OMDAHL: Local initiative needed to save communities
Newspapers are in trouble. And it isn’t their fault.
For the newspapers in the larger cities, the Internet and all of its auxiliary activities have been hogging the advertising dollar. For the weekly papers, the revenue has been drying up with main street.
And main street has been drying up because customers have been heading off to shop the stores with more choices and bread is three cents cheaper.
For the past 50 years, North Dakota’s newspapers have been retrenching with the changing economy. They have consolidated into local chains so they can share equipment, reporters and administrative leadership. But adversity continues to pursue them.
The cost of newsprint has been climbing and may take a major jump if the threatened tariff on Canadian newsprint is implemented.
In addition, an interim committee of the legislature is considering legislation that will make it possible for local governments to stop publishing paid minutes and other information. It may not be a budget buster for the local newspapers but it would be another straw on the camel’s back.
This is all regrettable because newspapers have become the only trustworthy source of information in this era of “fake news.”
If you hear it on radio or television, it evaporates into the ether never to return. The local newspaper is there through rain and shine with the postman. If an error is made, it can be corrected and the same people will see the correction. Only a few of the initial TV and radio listeners ever hear corrections so the error marches on.
Then there’s Facebook, Twitter and other such social media creations that are stealing revenue from the print media and rewarding the rumor-mongers in spreading misinformation.
When it comes to meddling in American elections, the Russians are not going to be stealing 27 votes in Cando or six votes in Ashley. They are going to divert hundreds of votes by feeding rumors and distortions through the social media just as they did in 2016.
This leaves newspapers as the only safeguard in this battle for the minds of voters because they are the only accountable medium.
For local communities, the newspaper pulls together the happenings in schools, main streets, service clubs, local elections and all of the other activities that give substance to the meaning of community. Once or twice a week, there it is the essence of the community presented one more time in black and white.
As long as local customers are dashing off to the bigger cities and as long as the rural population is declining, newspapers will continue to face a real struggle for survival.
Local businesses need customers; newspapers need local advertising. It is all about community.
There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Gov. Doug Burgum has launched the “Main Street” initiative to foster a new emphasis on community building. Around 30 North Dakota towns have already committed to the program. The key to success will be local initiative.
The governor is offering main streets new opportunities to fight the relentless trends that have been eating up our communities.
This approach is similar to that of Deputy Director Brad Gibbens of the UND Center for Rural Health who makes presentations to communities about saving and building local health and medical resources. He concludes his sessions by telling communities “there it is but it isn’t going to be anything without local initiative.”
Hopefully, local leaders will be challenged to step up to the plate to save main streets, medical facilities and, today’s war, the local newspapers. The opportunities may be slipping away.
Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former political science professor at UND.