`The passion for a local newspaper has been a lot greater than expected’

By Timothy Boudreau

While many newspapers across the nation are in full retreat, some journalists, investors and even politicians say they will stand by what they see as their viable and valuable sources of community information.

Among those loyalists are three investors in central Connecticut and a cadre of community leaders in economically stressed southeast Michigan.

Ed Gunderson, publisher of the fledgling Valley Press in Simsbury, Conn., said the paper he helped to launch in early 2009 continues to grow.

"We've added two more towns ... to our circulation, advertising has continued to grow, and we added two more full-time people to the editorial staff," he said.

Gunderson and Melissa Marinan, a long-time sales rep, and her father, Stephen Friedman, launched the free weekly after the Journal Register Co.'s Imprint Newspapers division closed the papers that served four local towns.

Even in an era of journalistic retrenchment, the decision to resurrect a weekly newspaper was less daunting than some might expect, Gunderson said. While he conceded the economic recession threatens the overall newspaper industry, he remains bullish on community newspapers because they have a niche.

"News in those papers isn't readily available anywhere else," he said.

Still, he conceded in an e-mail, "The economy hasn't recovered as much as I had hoped. Real estate and auto are doing so poorly that they are virtually nonexistent as an advertising category. I had hoped those two areas would be a growth segment in year or two."

Gunderson said after losing their journalistic voice with the closing of the JRC papers, local readers and advertisers welcomed the Press.

"We get calls every week saying `thank you for being here,' " he said shortly after the launch.  "It's amazing. The passion (for a local newspaper) has been a lot greater than expected."

Others took notice, too. At the end of 2009, the Journal Register Co. began publishing three newspapers to serve the communities it had left just a few months earlier. In an area some had feared was being abandoned by its local newspapers, several weeklies are now battling for control.

The Press has relied on traditional methods to try to win that battle, focusing on area sports, school events, local government and activities involving children. And although the industry is struggling to attract younger readers, the Press is focusing specifically on younger families.

"They spend the money, and they're important to the community ," Gunderson said.

The paper runs writing contests and lots of photographs that appeal to that demographic. The closing of the Journal Register papers was a wake-up call for readers, Gunderson said.  "Until they closed, people didn't realize what a void it would leave."

A similar void was feared in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Birmingham after Gannett announced plans to close the Eccentric at the end of May 2009. In a region some have called ground zero for the problems of the newspaper industry, readers, business people and even politicians have rallied to save their newspaper.

Eccentric supporters have used a "full court press," said David Bloom, chair of the Citizens to Save the Eccentric Committee. They have sold subscriptions at the local farmer's market, urged local businesses to advertise, conducted e-mail campaigns and publicized their efforts through a website and local and even national media. Some have taken photographs and written stories and columns for the paper they love.

As of mid-September 2010, it was still publishing.

"People here value the newspaper and want to stay engaged," Bloom said.  "Without the newspaper, you wouldn't find out about candidates running for office, the rezoning process next door, or who's getting a liquor license.

“You wouldn't find out about taxes going up or down, or about development or public safety . You lose those communication channels when you lose your local newspaper."

In a community where the average reader is older, well-educated and often civic-minded, a credible source of information is essential.

"The newspaper is a wonderful thing," Bloom said. "People don't appreciate what they will miss out on – until they miss out on it."

Other communities have been less fortunate than those served by The Press and the Eccentric: When those local newspapers closed, no other media stepped in to fill the journalistic void.

Some researchers suggest that such a void can hurt civic engagement. In a 2009 study of the effects of a newspaper's closing on its community , Princeton University researchers reported disheartening findings.

In northern Kentucky towns once covered by the Cincinnati Post, voter turnout dropped, fewer people ran for public office and more incumbents were re-elected after the paper closed at the end of 2007.

The lack of civic engagement brought on by a newspaper's closing might stem from the unique role print media play in many communities.

"More than any other medium, newspapers have been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm systems," Paul Starr argued in a 2009 article in The New Republic.

Newspapers provide the bulk of original reporting and coverage of public affairs, and Starr said their demise could lead to an increase in public corruption, greater disparities in knowledge between news junkies and news dropouts, and more ideological polarization as readers seek information from sources tailored to their beliefs and preconceptions instead of newspapers aimed at general audiences.

Even if broadcast outlets or locally based websites try to pick up the slack left by a departed newspaper, the community loses an important – often the primary – source of information in the journalistic ecosystem. Newspapers routinely set the agenda for broadcast media in many communities and provide a starting point for debate and analysis on blogs and other websites.

Smaller towns sometimes draw a sense of pride and purpose from their local papers, said Steve Smethers, one of the authors of a 2005 study that looked at how closing the Humboldt Union newspaper affected that Kansas community .

"The town found out ... just how much they missed their own newspaper," Smethers said.

Whether real or perceived, "losing the newspaper became symbolic of the town dying."

The information gap was partly filled by nearby newspapers, a Chamber of Commerce newsletter, and by family and friends. But residents still preferred their own newspaper.
Eventually a nearby editor re-established s the Union, later reselling it.  Despite the widely publicized troubles of many newspapers, some observers say journalists are their own worst enemies.

"They are running around arguing the sky is falling. And they're making the situation appear far worse than it is," Robert Picard, a media economist, told USA Today in a 2009 article.

These observers say the optimism displayed at the Valley Press and many other community newspapers around the nation is warranted. While profits have dropped significantly in recent years, the average newspaper still generates about a 10 percent profit margin, and the outlook, at least for many smaller papers, continues to be good.

Bloom said he thinks the outlook for the Eccentric is improving, and although residents of Birmingham will fight to save the paper, the industry itself must do a better job educating the public about the vital role newspapers play in providing credible information to their communities.

"People take information for granted," he said. "Maybe we don't appreciate the value of newspapers as much as we should."

© Timothy Boudreau 2010

Timothy Boudreau is an associate professor of journalism for Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, MI. He can be reached at boudr1t@cmich.edu or at 989-774-2354. Boudreau rewrote the research paper he presented during the 2009 Huck Boyd Symposium at NNA's annual convention in Mobile, AL.