Small town newspapers adapting to media changes


November 3rd, 2011

Lincoln, NE – Given the upheaval in the news industry, you might think small-town papers would be hurting the most – but in fact, they’re weathering all the changes in technology and media with relative ease, compared to their urban counterparts.

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Gerri Peterson deftly flipped through the pages of the latest Hooker County Tribune newspaper.

“I’m just checking to make sure that the pages are in order and not upside-down or …” she trailed off with a chuckle. “Which has happened before, (though) not to me.”

Gerri Peterson, owner and editor of the Hooker County Tribune, loads up a recent edition of the paper at the North Platte Telegraph press, where the Tribune is printed. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

Peterson is the owner, publisher, editor, reporter and designer for the Tribune. After determining the paper’s fine, she loads the multitude of bundles onto her truck at the North Platte Telegraph, where the Tribune is printed.

The 25-year-old Peterson moved back to her hometown of Mullen, cradled deep within Nebraska’s Sandhills, right after graduating from college. Every Tuesday afternoon, she takes a 140-mile round-trip drive between her hometown and the central Nebraska city of North Platte.

“I grew up on my family’s ranch 12 miles north of Mullen,” she said. “It’s been in my family for over 100 years now. I love the Sandhills, and always knew that I wanted to return back here.”

In 2008, after graduating from Concordia University in Seward, Peterson did just that. She was 22 years old.

Peterson is one of the youngest newspaper owners in the country. Despite all the gnashing of teeth aimed at the news business, however, she said she isn’t worried about finances.

And just looking at the numbers, rural newspapers are much more stable than their struggling urban counterparts. Many metro newspapers would kill for Peterson’s circulation – in a county with a population of around 720 people, the Hooker County Tribune has 860 paid subscribers.

The Hooker County Tribune , though based in Mullen, Neb., has subscribers across the country. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

There’s a variety of reasons why rural news is less affected by upheaval in the industry, but the main one is simple: unlike larger cities with a plethora of publications, the rural paper is often the only option.

“The closest daily hardly ever has Mullen in it,” Peterson said. “We don’t have a radio station, we don’t have a TV station. It’s kind of their source for local news.”

Judy Muller agrees. This seasoned journalist and journalism professor at the University of Southern-California’s Annenberg School published a book this year all about community newspapers, titled “Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns.” The book was published by the University of Nebraska Press.

“And I found that, in fact, this was a little pocket of hope. That even those who were being hit by the recession, everyone is, they were holding on,” she said from a hotel room in Missoula, where she was finishing a visit to the Montana Book Festival. “They have an audience who can’t get that news anywhere else. So they have a product that people want.”

Across Nebraska, the 170 or so community papers are not only surviving but thriving, said Allen Beermann, president of the Nebraska Press Association. Just in the last month, a new weekly paper started printing west of McCook. He said there are almost 700,000 paid subscriptions to newspapers in the state.

“The town of, let’s say, Imperial, has maybe two 4-H clubs. They might have two Boy Scout troops,” Beermann said. “In Chicago, there’s probably 900 Boy Scout troops. And who knows how many 4-H clubs, and how many garden clubs.

Valorie Zach has been the editor of the Niobrara Tribune in Niobrara, Neb., for the last 13 years. She said she'd never want to live in a town without a newspaper. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)

“If they tried to run the hot lunch program menu for their schools, it would take a catalogue,” he continued. “So there are a lot of things that, practically, they cannot do as a large urban paper.”

Those kinds of items are exactly why community papers are important to Valorie Zach. She’s been the editor of the Niobrara Tribune, circulation 1,700, for the last 13 years. Like Peterson, Zach moved back to her hometown, this time in northeast Nebraska, to run the paper.

Zach first whet her appetite for journalism while working in Montana, and she said small-town papers “keep everyone on the same page” – no pun intended.

“We record the stories – we’re scrapbookers extraordinaire here,” she said. “We show up for all the games, and people, they trust us and all that we do, and we do a lot to keep that trust, to earn their trust.”

New trends in urban newsrooms like “convergence” and “cross-platforming” are concepts that are kind of “duh” for rural reporters.

“It seems overwhelming to many of our students. They have to shoot video, they have to tape audio, they have to write short-form and long-form,” Muller said, referring to the classes she teaches at USC. “There’s a lot going on, and yet these folks have been doing this. They take their cameras out every time. They’re writing the articles. And now they’re tweeting, and on Facebook. So they’re already there.”

Or, at least in terms of online components, they’re getting there. While the Hooker County Tribune has 502 Facebook fans, Peterson said she has only maybe 10 online subscriptions to the paper.

The Niobrara Tribune doesn’t even have a website. But Zach said she doesn’t really need one.

“Some people don’t even have internet in a small community,” she said matter-of-factly. “We have a reservation close by, and they may not even have a phone. No matter how high technology gets (people) want just the basic news.

“And I know it’s fun to present it in different, new ways, but really, when it comes down to it, they just want the facts, they want the truth,” Zach continued. “And that’s what we try to do in small-town newspapers.”

It’s not all roses. While working in a small town allows you to be more personable, Peterson said, it also means you have that much less to work with. Take advertisers, for example – not only is there a smaller pool to pick from, the same businesses are approached by every club and organization in town for donations or support.

And sometimes, they simply don’t need to advertise.

“In a small community, where there’s only, say, one big grocery store or one feed store, it’s not like they have to really compete against the other feed stores or grocery stores in the community,” Peterson said, “so they might be like, Oh, I don’t really need to advertise; Everyone knows I’m here.'”

Dying populations are also a concern, said Beermann with the Nebraska Press Association, though he’s seen a trend of people leaving larger cities and moving to the country.

Still, Muller said, it’s not going to be easy.

“Rural America is changing so much, and unless you can encourage the younger generation to subscribe to your paper in some form, whether it’s online or in your hands, those papers are going to suffer in the long run,” she said.

But despite the uncertainties, Muller said the dozens of newspaper publishers, owners and editors she spoke with during the year she spent researching her book “inspired” her. She spoke of the Gish family, who runs the Mountain Eagle in Eastern Kentucky, and whose offices were burned down by “coal mining thugs” but who kept putting out the paper anyway.

“Another editor I met in the panhandle of Texas,” Muller. “She had bullets fired through her window when she went after a corrupt D.A. And he eventually went to prison, but he made her life hell until then.

“The courage of these people,” she said, admiration evident in her voice. “So many of these editors work so hard week after week – they hardly ever take time off. Because they believe in what they’re doing. Anybody could get a job that’s more lucrative with their talent, but they stay.”

Meanwhile, back in Mullen, Peterson summed it up this way when asked what advice she’d give to someone looking at community journalism.

“Make sure you’re passionate about what you are going to be doing,” she said with a wry laugh, “because it’s lots of hard work.”

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