Between 2004 and 2019, according to a report, “The Expanding News Desert,” by Penelope Muse Abernathy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, nine newspapers in the state of Arkansas have closed. Add two more to that number. Newspapers in Stuttgart and Helena-West Helena recently shuttered their doors. During that same time period, newspaper circulation has dropped 25 percent. In the last few months, the only statewide newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, announced many counties in the state would begin receiving only the printed Sunday edition while the other daily editions would only be available digitally.
During that same timeframe, nationwide, 1,800 newspapers have closed. Almost 200 counties in the United States have no newspaper at all. In 1997, according the report by UNC, half of all weeklies in the county were independent. By 2018, fewer than one-third of the weeklies with circulation under 15,000 were independently owned. Between 1,300 and 1,400 communities, according to UNC, that had newspapers of their own in 2004 now have no news coverage at all. Of the newspapers remaining, 7,100 newspapers are more shells or ghosts of themselves due to staff cutbacks, causing the newspapers to drastically reduce their news coverage. Once stand-alone iconic weeklies have merged with larger dailies and gradually disappeared.
Arkansas now has only approximately 41 family-owned newspapers. In the past few years, Arkansas newspapers have been sold to larger corporations and locally and nationwide, those corporations are consolidating certain jobs, laying off local staff, and cutting the number of reporters on staff, thereby eliminating local coverage.
Change has been coming to the newspaper industry for a number of years. The news industry is struggling in a changing financial landscape. Stung by locally-owned businesses closing, more news delivered online and free and the significant drop in classified advertising, the newspaper industry has seen many journalists either leave the business or be laid off by newspapers, which have been forced to downsize their staffs in order to remain financially viable.
We all know the value of a newspaper upon society. The same report states that counties without newspaper create the most vulnerable, the poorest, least educated and most isolated communities.
The constant mantra of “fake news” is damaging to the industry. In addition, the unfair characterizations of the media by our elected officials is damaging to democracy. A newspaper’s responsibility has always been to shine a light on major issues that confront communities, giving residents the information they need in order to solve their problems. Furthermore, economists “call public service journalism a public good” because of the information conveyed through local community news stories serves to help guide decision-making by its readers. Just because you don’t agree with or like the news you read does not render it fake news. News organizations abide by heightened legal standards and cannot just make up news, which is the strategy used on social media.
At The Record, we do not create news, we cover it. The stories and editorials published weekly by the Record often help set the agenda for debate of important issues. The editorials help influence public policy and political decisions. Advertisements carried by our paper help drive local commerce. We let our readers know about community events. We are financial contributors to our community. Letters to the editor allow community members to be voices in their communities. The Record not only publishes stories important to its readers but oftentimes hosts debates and town hall meetings, giving citizens a chance to voice their concerns or challenge their public officials.
What would Madison County be like without local coverage? Sure, news about events could pass through word-of-mouth, but the information would be unedited and unverified. Our paper continues to act as a watchdog to hold our elected officials accountable. The Record verifies all the information published in our editions. The news industry is held to a higher standard of publication than those commenting on social media. If The Madison County Record were to cease to exist, so would the county’s only source of news and information about the county.
We are determined to not let that happen. The landscape is changing and The Record is changing with it. Not only have we not cut back on coverage, but our staff is working harder than ever to bring our readers more news. Under current ownership, we have more reporters on staff than at any time in the past. Most of our employees live locally and contribute directly to the Madison County economy by shopping local. Our employees have children in the school district. At the Arkansas Press Association annual meeting in July, The Record won a record 21 awards, including one for best website. We are expanding our digital footprint while maintaining our weekly print edition.
While we are committed to changing with the industry by offering more online, we are also committed to maintaining and distributing our print edition. We are committed to hosting town halls meetings and debates, to covering sports events often in places more than 100 miles away, and continuing to cover community events as well as local meetings while continuing to hold our elected officials accountable.
Next week, we hope you will read about what The Record has done and is doing to remain a viable and reliable source of county news.