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The Gutting Of Our Rural Press

We recently received a call about a small town in western Minnesota proceeding with a city infrastructure plan for an extensive sewer, water, and street project. We were told there was no way that the limited tax base in the community can bear the project’s expense and that default is likely after a few years.

Who is going to examine that levy and its impact on taxpayers? It is crucial they know the consequences – the taxpayers will have to pay the bill no matter how burdensome over the years. The debt doesn’t go away.

When school boards look to raise funds to fund education in a school district or construct new buildings to replace aging, inefficient structures, they go to the taxpayers for a levy. Who examines whether that levy is necessary or excessive? Who reports on the impact of the levy on homeowners, business owners, and the farming community? 

If there is no newspaper, what you get is the school district putting out an educational YouTube video about the proposal along with initiating a Facebook information campaign. While much of the production is informative, representatives of the school district can’t help but put a positive spin on it. You also get the opponents to the levy putting out their arguments- and again, some of what they provide is informational, but other arguments are exaggerated or misleading.

It is the newspapers responsibility to assess the information of both sides and give citizens a balanced story  – that is if there is still a newspaper in the community and  if it has the staff to report on it.

We recently attended a two-day meeting in Granite Falls. While there, we heard that the local newspaper no longer covers the city council, school board, or county board. There is now very little local government reporting. We found this news appalling but not entirely unexpected.

While many agree that the internet has done the most damage to newspapers over the past couple of decades, it has a close contender for that unwelcome distinction – corporate ownership of newspapers. It is ownership that is far removed from rural America with the singular goal of feeding dividends to investors. It is not interested in being a valuable member of the communities they supposedly serve. It is ownership that doesn’t care about an informed citizenry.

The Granite Falls Tribune, Montevideo American-News, and Redwood Falls Gazette are owned by Gatehouse, which bought Gannett, forming the largest newspaper company in America. The company took the better-known name of Gannett, which is also the owner of USA Today. Gannett’s parent company is News Media Investment Group, which is owned by private equity firm Fortress Investment Group. Fortress is owned by the Japanese conglomerate Softbank.

To improve profitability for its owners, Gannett announced it would be targeting operational “inefficiencies.” Since employees are the biggest cost of operations, they are the source of “inefficiencies” that need to be reduced to improve corporate profits. Each day, revenues are swept from community newspaper accounts to investor accounts on the East Coast.

There is one editor for the three newspapers, whereas there used to be one for each community. There isn’t enough staff to do the primary function of a community newspaper as a watchdog of local government.

At the time of Gatehouse’s purchase of Gannett, MinnPost, a Twin Cities online news organization, interviewed Mark Neuzil, chair of the journalism program at the University of St. Thomas, about the merger. He said he expected the company’s newspapers in Minnesota to “feel the pinch” of Gannett’s efforts to increase profits.

“My advice to them would be to not speed up the death spiral. Cost-cutting turns off readers and discourages advertisers,” Neuzil says.

The farther a corporation’s headquarters is from rural America, the less its people know about the vital importance of community newspapers to an informed local electorate and socially connected community. We are meaningless except as a source of revenue.

Please don’t confuse the failings of the newspapers to cover their communities with the people working at them. They are good, dedicated employees doing their best with what time and resources they have. Unfortunately, they don’t have enough of either to adequately do their jobs for their communities and preserve democracy. The last part of that statement may sound like an exaggeration; it isn’t. How does a representative democracy function when its citizens are ignorant of the actions of their governments?

Most Americans believe the press plays an essential watchdog role in examining and reporting on government actions. They see us holding elected officials accountable for their actions. They see us looking closely at government spending to ensure those we choose to represent us aren’t violating that trust and enriching themselves.

Yet, local governments also see us as a partner essential to informing the public about important projects it is pursuing and their efforts to improve their communities, school districts, and counties. 

One person we talked with in Granite Falls this past week suggested that the city might want to consider hiring someone to get the news out about its efforts to improve workforce housing, child care availability and the cultural attractiveness of the community.

We understood the sentiment but can’t support the idea of the government being the source of news for citizens. It has a vested interest in slanting stories to its benefit. There is an inherent conflict of interest. Yet, around the country governments are hiring public information officers to get their stories out to the public.

Is this the future of news in rural America? While we can’t afford to support our independent community newspapers, we spend public dollars hiring government officials to write the news? Will we be left with the rumors, opinions, lies, and lightweight fluff of Facebook for our news?

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