encompass weekly papers that specialize even more narrowly and are often distributed free in street racks, stores, malls or shopping centers. Among the popular weekly forms are shoppers – which publish copious retail advertising by groceries and auto dealerships -- and alternatives, which feature anti-establishment editorial and lifestyle content.

A good example of this mix is Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. (CNHI), which used private capital to grow via acquisitions beginning in 1997.Today, it boasts some 90 small daily newspapers and over 200 smaller weeklies in 22 states.

Corporate ownership has arisen to challenge sole proprietorships and partnerships for dominance in the industry. When successful, this has allowed each paper to retain its individuality while enabling the parent enterprise to enjoy economies of scale and scope.

Still, neither corporate ownership nor large size inoculates community newspapers against adversity. American Community Newspapers, Inc. reached well over one million households in Texas, Minnesota and Virginia when it was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010. It emerged from reorganization in the hands of its creditors.

From Mankato, Minn. to Plano, Texas; from Vienna, Va., to Harrisonville, Mo., to Walnut Creek, Calif., community newspapers stand as testament to the continuing vitality of print journalism. Reports of the death of newspapers may be premature; they are surely exaggerated.

(Bradley J. Furnish is chief economist with Access Advertising LLC, a full-service agency specializing in the placement of classified advertising throughout the U.S.)

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