OPINION

That's life: You won't read this

Tony Bender
Local Columnist

The Ashley Tribune turned 120 years old this year, and the Wishek Star 77, and it's a miracle, because as the Wishek mayor said this month, “No one reads the paper.” She suggested that residents' feedback should be sought instead on Facebook. The Ashley mayor told a constituent that he doubted enough people read the paper to warrant advertising the forthcoming controversial city destruction of gravesite décor.

So what kind of outlier are you? Some kind of educated freak?

Several years ago, during my purchase of the papers from my business partner, an independent analysis reported that those two papers covered 70% of the people in McIntosh County. And for all the apparent disinterest in newspapers, 8.5 nobodies out of 10 people in North Dakota still voted to publish the official minutes in the paper. The people have spoken.

When communities lose their newspapers, they lose government accountability because the public watchdog is gone. In the absence of journalistic scrutiny, taxes rise. There was a recent study of nearly 1600 newspapers including about 300 closures. “Papers show that there are political consequences, or political outcomes, when local newspapers close,” said co-author Chang Lee, assistant professor of finance at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “(However) If you look at the municipal bond market, you can actually see the financial consequences that have to be borne by local citizens as a result of newspaper closures.”

Your local newspaper remains the best source for critical news that affects your pocketbook, and we're a hub for millions of dollars in commerce. Does real journalism happen on Facebook? We know you can get an immunology degree there. But did they cover the county commission? School board? City council? Rodeo? Fair? 4-H? The big football game? Do they donate to school fundraisers? Do they record our community's history?

We often have folks coming in to research family history, obituaries—and even dispute a high school scoring record, which subsequently changed. The scorebooks were long gone.

It's a godsend to discover that we have anecdotal circulation experts in our midst. Please come to work Wednesday to answer the phone, where it will begin to ring if the paper isn't in post office boxes at the usual delivery time. Folks (who apparently don't even subscribe) sure are in a hurry not to read the paper. I tell employees who've received tongue-lashings over subscription issues, callers are showing us great respect. Because they want the paper that badly. For the birdcage, I guess. It's been well established by our mayors that no one reads it.

Hundreds of online readers like the immediacy and reliability of our website. We sell hundreds of newsstand copies, too. To nobody, apparently.

Several weeks ago, I wrote admiringly of our local government, and I like and respect our mayors, which is why their disrespect of our business suggests a disconnect. The median age in McIntosh County is nearly 54. Nationwide it's 38; we have an older population, which is why newspapers remain the central news hub in rural America. Not everyone does Facebook.

Did I suggest the newspaper is a business with payroll, taxes, overhead, and budgets just like “real” businesses? I did. But we're the Rodney Dangerfield's of businesses. We're also magicians. We've managed to stay afloat for nearly 200 cumulative years with no readers!

You'd think elected leaders would have the best interests of their businesses at heart. You don't hear them disparage other businesses, saying things like, “No one buys groceries at that store. No one drives Fords, anymore. Or Chevies. No one gets their hair cut there. No one eats at that cafe. No one banks there.” Because that would be incompatible with the facts. Besides, they don't know the ins and outs of those businesses. But apparently, they know newspapers.

Hold it, did you hear that radio ad? Me neither. I don't listen to that station. The nightly news? Don't watch it. It's shallow headlines. In-depth news comes from print journalists. What about Facebook? No, I missed your kitty picture because surprisingly not everyone sees everything there, either. 70%, maybe? Not even close.

“Gosh, Tony,” you're thinking, “Aren't you being a little hard on those mayors?” Maybe. I suspect no malice on their part, just off-the-cuff remarks that threw us under the bus. At any rate, they won't read this. Or admit it, anyway. Maybe I'll post it on Facebook.