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ND newspapers didn’t need a pandemic

After losing three weeklies and experiencing painful belt-tightening all across the industry, North Dakota didn’t need a pandemic to push local newspapers closer to the brink.

Subscribers have been complaining loudly about the constant cutbacks – smaller papers, less news, diminished features and less local coverage. There is no joy in the editor’s office, either.

Newspapers have been hemorrhaging advertising dollars for decades as new media came in to share the advertising budgets of main streets. That money is not coming back.

Fewer Subscribers

With a few exceptions, counties across the state have been losing population. And as people disappear from the farms and small towns, there are fewer subscribers to sustain the local papers.

While the main revenue streams have been drying up, the cost of ink, paper and labor have been increasing, catching papers in a paralyzing squeeze. The outlook is not bigger and better; it is all about survival.

Then the coronavirus showed up, closing main street retailers, who no longer had reason to continue newspaper advertising. Subscriptions by themselves are not enough to carry a paper through weeks of advertising drought.

Months Without Advertising

The latest predictions for the pandemic are that it may be around for another year or two. How many papers can survive that long without advertising dollars?

While government emergency aid has been floating around for small business, the local newspapers are not eligible because they are newspapers. It has long been a tradition to protect the integrity of newspapers from the groping hand of political influence.

That is why it was somewhat surprising to find that CEO Dean Ridings of America’s Newspapers, a consortium of 1,500 newspapers founded last fall, was urging Congress to include newspapers in the government’s Payroll Protection Program.

Government Aid?

Trained in the ethics of journalism in an undergraduate major, I can understand why the old time traditionalists will have a difficult time with the suggestion of accepting government help. But the world is changing.

Some defenders of print newspapers argue the economic benefits of having local newspapers. Whether we like it or not, North Dakota is faced with losing more newspapers if we argue economics. We have to think beyond dollars and consider social and community value as something worth investment.

To save our newspapers, we may have to break down the wall that has separated government and newspapers through the decades.

Commit the Community

It is heresy to advocate something like a newspaper-community business partnership in which the newspapers remain an independent business that is subsidized in the city or county budget.

We have seen the preservation of various local businesses when deep pockets get together and fund the grocery store, or locker plant, or hardware. Many of these die after a while because the community as a whole has no obvious stake in the outcome.

It isn’t until everyone in the community understands that it is now their grocery store that they will think twice about running 50 miles to shop. We can’t have the benefits of small community life without supporting the community institutions.

While struggling to save newspapers, and other local community engines, some may decide that the forces of change will eventually swallow the state like a 1930s dust storm. They just roll over, ready to accept their fate.

But that is the nature of the human existence. Change is inevitable. We need to protect the best of the present as long as we can.

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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