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Lloyd Omdahl: Cities with schools need a newspaper

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The dramatic decline of the newspaper industry has been continuing as community newspapers across the country have been folding left and right.

Since 2005, 2,200 local newspapers across America have been forced to close their doors. Not only have the rural areas lost a lot of subscribers, but the electronic media have gobbled up a great share of the advertising dollar.

Publishing costs have gone up, and many small communities no longer have local businesses to buy advertising. The only thing saving many North Dakota papers is the 60-hour week put in by editors who believe in their contribution to society.

In North Dakota, Langdon (population 1,909) has been the latest victim, though another paper is taking its place. But in the past couple of years, we also lost papers in Mott, Killdeer, New England, Hettinger and Walhalla. There are communities with smaller populations that are printing newspapers.

The 2020 census reported the populations of various towns losing papers: Mott, 653 residents; Killdeer, 939; Walhalla, 893. All of these people need newspapers.

Editors have been ingenious at finding ways to survive. They are having their papers printed in other plants; they are consolidating publications; some are relying more heavily on “boilerplate” editorials.

Meanwhile, Steve Andrist, former executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, is co-chair of an initiative to create more in-state material for local papers. 

Several months ago, I proposed that the city treasuries pick up some of the publishing costs. That raised the eyebrows of editors across the state who have subscribed to the policy of remaining independent from government influence.

Having majored in journalism in my undergraduate years, I understand their professional concerns. It is true that they need to be cautious. Every town has a parochial mind or two who can influence the budgeting process, and editors could be in for an unpleasant environment when these parochials decide to “get” the editor.

But there are instances in which local governments have become concerned over the loss of newspapers. A New York assemblywoman has sponsored a bill to offer tax credits to offset the cost of reporters and a subsidy for subscribers.

Carrie Woerner, arguing for her bill, said that “whether small towns or big cities, New Yorkers need local journalism to reliably monitor and report uniquely local concerns from school board policy and the actions of municipal boards to the volunteer organizations and activities that enrich our lives.”

What she is saying applies to North Dakota as well. She is talking about the common good, and if a newspaper is serving the common good, then the community has a responsibility to nurture the common good.

Most of the nostalgics like to think of the days when their hometowns had a healthy sense of community. While it is not possible to retreat to earlier days, it seems that communities ought to preserve what is left, and find new ways to build a sense of place and belonging.

Many of our communities are surrendering their sense of community without a fight. To conduct this fight, perhaps newspapers may have to become reoriented to the changing demographics and economics by accepting different ways of financing.

Much of our community life revolves around the local school. Towns without newspapers still have young people competing in a full array of sports and extracurricular activities. For them, school days leave indelible memories, supported by clippings of their feats from the local newspaper -- if there is one. Without the paper, they are left unsung.

Every city with a school has youngsters eager to excel and to be encouraged. The local newspaper gives enduring evidence of their efforts. Every town with a school needs a newspaper.

Lloyd Omdahl is a political scientist and former North Dakota Democratic lieutenant governor. 


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