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When Newspapers Abandon A City
By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.
Traveling around the country, it is easy to get angry about how a lot of the newspaper industry is blighting its future – and selling out its communities – for short-term profits.
Where I live on the outskirts of Washington, same-day home delivery of good newspapers is taken for granted.
The Washington Post has set a national standard by continuing to give its readers a hefty newshole and the work of a full staff throughout the recession; its main suburban challengers, which haven't, seem to be sliding toward oblivion.
Four more dailies come to our doorstep and our mailbox, and others come home in a briefcase. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today are marvelous in combination. Each one knows what it is doing and refuses to bend with every industry fad. The Baltimore Sun is bumping through a rough time of staff merger, new zoning and other shifts in its foundation; it, too, has always marched to a different drummer, and I'm keeping my fingers crossed with hope for what it will be when it settles down.
With that daily fare, no wonder I get hungry on the road. But I know what small and middle-sized papers in any territory can be and do. My paychecks have come from papers with circulations in the neighborhood of 1,200, 2,600, 18,000, 170,000, 250,000 and 650,000.
I know, above all about journalism, that you don't have to be big to be good. WJR regularly celebrates the yeast and the zest, as well as the general quality, of choice journalism outside the biggest arenas.
But now to Blytheville, Arkansas, where this spoiled media consumer recently spent a few days. It is an agribusiness center of 24,000, the largest city in a county of about 60,000 on the Mississippi River, a little more than an hour's drive north of Memphis.
That's not a bad location for a daily newspaper. But the Courier News of Blytheville has a circulation of under 9,000. It is easy to see why.
This is just a minimim-effort advertising vehicle that systematically takes money out of the community and the state of Arkansas without putting much in: much news, much informed commentary, much competence. It is a minimum-expense, minimum-expansion, minimum-quality repository, enough to hold onto the franchise, not unlike the other 39 dailies owned by Roy H. Park's company of Ithaca, New York.
If you live in Blytheville you also may want to subscribe to the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of Little Rock. Neither pays much attention to this county. The Commercial Appeal once did; it covered a tri-state area beyond the Memphis suburbs as if it truly were the voice of the Midsouth, and people all around regarded it as their newspaper.
But non-suburban, non-metropolitan circulation is not valued these days.
So there is Blytheville in Mississippi County, Arkansas, not a big place, but a substantial one, with a complex and interesting history and a changing cultural mix, and with who-knows-what kind of future.
It is like hundreds of other places throughout the country that have been largely abandoned by newspapers. Forget about the other reasons for loss of household penetration. If you don't try for it, you lose it. And you ought to eventually lose the franchise. l