McInally: Successful communities need successful news outlets

You’re reading this on Brad Fuqua’s new website, philomathnews.com, one of a growing number of online efforts devoted to offering local news about a particular community — in this case, of course, Philomath.

Fuqua brings years of experience to this new effort — most recently as the editor (and, pretty much, the entire staff) of the Philomath Express, a weekly newspaper that the Gazette-Times launched about five years ago. The Express offered in-depth coverage of Philomath news and sports that the G-T simply didn’t have the staff to match. As a business proposition, though, the Express always was a touch-and-go operation — and so it wasn’t much of a surprise a few months ago when the G-T, facing cost-cutting mandates from its owner, Lee Enterprises, shuttered the paper.

Across the nation, it’s unfortunately not an unusual occurrence when a local newspaper closes its doors: Since 2004, more than 2,000 local newspapers have ceased operations. It works out to about 1 out of every 5 papers in the country. Victims range from big-city newspapers — the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, to medium-sized ones, like the Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio.

And, of course, papers in small communities like Philomath.

Many communities that lose their newspapers turn into so-called “news deserts” — areas without access to reliable, accurate news reporting. Philomath won’t fall into that category — at least not immediately — because Fuqua has been able to launch his website with remarkable speed. And I know how hard he’ll work to offer extensive coverage of the community. (Of course, the G-T occasionally will dip into Philomath news, but it won’t be able to match the type of blanket coverage Fuqua will provide.)

The future of philomathnews.com depends, of course, on how readers and advertisers embrace it. But here’s the bottom line: Good journalism of any kind simply doesn’t come for free — and this is something that people still don’t understand as well as they should.

A 2019 survey found that most Americans — almost 75% of respondents — believe their local news outlets are in good financial shape. This, even though fewer than 1 in 6 Americans actually pays for local news — which includes having a subscription, in print or digital, to a local newspaper.

For space reasons, we can’t discuss in detail how newspapers got into the state they’re in. Let’s just say for now that they haven’t done a good job of reacting to the disruptive forces that have shaken the business to its core — in particular, the rise of the internet, which siphoned off so much revenue, and social media platforms like Facebook and Google, which showed little interest in producing original content, but sucked away the majority of online ad revenue at the same time newspapers were struggling to win some of those dollars.

Here’s a more important question: Why should we care? What happens when a community loses a source of reliable, accurate news? Researchers are starting to piece together that picture, and it isn’t pretty: They’re learning that communities without newspapers lose transparency and accountability from public officials. Taxes go up and voter participation goes down; voters are less politically informed and less likely to run for office.

A 2018 study found that newspaper closures have significant impacts on aspects of public finance. After a newspaper closes, the county where it operated experiences a median rise in government salaries of $1.4 million and an average tax hike of $85 per capita. In addition, local news is so closely identified with keeping government inefficiencies in check that financial lenders look at cities without a strong journalistic presence as riskier investments, charging higher interest rates on bonds and loans.

The impacts go beyond dollars and cents and a loss in political engagement. At its best, local news can create a forum for sharing stories in a way that allows individuals to cooperate in — well, building a community.

What can we do to preserve essential sources of local news? Nationally, we need to shape policies and programs that will reinvigorate the for-profit journalism model. For example, efforts are underway to change antitrust laws to allow news outlets to collectively bargain with tech and social media giants for stronger intellectual property protections and a bigger share of revenue. We need to explore ways to make it easier for newspapers to move to a nonprofit status, the way that some papers have done. We all could benefit from a renewed emphasis on civic and media literacy.

You can help as well: You can find a way to support Fuqua’s Philomath News site, by buying a membership or advertising. It’s important that these hyperlocal news sites succeed, not only because they help keep communities connected, but because the lessons learned there will help with the next startup, and the one after that. Local newspapers such as the Gazette-Times need support as well — and, for $10 a month, you can buy online access to the G-T, including a digital replica of the printed edition.

I always have believed that successful communities need successful news outlets, and vice versa. That’s still true. The fates of communities and local news organizations are intrinsically linked — socially, politically, and economically. Something essential is lost in a community when a news outlet goes dark. But we can take steps to prevent that from happening — and to keep light shining in our communities.

(Mike McInally is a Corvallis-based writer and editor who worked for community newspapers for 39 years, most recently as the editor of the Gazette-Times and the Albany Democrat-Herald. He was laid off, as a cost-cutting move, in late 2019. This piece is adapted from a presentation he recently gave to the Rotary Club of Greater Corvallis.)

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