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Folding newspapers threaten community life

The national newspaper crisis became a reality in North Dakota when three weeklies in the southwest corner of the state announced in December that they were folding.

Two of the three – the New England Herald and the Adams County Record – were rescued by the quick action of Jill Friesz, publisher of the Grant County News and Carson Press, who kept the presses running. The future of the Killdeer Herald is unknown to me.

Friesz plans to keep her two new papers serving their respective communities.

“We are the only ones that are providing the local news,” she said.

North Dakota weeklies have been retrenching for the last 70 years when population declines were reducing subscribers and advertisers. Not only have mail order companies been sucking up local business but local residents are going to nearby cities for lower prices and more choices.

Dailies have been raising subscriptions on slimmer papers. That is not very helpful marketing but it is unavoidable given the competitive circumstances in the information market.

Trained as a print journalist, I am more than disturbed by the decline of print, the principal route to an educated citizenry.

Prof. Penny Abernathy at the University of North Carolina reported that 3,800 newsroom jobs were lost in 2019 alone and 2,100 newspapers have disappeared since 2004.

The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Salt Lake City Tribune have gone nonprofit. In North Dakota, we already have 70-hours-a-week editors running less than profitable newspapers.

Folding weeklies is only one of the threats to community life. A number of towns have already been struggling to keep grocery stores, restaurants and post offices available as centers for interpersonal relationships.

The grocery store crisis has captured the attention of the North Dakota Legislature. It has an interim committee considering options for state help.

But as state Rep. Thomas Beadle of Fargo noted in a Stateline national report: “We’re much more free market than having government intervention.” (It was a short-lived binge that gave us the Bank of North Dakota and the State Mill and Elevator, both of which have become so prosperous they’re embarrassing.)

Beadle’s comments are not so much a declaration of personal ideology as a truth about North Dakota’s political culture which is a factor in all issues of state aid, including any consideration of state intervention in the newspaper industry.

It is unfortunate that every community in North Dakota can’t have a newspaper. The local newspaper provides so many benefits for hometown life that it becomes a cornerstone in community building.

So what is community? It is a place where people get to know and care for each other and everybody has a sense of belonging. To foster and build community life, newspapers are critical.

It is obvious that newspapers have a serious revenue problem with very little down the road that promises a brighter tomorrow. Without a change in streams of revenue, more newspapers are doomed to die. We may be stuck playing defense until all options are exhausted and the inevitable death occurs. But that day must be delayed as long as possible.

It may be necessary for newspapers to accept forms of innovative ownership that preserve the operation of newspapers as they are presently operated but offer new options. It seems that the only long-term solution will require the entire citizenry to have a dog in the fight.

Residents will have to recognize that newspapers build the kind of communities in which people want to live. Only financial support of the whole community in some form will work.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

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