Monday, June 2, 2014

A small newspaper bites the dust

After I was laid off after 33 years as a newspaper editor, I kept my eye open for newspaper jobs within a reasonable commute from Wilson, where my wife and I were settled and loved our home and neighborhood and friends. There were few newspaper jobs anywhere that didn't require relocating, but one sort of promising opportunity cropped up several months after my layoff.

The Daily Southerner in Tarboro, about 25 miles away, had an opening for a publisher. I had never been a publisher, but I had edited papers larger and smaller than the Daily Southerner and thought the business end of the news business couldn't be too difficult to learn. I had been exposed to a fair amount of the business end in a couple of my stops along the career ladder. So I applied and got an interview with a man who was a regional supervisor for the conglomerate that owned the paper.

I was not too keen on the job, partly because I thought the commute would grow old fast. And while there were things I liked about Tarboro, I thought it a little too clannish and small. It seemed like a town frozen in time, as more than a few small towns in eastern North Carolina are.

After a nice talk at his hotel and a tour of the newspaper's facilities (which were more comparable to the weekly papers where I had worked than to the small dailies) and a ride around Tarboro, we bade farewell and I drove home, thinking that if I were offered the job, I'd have to take it, despite seeing all the frustrations I'd surely face. Among the revelations in the interview was the fact that the Daily Southerner was almost entirely dependent upon a printing contract with a regional supermarket. That contract provided most of the paper's revenue.

I was not upset when the regional corporate guy called and said they'd offered the publisher job to an applicant with more business experience than I had.

The news last week that the Daily Southerner is folding reminded me of my brush with a dead end, and I was glad once again that my last shot at a newspaper job had gone out the window five years ago. Not long thereafter, I took a job with a nonprofit and put newspapering behind me.

But this news saddened me because the Daily Southerner was not a bad little paper. It was underfunded with a lack of advertising and a slender news hole with few stories that were not about the routine or the mundane. With stronger editing and more resources, it could have survived in a town as small and poor as Tarboro.

This is not an unusual event. Small newspapers are closing all over the country. Advertising is migrating to the web, and the promises and reassurances newspaper ad salesmen and publishers have offered for years are no longer trusted. The public is turning away from traditional news about local government, crime, education and business and toward entertainment as news or obsessions as news. Small dailies can't compete against CNN's obsession with the Malaysian airliner or Justin Bieber's latest misbehavior. Public interest in issues that used to define "the public interest" has waned, and with it has waned readership about local issues. And even less-sophisticated advertisers know the potential of web advertising targeting individuals based on their interests revealed in web searches, demographics and other data.

When small papers die, it's almost always a financial problem that strangled the enterprise, but the real tragedy is the vacuum left for discussion of local issues and the reporting of important issues in the community. Some enterprising website might arise to cover Tarboro's news, but these websites have not been able to make enough money to stay afloat for long. Tarboro will be one more news desert, where things happen, but nobody knows, and no one lifts the curtain to see what's going on out of public view.

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