At least once a week, some 7,500 community newspapers — those with a circulation of less than 30,000 — land on porches, inside mailboxes or at local supermarkets and coffee counters across the United States.
According to a survey conducted by the University of Missouri-Columbia, more than three-quarters of respondents said they read most or all of each edition of their local newspaper — with 94 percent of those people holding subscriptions.
Locally, on Wednesday mornings, you can see the front page of the Cottage Grove Sentinel suspended in front of faces in coffee shops, restaurants and markets around The Grove, as in Yoncalla, Elkton, Drain, Creswell and Lorane as people inform themselves about what’s happening in our communities — from upcoming festivals and events, to recaps of the latest board meetings and features on local issues and residents.
While there is a notion that print journalism is dying, the truth is that many community newspapers are actually thriving compared to many of their large metro-area and national counterparts.
“Community papers are doing better than many large, daily papers because they provide news coverage about things that matter to their local community that would otherwise be overlooked without them,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky.
In fact, in 2018, the combined readership of those 7,500 non-daily newspapers was almost 20 million more than that of daily newspapers, with non-dailies tallying 65.5 million subscribers — compared to 45.5 million daily-paper subscribers.
This is according to the National Newspaper Association (NNA), which also noted that 70 percent of those small non-dailies have a circulation of less than 15,000; The Sentinel is among that smaller group, with a circulation of just over 7,000.
When I became managing editor here in mid-2018, I’d had the good fortune of working with three terrific editors over my previous 18 years as a journalist. And while each brought their own style and focus, there has been one important understanding that continues to define us as a community newspaper:
To our readers, we are not just the newspaper; we are their newspaper.
USC professor Judy Muller told the Stanford University Press that, while local journalism is certainly about police blotters, obituaries, bake sales and club meetings, “The best community newspapers also hold local governments and institutions accountable by covering meetings, asking questions and recognizing the good as well as the not-so-good because ... if not them, then who?”
While we’ve received equal amounts of accolades and criticism regarding our coverage of controversial issues ranging from housing, education and the homeless, to gun law, suicide rates and hate crime over the last two years, our story meetings are underscored by the notion of: “If not us, then who?”
I am reminded of my first day as a journalist covering sports at the Siuslaw News in November 1998 — and how intimidated I felt sitting at my desk listening to the constant sound of keyboard hammering emanating from behind partitions on either side of me.
Twenty-one years later, it’s a sound that I have come to love in the same way a mechanic appreciates the sound of an engine hitting on all cylinders, or the way a music conductor savors the convergence of musical notes into a singular harmony.
(Keep in mind I still type with two fingers, so my contribution to that harmony is more like the cow bell, but still...)
As we head into National Newspaper Week (Oct. 6-12), I’d like to thank you, our readers, for supporting your local newspaper. Not only with your subscription or weekly trip to the office to buy your copy, but also for your participation and contributions — through letters, emails, phone calls and conversations in my office — that help make The Sentinel one of those 7,500 non-daily community newspapers that is continuing to grow.
In the words of Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Col. Edward Carrington on Jan. 16, 1787:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”