RANTOUL – The Wednesday, Sept. 30 edition of the Rantoul Press is the last one. The weekly paper and its website are shutting down, ending a relationship with the town in northern Champaign County that dates back to the mid-1870s.
Rantoul’s population was in the hundreds when the Rantoul Press opened as the town’s first newspaper, originally called the Rantoul News. Over the years, the paper reported on Rantoul, as its population grew to 25,000 under the impact of the Chanute Air Force. And the Rantoul Press chronicled the town’s efforts to recover after the base closed in the 1990s.
Jim Cheek is president of the Rantoul Historical Society, which operates a museum devoted to local history at 1040 Klein Avenue. The Society is currently open by appointment only, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cheek says the Society has a good run of the paper’s back issues in their archives.
“It was there at the turn of the century, in 1901, Rantoul had what we call the Great Fire,” says the 71-year-old Cheek, who was born and raised in Rantoul. “And it burned the whole downtown area, all the businesses, every one of them burned down, including the building that the Press was in, which was a one room, small (office), big enough for two people and a printing press. And as a matter of fact, we have that equipment that was in the original fire in the museum now. And we do have, on file, paper archives from 1913. up until, well, until they go out of business this week.”
Cheek says the Rantoul Press provided a portrait of life over the years, not only in Rantoul, but in the rest of northern Champaign County.
“The Press kind of gave light and credit to all the smaller towns around us, as well as the news here in town,” says Cheek, “birth, death, anniversaries, weddings, car wrecks, robberies. But they also had a lot of articles in the earlier papers about how people came to Rantoul in large numbers to attend the yearly horse show and the fall festivals and stuff like that. We even have an article that shows our Main Street full of horse-and-buggies that was taken by the Press back in in the day. And we had about 100,000 people from a three-state area come here for the big horse show hoopla, which I thought was kind of amazing. I didn’t know they had 100,000 people in this area back during then.”
Dave Hinton has been the editor of the Rantoul Press since 2006. Hinton, who grew up near Mansfield, came to the Rantoul Press after several years with the Daily Record in Paxton, the ancestor of today’s Ford County Record. Hinton said in doing so, he left the more hectic schedule of a daily paper, but he also became immersed in the life of a larger community.
“It was good,” says Hinton. “I slowly got to know people. And Rantoul is kind of a unique town, in that it’s kind of a rural setting with part of a metropolitan population. So it was a little different for a farm boy to come to, but not too much. Not too dramatic.”
Hinton says one of his strongest memories with the paper is how Rantoul residents turned out for the funeral of Christopher Rudzinsky. The Army sergeant from Rantoul was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, at the age of 28. (Here’s a link to Hinton’s coverage of the funeral, as archived in the News-Gazette).
“They had a ceremony here and I talked to his widow,” says Hinton. “And that was very powerful. And they brought him into town. They had the Patriot Guards coming, and Rantoul is a very patriotic town and they had people lined up for blocks and blocks and blocks, to welcome his body into town.”
But Hinton came to the Rantoul Press just as the growth of online and digital media was starting to undermine the paper’s advertising base. And Hinton notes that the Press was especially dependent on its advertisers.
“The Press was kind of unique in that, back in the ’50s, they decided to go to an all free paper,” says Hinton. “So everybody got one. I think the reason they did that was you could tell the advertisers, hey, everybody’s getting this paper. But with social media and everything else, it got more difficult to find advertisers. So that’s what drives the newspaper business. It’s not the cost of a subscription. That just basically covers the cost of getting the paper out. Where you make your money is through retail or the big block ads. And when you have car dealers that no longer advertise, and don’t have grocery stores that advertise as much, it has an impact.”
An article in the Rantoul Press announcing its closing notes the newspaper had a circulation of nearly 13,000 in the 1970s. But the final issue of the newspaper is going out to fewer than 600 subscribers.
The Champaign News-Gazette bought the Rantoul Press in 2004, and Community Media Group acquired the weekly when it bought the News-Gazette last year. Hinton says he will continue to cover Rantoul area news, for the the News-Gazette’s “Our County” section, where he edits.