Northeast News teaches lesson about the fragility of local news

In Association News, Missouri Press News On
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Blank front page, ‘radio silence’ in late March showed community the importance of a local news presence

By Matthew Barba
Missouri Press News

For many newspaper publishers around the country, there are times when every day feels like a struggle. The fight to keep going, to keep putting out a newspaper, to keep covering the community is hard and often comes with too few rewards.

But for the love of the profession and the communities they cover, many newspaper men and women do keep up the struggle.

Occasionally, however, readers need to be reminded about what is at stake if local news goes away.

That lesson is one Michael Bushnell, publisher of Kansas City’s Northeast News, and his staff found themselves first teaching local readers, then the region and eventually the country when they published a blank front page in late March.

“We were spitballing ideas during a staff meeting and the question came up about what happens if there’s no community newspaper. How do we send that message,” Bushnell said. “And it came up what if we printed a blank front page.”

The recent loss of three key advertisers: laundromats, a charter school and a grocery store, combined with the stresses the coronavirus pandemic placed on so many businesses meant the Northeast News was looking at 2021 being a difficult year financially.

Bushnell said Creative Director Bryan Stalder and Managing Editor Abby Hoover were instrumental in figuring out how to shock readers with the message that local news is at risk and the stakes are closer to home than many people realize.

“We decided to run three pieces all dedicated to what it looks like when there is no local news,” Bushnell said. “A column from me, a column from Abby and a piece on the newspaper’s history from Abby.”

Bushnell’s column, titled “The Walmart-ing of Community News is why locally owned community newspapers are struggling,” pulled inspiration from an old Missouri Press Association presentation, he said. A large corporation, such as Walmart, will come to town, host a raffle or other event to get free publicity from the local news but does not offer to pay for any advertising in the newspaper.

The result is the local news, wanting to cover local people and a new story representing investment in the community, gives the corporation free publicity and advertising, but gets very little, if anything, in return.

In his column, Bushnell wrote, “The sad fact of the matter is this: Locally owned community news outlets across the country are in real trouble, many in danger of closing after a lifetime of community news reporting. … The Northeast News is no exception.”

He used the closing of Grandview’s Jackson County Advocate at the end of last year as an example of a community that has lost its cheerleader. “After an over 55-year run, The Jackson County Advocate closed its doors leaving Grandview/South Kansas City without a local news source. No more local school board reporting, no more coverage of the Boy Scout chili dinner whose proceeds send kids to Scout Camp. In short, the organization that took on the task and shouldered the burden of reporting on and advocating for their community is gone. Period.”

Educating readers

The day the blank front page was published, the newspaper’s staff also went “radio silent from midnight Tuesday to midnight Wednesday,” Bushnell explained. “We didn’t give anyone a call back, no breaking news, nothing on our website except that edition of the newspaper.”

By Thursday morning they were back to business as normal, but the News’ lack thereof had caught the attention of everyone from The Kansas City Star to The Washington Post. “By that time, the Star called, then the Washington Post, and everyone was really cluing in. They all just fed into each other,” Bushnell said.

On the newspaper’s website, Bushnell said the donation button “started to go bananas” as support began pouring in for the newspaper.

“The community response has been stellar. More businesses have been asking what else they can do to support us,” Bushnell said. “Essentially what this has done has galvanized the community behind the newspaper.”

Bushnell said one of the key advertisers, a grocery store, has also since returned to the newspaper’s pages.

Educating readers about the importance of local news doesn’t just extend to the newspaper’s pages either. A late April meeting of the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce gave Bushnell a platform to address member businesses about how they would be affected by the loss of the community newspaper.

He also wants to get the state and area’s elected officials on the record about their support for legislation such as the Local Journalism Sustainability Act.

As other newspapers have done, Bushnell said he also wants to file a lawsuit against or join with other newspapers that have brought antitrust lawsuits against Facebook and Google. Publishers of dozens of newspapers have already filed suit or announced their intention to based on the claim that the two technology giants have used their clout to monopolize digital advertising.

All hands on deck

Bushnell said he has relied on all of the newspaper’s staff to make this experiment in reader education about the importance of local news a success.
“This has been a full on, all hands on deck staff effort, and everyone knew the stakes going in. I don’t think we’re quite out the other side but it’s looking better,” he said. “Community journalism is about the community.”

And that community includes the newspaper’s staff, invested in the community because all but one person actually lives in Northeast Kansas City.

“When there is a major news event, we don’t just come in to cover that one thing,” he said. “We’re here day after day, and we’ll be here asking the follow up questions. But it’s more than that, you know, we’re here for the everyday stuff too, the Boy Scout chili dinner, for youth soccer and the park board meetings.”

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