PAXTON – Ford County has lost a weekly newspaper. When the Ford County Record closed last month, it joined more than 21-hundred other American newspapers that have shut down since 2005. But the Ford County Chronicle, a new paper launched just last year, still serves Ford County, providing a test of whether residents of the rural central Illinois county still want to pay for local journalism.
One of those residents is Dave Buhr, who has lived all his life in Paxton, Ford County’s largest town, and the county seat. He remembers the Ford County Record when it was the Paxton Record, a more prosperous newspaper that even published a daily edition.
“The Paxton Record, they actually did a pretty good job through most of the time that I was there, did a good job with local news,” said Buhr. “It was a good media (outlet) to get local news and information.”
But the Record, which ended its daily edition in 2007, struggled to survive. As 2019 came to a close, the newspaper’s new owners, Community Media Group, or CMG, laid off sports editor Andrew Rosten in a cost-cutting move. News editor Will Brumleve left the paper too, and together, they started their own weekly, the Ford County Chronicle, with seed money from Rosten’s GoFundMePage and Brumleve’s brother, a software engineer. The Chronicle started online at the beginning of 2020, and launched its print edition in mid-year. Published circulation figures give the Chronicle a print run of 1,000 copies per issue, while the Ford County Record had a circulation of over 3,000, according to the publisher’s website.
Brumleve said he felt Rosten got a raw deal from Ford County Record’s new owners. And looking at the Record since he left, he didn’t think those owners shared his and Rosten’s commitment to local coverage.
“Both of us live in Paxton,” said Brumleve. “And we were like, our community deserves the news. We thought maybe we could make enough money on our website selling ads that we could at least make it worth our time.”
When you laid out their issues side by side, the CMG-owned Ford County Record, tended to have the higher page count. But the new Ford County Chronicle has more local news and sports coverage of Ford County (nearly all of it written by Brumleve and Rosten, with help from part-time freelance writers known as stringers). The Record’s Ford County news was supplemented by out-of-town stories from CMG sister newspapers in eastern Illinois and western Indiana.
Paul Barrett is the publisher at CMG’s Champaign Multimedia Group division, which includes the daily Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette , three radio stations, the IlliniHQ sports website, and various weekly newspapers. He disclosed his company’s intention to stop publishing the Record in a mid-September interview. The last print edition of the Record to appear on newsstands was dated September 16, and the newspaper’s website was closed down in October, ending a newspaper that had published its first issue in 1865.
Barrett does not think the Ford County Chronicle played a major role in the Ford County Record’s decline. He says the Record was already ailing when they acquired it along with the News-Gazette, which he says was also in trouble. He says the News-Gazette is doing better now, and another sister newspaper, the Piatt County Journal-Republican, has made a good recovery with a little help. Barrett says the Journal-Republican is an example of a newspaper that succeeds in attracting the support of a local community.
“And there are others,” said Barrett, citing the Ford County Record, “where, for whatever reason, the economic position of the community, whatever the history of that community with that newspaper is, the community just simply doesn’t doesn’t support the newspaper, either in subscriptions or in advertising dollars.”
The Ford County Record is not the only weekly connected to the News-Gazette to be closed down. CMG’s Champaign Multimedia Group closed down the Mahomet Citizen and Rantoul Press in 2020. And prior to their acquisition by CMG, the News-Gazette closed down other weekly newspapers, including the LeRoy-Farmer City Press in 2017 and the County Star and the Leader, two newspapers serving rural Champaign County, in 2018.
To make the Ford County Chronicle a success, Brumleve and Rosten must win back former readers who have gotten out of the newspaper habit. That includes Dave Buhr. After the Ford County Record ended its daily edition and changed owners, Buhr says he found himself going increasingly online for news. Now he finds most of his news through Facebook, sent to him by friends, or offered to him by the Facebook algorithm. Buhr isn’t satisfied with what he gets.
“I’m certain that there’s things that are going on, that I would be interested in, that I have no idea is happening, because it’s algorithmed out,” said Buhr. “Or I just scan past it, and it looked like something that would just be nothing but controversy and arguments.”
Other challenges facing the Ford County Chronicle include Ford County’s declining population. Penelope Muse Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, says one of the vital ingredients for newspapers to succeed today is to be in a market where the population and economy are growing.
“If you’re in a market that has average to above average, either economic growth or population growth prospects, that’s a good thing,” said Abernathy. “Because there is a good notion that you could develop a for-profit or nonprofit or some kind of hybrid model, where you can either get people to pay more, or you can attract businesses, because businesses basically want to go where people can afford to buy their goods.”
But Ford County’s population peaked in 1900, when the U.S. Census reported its population at 18,359. While there were gains in the 1940s and ’50s, Ford County’s population has been on the decline otherwise, and was at 13,534 in 2020.
Abernathy says another thing that can help local newspapers succeed is a publisher or owner that can listen and respond to the needs and expectations of residents and businesses in their community. She says centrally managed newspaper chains can find it hard to be flexible and responsive to a small, local market.
Champaign Multimedia Group publisher Paul Barrett concurs. He says he wishes the new Ford County Chronicle well. And he thinks that ultimately, small-town weeklies may have the best chance of success with hands-on local owners.
“If there is home-grown folks owning and running and dedicating their lives and their livelihood to these small-town newspapers, I think that’s the best opportunity for survival, rather than have big companies like us or the Gannetts of the world own these small little papers,” Barrett said.
Meanwhile, Will Brumleve and Andrew Rosten face another challenge at the Ford County Chronicle: inexperience. While they have years of experience as reporters and editors, the business side of running newspapers is new to them. Brumleve says that has led to costly mistakes, like a delay in getting a second-class postal permit.
The Chronicle’s most recent course correction is an increase in its subscription rate, announced in mid-September. Brumleve says the old rates didn’t cover the cost of printing and mailing the newspaper.
Meanwhile, the Ford County Chronicle recently qualified to be a member of the Illinois Press Association, and to sign up for a program putting it in line to receive legal advertising. Brumleve says the resulting increase in revenue is allowing he and Rosten to pay themselves a salary for the first time since the newspaper was launched in 2020.
This story is part of Illinois Newsroom’s Who’s In Charge Of The News, a series focusing on news deserts, news ownership and news literacy in Illinois.
(NOTE: This story was revised to include additional detail. — JM 10/24/21)