A newspaper editor cries for help, in a surprisingly frank way, and gets it; his embarrassed publisher is glad he did

Al Cross

Oct 1, 2022

Chad Hobbs and Rena Singleton in their Brandenburg, Kentucky, office (courtesy of the Meade County Messenger)

Rural newspapers have become more willing to share the threats to their existence with readers, but perhaps none so frankly as the Meade County Messenger in Brandenburg, Kentucky, did last month.

Under a headline reading, "Will you cheer the death of an institution or come to its aid?" Editor Chad Hobbs told how the paper was suffering from social media, a boycott by some advertisers upset about an editorial stance, his personal travails in covering recent stories, and, of course, COVID-19: "The pandemic and ensuing shutdowns wrecked our advertising lifeline to the point the owner of this paper hasn’t taken a cent from the business in over two years."

Whoa. That revelation about how much money a paper is making, or not making, is exceedingly rare in the newspaper business. And it surprised the publisher of the paper, Rena Singleton, who has other sources of income. "I didn't know he was going to put that editorial in," much less reveal the paper's finances, Singleton told me. "It embarrassed me." But it's working out for them. Click here for the rest of story

Hobbs and Singleton, who has owned the weekly for 40 years, said the editorial sprang from a meeting of the paper's five-member staff, in which she "put responsibility on them for the future of the paper," as she put it. "He took it to heart." In his 1,328-word editorial, Hobbs followed the financial revelation with this passage:

"The final straw has been the fallout from us doing our job as your watchdog. We hear from countless readers how much you appreciate the fact that we hold leaders accountable and fearlessly defend the citizens of this county and their tax dollars. Doing the right thing and upholding that mandate by the common men and women of this county has come at one heck of a price. After supporting everything the Meade County Chamber of Commerce has done since its inception, we sided with the people and dared to say we didn’t agree with the tax dollars they were wanting to spend on a new facility," which would have been paid for by local governments. "Several large businesses that have always supported us have pulled their advertising because the forum page does not paint images of their friends in politics while wearing rose-colored glasses."

So, a newspaper that needs more business attacked the umbrella entity for the business community. But the reaction wasn't what you might expect, Singleton and Hobbs said. Some have offered help, she said, and "That's what we needed most. ... His editorial did have an impact." She said that if she had seen the editorial in advance, and had known the reaction would be positive, she would have left in the news that she hadn't taken an ownership distribution from the paper in two years.

Singleton said she's sure other weekly publishers are in similar situations, but "Nobody's telling it." Asked if she would recommend publishers be more forthcoming about their finances, she said yes.

Hobbs, a former reporter who moved into the editor's job in March, is a native of Meade County. Singleton said that helped his editorial have more impact than it would have if written by someone who had moved in from the outside. Hobbs reminded his audience of that in his conclusion:

"If you cut me open, I bleed Meade County green, and I can’t thank those that support me enough for allowing me to do what I do for this long. I love doing what I do, no matter how bad it hurts sometimes. As much as I hate asking for help, it appears that, if something doesn’t soon give, we very well may be traveling down a road together that is quickly becoming too narrow for the Messenger to fit. We’ve fought for you Meade County for over 100 years, and we would love to do it for another 100 years. Will you let your grand ol’ oak wither and die over a couple of articles you didn’t agree with, or will you come to our aid in this time of need, like we have so many times for you, Meade County?"

Singleton said the editorial also helped the community realize the value of the newspaper at a time when it is getting a large industry, many new residents and more development issues for the paper to cover. In the last few decades, Meade County has become mainly a bedroom community for people who work in nearby cities or Fort Knox, which lies partly in the county.

The commuters "forgot their community," Singleton said. "The people here are starting to lose the community feel, and realize the only thing that's holding us together is the community newspaper."

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the extension professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog at http://irjci.blogspot.com.