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Chains Have Snapped Up Rural Weekly Newspapers

Has the Corporatization of Formerly Individually Owned, Sometimes Eccentric Weeklies Killed the Voice of Dissent in Distressed, Rural Areas?

Remarks by Al Smith

The Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia
June 27, 2001

One day recently, Susan Allen quit her reporter’s job for the second time at the daily Frankfort (Ky.) State Journal and went back to the mountains. It was the third time she had gone through this drill, for she had also worked briefly for The Associated Press before deciding again she couldn’t stay away from home.

At Frankfort, the state capital, Susan told Carl West, the editor who has hired her twice, that she would be getting more money and a car if she returned to east Kentucky to work for another former boss, Scott Perry, who has just started a new weekly, the Big Sandy News. The News will serve three contiguous counties whose largest towns, Louisa, Paintsville, and Inez, total 13,000 population.

Neither Carl nor Scott believes that the extra money has lured Susan back to the mountains. They think she’s returning to pick up the fight against the infamous political system, the courthouse creeps and vote buyers, and the sell-outs who run the sorry schools.

Susan is a natural born crusader who got her journalistic training on the job. Her year or so at a community college was about nursing technology, nothing to do with speaking truth to power.

The small band of admirers in larger papers around the state wonders at the source of her courage. “She has the guts of a burglar,” Carl West says, “and I told her I’d take her back again — not what you usually say to someone who leaves you twice.”

When I first invited her for a guest spot on my TV show 10 years ago, Susan Allen reminded me of Meryl Streep in “Silkwood.” She had that look of a wispy rural girl with accent to match, country smart, who couldn’t be run off the story.

But then the paper changed. Scott was pushed out and the new publisher sent in by the out of state owner told her to drop the tough stuff. People were tired of her carping, the publisher said. Give him some good news. So she gave him not exactly what he wanted, a piece of her mind, and she quit.

What the sleazy coal field politicians couldn’t do, the pandering outside forces in the journalism business did for them. Almost from nothing she had grown into this scrappy young reporter the city papers were talking about. But, not fitting the corporate business plan, she might as well have been a union organizer near the mineshaft at Consol. They bulldozed her away.

Of the 8,000 or so weeklies in this country, as many as half or more have been bought by chains in a mop-up resembling what happened to the dailies. Now numbering less than 2,000, about 90 percent of dailies are chain owned. It’s the same with radio, a few homogenized voices across the dial and 90 percent of the advertising revenue controlled by four companies. With the Bush administration untroubled by questions of information control and diversity, further consolidation of television station ownerships and even more cross ownership of broadcast and print media in the same communities seems likely.

Although rants against monopoly journalism have a long tradition, it’s time to fault the big contemporary media companies for a serious self-inflicted weakness: their compact with the stock market and lenders who financed their growth.

Debt payments and keeping stock prices up in a declining economy create performance pressures that seriously diminish the ability to pay for news coverage.

Credit the metropolitan papers with revealing their own internal corporate conflicts, the layoffs and job freezes and resignations or firings of protesting managers, the desperate turns to marketing and circulation strategies to stem a drop in readership and penetration. But out in the country, in the county seat towns without a TV station or daily paper, it’s the same story — only it’s not told.

Chains whose names we don’t know or can’t remember have acquired an astonishing number of little papers and radio stations. They still give the obits and school lunch menus, the fatal accidents, and the county agent’s report.

Most try to carry something from the Courthouse and City Hall, but don’t look or listen for an editorial with bite, or crusading reports with insight. Few can afford it. That would drain profits demanded by the home office.

The corporatization of Main Street journalism, converting individually owned, sometimes eccentric and quaint sheets into little McPapers, is, of course, one with a national trend in health, finance, and retail. But the loss of informed local editorial voices and the occasional initiative for change is a matter of serious consequence, especially in the regions of rural poverty where it is hard to see that new absentee media owners give more than lip service to the quality of life. Before the chains came, these papers and their sundowner radio counterparts were part of the civic infrastructure in rural America, not always exemplary, but prized for unquestioned loyalty to community interests and, sometimes, for standing up against egregiously harmful ambitions of community leaders.

Having traded my own publishing business in 1985 for “big money” from the late Roy Park, whose chain was a kind of Peabody Coal Co. for local papers to be hauled away, I am shamed by Susan Allen’s fortitude.

Many small town Main Streets that I thought were vibrant when I was Susan’s age now seem to me to be mostly empty store fronts. Even the cut-and-sew plants we stole from Yankees have crossed the border or sailed off shore.

And, of course, remembering years ago the long lines of cars circling the town square while waiting for the paper to come out on press night, there are other questions: Would it have been different had I stayed?
Or, is there a future in which community papers reclaim their relevance to the gut issues of the people they serve?

If the Allens and Perrys won’t give up, perhaps those of us who are wringing our hands should lend a hand to help them. That’s what several of my friends who are senior journalists have recently agreed to do. Our argument is that few non-profit organizations and think tanks study the rural press and the erosion of press influence or effectiveness in regions of pervasive poverty.

We, an ad hoc committee of journalists, academics, and former public officials in several states, would like to focus on impoverished spots of America. Who is reporting root causes here? Whose local media voice of reason and vision, if any, is heard? Who owns the media and how many low-paid reporters are churned through the papers and stations in the nation’s poorest counties?

Perhaps we can create enough interest to justify a pilot institute, beginning in Appalachia, to teach policy issues to reporters tough enough to stay. At least they could learn what’s eating them.

 


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu