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Grassroot's Journalism

People in Kansas and across this country, depend on strong community journalism to keep them informed and connected to one another. In spite of all the inroads with social media, folks who live in rural communities across Kansas still rely on home-town newspapers.

Just like the local grocery, school or courthouse, rural Kansans consider their community newspaper vital. Some even believe if they lose their paper, they could lose their entire town.

In southwestern Kansas a few weeks ago a long-time cattleman friend told me he’d be lost without his weekly paper. He told me, “Just like my livestock, we need to nurture this process. Folks gotta’ support their local paper (advertising and subscriptions) just like they have to support other businesses up and down Main Street.”

Community newspapers report the “real news.” They report what’s really happening in a small town or village.

Remember?

The local news – births, deaths, weddings, city council meetings, high school events, sporting events – small-town newspapers cover it all.

As a youngster growing up in Sheridan County I could catch up on all the events going on in all of the small villages in my county including Seguin, Studley, Menlo and Selden. While these communities were too small to publish their own newspaper, stringers (usually a community volunteer with a flair for writing) submitted this local news to the Sentinel each week.

Each community had a handle and the vital dinner parties, who visited whom and the weekly rainfall reports were all found by reading the “Seguin Items” from my little burg of 50 people.

By the way, Vona Lee Dempewolf was a crack reporter and kept everyone in the know. Many of her sources went unnamed and some of this news was gathered by listening in on the party line. That’s when six or seven families shared the same telephone line. If two people were having a conversation and a third party lifted the phone receiver, he/she could listen in on the conversation. Now that’s another story in itself.

But back to local newspapers that remain the voice of rural communities. Today’s volunteer organizations should make it a point to visit with the local newspapers in their region. Cultivating first-name relationships with reporters, editors and publishers is vital to getting the word out on what your organization is doing. It’s all part of the process of community. Letting people know what you’re all about.

While much of today’s big city and national media have a less than stellar reputation, it’s different in small towns. In small towns people know their reporters and editors. One of the best ways for anyone in public life to connect with constituents is through community newspapers.

Coverage is different too. Community papers report the facts. Sometimes the large metropolitan papers miss the point and end up talking about themselves. They make the news – they become the news.

In the United States, some 7,500 community newspapers--papers with under 30,000 in circulation--still hit the streets, front porches, and mailboxes at least once a week, according to a University of Missouri, Columbia survey. More than three-quarters of respondents said they read most or all of a local newspaper every week. And in news to warm the heart of any publisher, a full 94 percent said they paid for their papers.

With the face of the publishing industry changing to a more digital look, most people would expect that rural newspapers would thrive online and use the inexpensive Internet format to deliver local news to all of the area’s residents. But not so fast, approximately 67 percent of people who live in rural America prefer a printed newspaper over a digital format.

Although there is no doubt print newspaper readership is slowly declining, reports about the pending death of the newspaper industry – especially in rural America – are exaggerated. Given the fragmentation of media choices, printed newspapers are holding onto their audiences relatively well. And nowhere is this truer than in rural states like Kansas.

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.