The death of a community newspaper hits home . . . and hard

The Facebook post this week carried the news and a photo of a publisher friend who had just put the last issue of her newspaper to bed.

A Facebook post on the last day of 2020 hit me hard.

Still in pandemic holiday mode, my husband and I were sitting on the loveseat together, getting ready to escape into another mind-numbing Netflix series. A scant 15 minutes prior to casting the show to our family room television, I had shared news of the demise of a weekly newspaper in the town I called home while attending high school. One of my classmate’s comments in the group almost made me bawl. “It has run its course,” she concluded, but she did mark the sadness of the death of a community newspaper.

Sea changes and the demise of refrigerator journalism

Her comment and my husband’s reaction to my distress, shocked me into an awareness of the profound global implications of this one little bit of news. It reflects and even summarizes on a micro-level, the sea changes we’ve all endured in 2020 and in the years before that.

I had caught the beginnings of the trend even before I sold my own weekly newspaper. That’s when I learned that refrigerator journalism…the trend of newspaper subscribers in the U.S. to cut out articles featuring their kids and secure them to the fridge with a magnet…was dying. Back then, I scrambled to start a Facebook page for my newspaper so we could at least attempt to communicate with the younger generation.

Younger folks would rather read their phones than a newspaper.

Dirtying hands with soy ink

Kids back in the early 2000s did not want to get their hands dirty with soy ink. They already had their noses buried in their phones instead, and that’s where they turned for news. They didn’t seem to care that doing so caused a disconnect with their community, their hometowns, and any generation older than they.

Those changes in how we communicate and share news with each other accelerated at warp speed last year. The shuttering of one more print newspaper caused me to sputter in frustration, “Who do they (the unnamed community members and advertisers who had failed to support the newspaper enough to afford a living for the owners) think will run photos and stories of their kids on the football field or walking across the stage to get their diplomas? Or, how about births and deaths… or an editorial that explains a local bond issue… or photos of people running for local office?”

My husband looked at me with a wicked grin. “You know the answer to that.”

“I do not!”

He repeated his statement, adding more irony and increasing his cajoling. His attitude reminded me of teachers who would put you on the spot and even embarrass you in front of the whole class to elicit an answer that was obvious to everyone but you.

Where will we get news that’s terse, accurate, fair?

When I continued to insist that I did not know where people today, in the community of the defunct newspaper or elsewhere, would turn for balanced, terse, accurate, fair and unbiased local news, he glanced at my hands.

“You’re holding it. You’re using it.”

Phones? Facebook?

“For the love of God, how will we ever educate ourselves on Facebook? How will we ever get the truth? The real story? Or the story behind the story?”

My husband’s reply to my exasperation was a quiet, “It doesn’t matter. They don’t care. They don’t feel like they need the truth. They think it doesn’t affect them. Besides, most of us want to live in a bubble and make our own reality. Isn’t that what we’ve had to do this year?”

I thought about that for a few quiet moments, then tried to look at the other side of the story myself, the way I’d been trained to do in journalism school. Then I admitted that I would have become certifiably insane from March through December of 2020 if not for Facebook and the Internet. That is where I now go for family photos and news, then share with a husband whose military clearance level prohibits him from even having a social media account.

What would we have done during 2020 if we could not turn to our mobile devices to keep us connected to each other and the world?

Thank God for Facebook, Amazon and Zoom during a pandemic…

Thanks to social media and the Internet, I’ve watched multiple video workshops, joined virtual groups, attended Christmas parties via Zoom, purchased most of my Christmas presents online and shared slices of my own life.  Like most of you, I’ve been able to keep in touch with high school classmates, longtime and new friends, and promote my own business efforts thanks to these virtual platforms.

Newspapers and cups of coffee or tea were made to go together.

…but also for a Baby Boomer’s comforting routines

But 2020 has shown me that, while adopting and adapting to these new forms of communication and commerce, I remain stuck in Baby Boomer ways. I like walking out to pick up my daily newspaper. I treasure the routine of snapping it open, folding it wrong side out to a feature story, while drinking a cup of tea or even eating my lunch. Try that with a smartphone and see how smeary the thing gets.

I turn to those ink-soaked newspaper pages to learn all the details of a local story…details usually absent from the brief sound bites on local television stations. I still look to print media that I can touch…and books I can reverently turn the pages in…to connect my head to my heart to my memory and to my tactile senses.

Who will be our community cheerleaders?

I still mourn the death of any newspaper. Every town needs a cheerleader, a watchdog, a champion and a community builder. That’s what local newspapers represent. And if the print versions are all going to die, I pray to God that the online versions live. I pray that the pandemic doesn’t sign the death warrants for too many more of them. Because we will miss them when they’re gone. We just don’t know it yet.

How will we clip articles for future reference?

If the local print newspaper were to die, I would no longer be able to clip articles about local authors to contact for programs of our Kansas Authors Club. And I would probably have missed a column by “The History Guy” this past week if it was only online. It told the delightful story of a wealthy, faithful newspaper subscriber years ago. The man loved reading the Topeka Capital Journal so much he paid in advance to have it delivered to his grave at a local cemetery. He even paid to have lights strung across his tombstone so he would have light 24/7 to read the newspaper.

Those newspaper deliveries continued until the day they were seen as less of a quaint practice and more as a crime of littering.

Are print newspaper readers just tree killers now?

And that, my friends, may be the real cause of the death of print newspapers…too many of us now see them as representing the death of too many trees.