In some towns, brand new publications have sprung up to fill the void.
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The Burlington Beacon
Jeff Abell is a man of many hats at The Burlington Beacon.
“I am the owner, publisher, general manager, ad director,” he said with a laugh. “We all wear multiple hats because we’re a small staff.”
He also delivered the paper for a while, but now The Burlington Beacon has shifted to postal delivery.
Abell is originally from northern Illinois. He moved to Burlington to work for The Hawk Eye, which bills itself as Iowa’s oldest newspaper. It dates back to 1837, when it was known as The Wisconsin Territorial Gazette and Burlington Advertiser.
Abell said he spent 13 years with The Hawk Eye, then took a buyout in 2017 after GateHouse Media acquired the paper.
GateHouse purchased Gannett a couple years later. However, the merged company operates under the Gannett banner. Shortly after the merger, Gannett started making deeper cuts to newsroom staffs.
Abell said he has a few friends who still work at The Hawk Eye, but added the local staff has been whittled down to almost nothing and the newspaper is no longer what it once was.
“It was a regional powerhouse until the corporation went in there and just started hacking everything,” he said.
Abell said he opened a comic and gaming shop in early 2018. However, he found he missed journalism, and felt there was a need for local news in Burlington.
So he started The Burlington Beacon late in 2018.
He said initially it was available only on Facebook, giving him a chance to gauge interest in the start-up publication.
“Our enthusiasm on Facebook was really high. We’re up to almost 10,000 followers now. From there we started a website.”
Now they also print a weekly edition. And Abell said the newspaper recently moved out of the comic and gaming shop and into its own space 1604 Mount Pleasant Street.
Abell said The Beacon provides local accountability. He said people come into the office to discuss what’s happening. He said you don’t get that face-to-face interaction with a corporation.
“You get a call center in the Philippines or India or another state. There is no local accountability now for these type of corporate owned newspapers.”
Abell said The Beacon is turning a profit, though he cautioned that running a local newspaper is not a get-rich quick scheme.
“I don’t think anyone is saying, ‘Whoa, this is a prospect where we’re all going to get rich on.’ What we’re trying to do is build a paper that’s going to last for years to come.”
And, he said, one that pays a living wage. He believes The Burlington Beacon is on the right trajectory, with a circulation of 1,100 and growing every week.
The staff includes Abell, his wife, a community editor, a graphic designer, freelancers, and an intern.
The Community News Brief
Lynne Campbell is the Macomb-based paper’s owner, publisher, ad sales person, editor, reporter – like Abell, she’s a jack of all trades.
“As a small business owner and in this field, you kind of have to cover all of it, a little bit of everything,” she said.
Early this century, The Community News Brief was a free daily flier distributed at local restaurants and businesses. It was part of The Macomb Eagle, but GateHouse dropped the publication when it bought the Eagle and folded it into The McDonough County Voice.
Campbell said she brought The Community News Brief back to life when she returned to Macomb in 2017 after working as a regional publisher for GateHouse in southern Illinois.
Campbell said she initially distributed the paper as a flier three times a week, but when the pandemic prevented restaurants from hosting customers early in 2020, she put it on Facebook and then started doing email subscriptions.
She said the response was so strong that she now sends an email copy to subscribers on Mondays and Wednesdays and sends them a print edition through the postal service on Fridays.
Campbell said corporations want to fill their papers with state and national news, whereas she wants to do news that focuses on the local.
“I know they used to call it chicken noodle supper news. People like that,” she said. “There’s always been a disconnect for corporate papers to understand what a community newspaper should be and what the content should be.”
She said the content drives the subscriptions and the subscriptions drive the ad revenue. She said it all ties together.
The paper operates out of her store, Community News and Market, on the east side of Macomb’s courthouse square. The store sells vintage and antique items plus works by local artists.
Campbell said she knows many people might think newspapers are antiquated and relics of the past. But she believes they’re dead only in the sense of big corporations and what they’ve done to papers in smaller communities.
“We’re going to be around and I think it’s going to be a trend that you see that weekly papers are going to be popping up, they’re locally owned, and I really strongly feel that there’s a need for it.”
Campbell thinks a combination of online and print editions can work for local newspapers. She said as evidence, people come into her shop every week and ask to subscribe to the paper for its mix of human interest stories and news about local government and organizations.
In addition to Campbell, the paper has an office manager, a couple graphic designers, and she said she gets some help on selling ads. Stevens Publishing in Astoria prints the paper. Campbell called the publishing company a “ma and pa, family owned business.”
Trying times for the newspaper industry
Dr. Peter Fallon, Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago, concurred with a point made by Campbell.
He said as corporations gobble up local papers, the news is becoming homogenized as local content dwindles. He said communities ultimately pay the price.
“They are probably feeling a little disenfranchised. They’re probably feeling like they don’t have someone who’s speaking for them anymore,” Fallon said.
Fallon said this deprives the audience of the information that once received.
He is not optimistic about the future of newspapers in small markets.
“I think the outlook remains as bad for smaller newspapers in smaller markets – as bad or worse than it was 10 or 15 years ago.”
Fallon said it’s important for smaller newspapers to maintain an online presence to expand their coverage. He said the biggest newspapers are making it online, but it’s still a challenge for smaller news outlets.
The pandemic has also made it challenging for smaller newsrooms to survive.
The Poynter Institute, which bills itself as the world’s most influential school for journalists, reported in November, 2021 that more than 100 local newsrooms closed since the pandemic began in early 2020.
That continues a trend seen through much of this century, Poynter reported about 1,800 newspaper in the U.S. have closed since 2004.
Rich Egger is the News Director at TriStates Public Radio in Macomb.