This column is titled “Into the Issues” because it began as an effort to help community
newspapers explore issues that affected their communities, sometimes from afar. It has evolved to
include editorial issues that face community papers. But for an increasing number of papers, the main
issue is on the business side: How can they sustain themselves when their revenue is being eroded by
digital media, online shopping, big-box stores that don’t advertise, and in many rural communities,
Answers to money questions are the province of other columnists with more business-side
experience, but this column stands for this proposition: Community newspapers will not be sustainable
unless they are indispensable servants of their audiences – offering the news, information and
leadership that communities need. That is what distinguishes them from other forms of media and
makes them worth reading – and buying.
Those other forms, especially social media and partisan or ideological media, appeal to many
people in a fractured media environment where audiences gravitate to information that entertains and
validates them, rather than news and opinion that challenge their beliefs. And we live in an era where
misinformation has become part of national political strategies and business models – which have been
so effective that national political divisions are now causing tension and fractures at the local level.
That became clear to me last June as I did research for a book chapter on the effect of Donald
Trump on rural communities and their newspapers. I sent an email to the listserv I co-manage for the
International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, advancing two propositions: (1) Trump makes you
be for or against him, and you get defined that way, creating divisions in families, churches, businesses,
and other organizations. It’s community-corrosive, not community-building. (2) People are less
interested in local news now because Trump has made national news more compelling, and local news
media are losing out in the “attention economy” created by the tsunami of online information and their
reliance on social media.
I received a dozen replies, none of which disputed either proposition. And I found that some
papers had adjusted to new realities. Kris O’Leary, publisher of four weekly newspapers in central
Wisconsin, said she ordered her editors to stop covering and commenting on national issues after the
January 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol.
Kris said on the ISWNE listserv, “I got tired of the paper being part of the problem with people
treating each other with a lack of respect. I realized we weren’t going to change anyone’s mind and it
wasn’t worth my mental health and the Star’s to be caught in the middle of this thing. . . . Our sales
people were facing backlash, and it wasn’t fun running a paper and explaining every week why freedom
of speech didn’t give them freedom to say whatever the wanted in the paper. I still operate under libel
and defamation rules. . . . We had a few hotheads that screamed like hell about their freedoms being
taken away, but most people were relieved not to have to read the letters and editorials on national
That’s not the approach of Bill Tubbs, publisher of The North Scott Press in Eldridge, Iowa. While
he said people in his community are increasingly identified as pro- or anti-Trump, and that “has
permeated many things in community life . . . You can’t escape national politics in the community if you
have your core values and principles.” He added that it can be hard to define what’s a national issue:
“Agriculture is foundational in Iowa,” so newspapers there have an obligation to cover issues such as
international trade and farm subsidies. To that, I would add energy (such as ethanol subsidies)
and environmental regulations.
Former NNA president Reed Anfinson of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, Minn., a
left-leaning editor in a county Trump won almost 2-1, told me that he’s being more cautious.
“We’ve lost subscribers and advertising because of the intolerance pervading society today,” he
said. “In these fragile financial times, it has me weighing the political cartoons I will publish. As I write, it
has me being more thoughtful in how I word my columns. That is not all bad, but it makes me wonder
sometimes if I am pulling my punches. I still write about national topics because they are talked about
by my readers. However, I try to ensure the vast majority of what I publish focuses on local issues.”
A few months later, Reed was the focus of an Associated Press story about national divisions
becoming local, quoting one of his neighbors (a Lutheran pastor!) as accusing the paper of lying by not
reporting what the pastor believed but is not true: that many people in Swift County have been killed by
That reminded me of how Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser who has been charged with
contempt of Congress for not cooperating in the investigation of the Capitol assault, defined his and
Trump’s strategy this way in 2018: “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media, and
the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” Translation: “The enemy is the truth, so we
flood the zone with lies.”
Your zone is your community. Please don’t let it be flooded with lies and misinformation. Many
Americans have lost sight of the truth, but I think more of them expect newspapers to stand up for it.
Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier-Journal
and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is extension journalism professor at
the University of Kentucky and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which
publishes The Rural Blog at http://irjci.blogspot.com.