Column – As newspapers vanish, subscribe and keep this one strong
Published 8:23 pm Tuesday, August 22, 2023
I had never heard of The Welch News, located in the West Virginia town whose name it bore, until I read, recently, of the paper’s demise. The Associated Press published an obituary celebrating the life and mourning the death of the tiny publication.
Welch, for those unfamiliar with West Virginia, as am I, is located in McDowell County, which is northwest of Bluefield, in the heart of West Virginia coal country. In fact, there was a time in the mid-20th century when McDowell was a world leader in coal production. Back then, the county boasted 100,000 residents. Today, its population is 19,000, about 2,000 of them living in the county seat of Welch. And the decline, it seems, continues.
It would be easy, perhaps even logical, to characterize the demise of the Welch News as a natural extension of the decline of the county it served. Clearly the paper’s fortunes did, indeed, run abreast of the county’s.
That, however, fails to capture the plight of the Welch paper as one among thousands across the nation that were publishing a mere 20 years ago, and no longer are. According to a study conducted by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, the United States is losing its newspapers at a staggering rate of two per week. During the years since 2005, more than 2,500 newspaper voices have been silenced, according to the work done by Medill. The Welch News is now one among them.
During roughly the same time period, the number of newsroom jobs across the country declined 25%. Much of that loss has been in community newspapers, and it goes to the heart of the problem, which is not enough working journalists to deliver local news to the residents of their communities.
Newspaper closures hit daily newspapers first and hardest, and a lot of local publishers — me among them, I’m embarrassed to say — thought as late as 15 or 16 years ago that small community newspapers, which served niche markets, would continue to be insulated somewhat from the cataclysmic decline occurring all around them.
Boy, were we wrong. Although daily papers have suffered catastrophic declines in circulation and revenue, a significant number of them have survived by cutting the number of days they publish and reducing staff size.
Many small weeklies, such as the Welch News, haven’t had the luxury of scale that allows drastic cuts. When there are only one or two reporters on a staff, it’s pretty hard to make a 60% news cost reduction. So, papers like The Welch News have found themselves in the crosshairs of the decline, and they represent the largest percentage of those that have closed.
Thus, during the past decade, the phrase “news desert” has joined “food desert” as a description of rural communities starved for the sustenance that a grocery store can provide and the information that a local newspaper offers. It’s estimated that 70 million Americans live in communities where there is no local newspaper. About 7% of all the nation’s counties no longer have a local paper.
Residents of those communities, including McDowell County, can no longer turn to their local paper to find school news, or to follow zoning issues. There’s no one to watch for local government corruption, to report on qualifications of candidates for office, or new businesses opening on Main Street. There’s no established clearinghouse for community activities, such as a community calendar.
Some communities, including ours, are extraordinarily fortunate in that they continue to have a strong community newspaper. Unlike McDowell County, Isle of Wight still has a professionally written and edited newspaper. The question is, can we keep it? If Publisher Steve Stewart has his way, the answer will be a resounding “yes.” He’s in it for the long haul and has no plans to leave.
The best way to ensure that The Smithfield Times remains viable for the next couple of decades, though, is for most every household in Isle of Wight and Surry to subscribe. Paper version, electronic version — it doesn’t matter. Individual subscriptions won’t keep the doors of any paper open, but they serve as a vote of confidence that is vital for the survival of this and every newspaper across America.
If you’re reading this, of course, you’re already a Smithfield Times reader, but I’d be willing to bet a lot of your neighbors, even family members, aren’t. Why not mention the job that Steve and his crew are doing for the community every week and suggest that those non-subscribers sign up?
We have an obligation to ourselves as a community — I view it as a sacred obligation — to avoid allowing what happened to The Welch News to happen here. The future of community papers has a direct and positive effect on the communities they serve, and every subscription reinforces that role.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.