Many small newspapers struggle to survive, but a few are thriving

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Editor’s note: Daily Universe reporters traveled across Utah and southern Wyoming to investigate the state of local newspapers. Read profiles of Sanpete Messenger editor Suzanne Dean here and Kemmerer Gazette reporter Michelle Tibbetts here

Theresa Davis moved to Kemmerer, a sleepy Wyoming town two hours outside of Salt Lake City with a population almost brushing 3,000, to head the local newspaper just one week out of college. It was May 2017 and despite the fact that her father had grown up there, she knew next to no one.

The Kemmerer Gazette’s office is small and appears almost scrunched in on itself. There are just three desks inside and the walls are laden with photos taken in the community. The giant windows at the front of the room reveal piles of snow peeled back from the empty sidewalk. Davis was not just the editor. She wrote the majority of the content, took her own photographs, laid out the paper and handles social media.  

Originally hailing from a small town herself, Davis graduated from BYU with a degree in journalism. She applied for the job with the Kemmerer Gazette on what she described as a whim.  

“No one’s going to drive two hours from Salt Lake City to tell these stories,” Davis said. “I could always see what (small town journalism) did, but I didn’t really appreciate it until I came here because I’m able to tell stories that no one else is ever going to tell.”

Nationwide local newspaper trends

This chart shows the Pew Research Center’s estimation of the total circulation of U.S. daily newspapers from 1940 to 2017. (Auburn Wilcox)

While many other local papers in Utah and bordering states are shrinking, losing revenue or fading into obscurity, the Kemmerer Gazette has kept a steady presence in the community since its inception around 120 years ago. Children still deliver the paper every Thursday night.

Davis said readership is good, too. The paper has a circulation rate of 3,000. Kemmerer itself doesn’t even have a population that large.

Other places are less fortunate. The number of individuals employed in the news industry dropped 15% from 2014 to 2017, according to information gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics.The University of North Carolina conducted a study and concluded that more than one in five local papers have closed since 2004.

According to Davis, the Kemmerer Gazette’s endurance might have something to do with the area’s two prominent demographics.

Many young families move to Kemmerer spurred by promises of high-paying jobs provided by the nearby coal mine and power plant, Davis said.

It can be isolating living here, she explained. Davis addressed this by dedicating her time to posting on Facebook and updating the online site to help the younger population feel more involved.

Davis also pointed out that the community is comprised of a large percentage of older generations.

“Print really appeals to them,” she said. “They love to know what happened.”

It is the combining of these different factors that Davis credits for the Kemmerer Gazette’s success. She made her own sacrifices by making do with a minuscule staff, sometimes doing less in-depth coverage than she would prefer, carefully discerning what is newsworthy and tirelessly inserting herself into the community to build up trust. Which, she said, wasn’t easy either.

Davis described the community as conservative and mistrustful of the press and outsiders. Which, she happens to be both, not to mention young, idealistic and just out of college.

People questioned what such a young girl was doing at all of their meetings, taking photos and asking questions, she recounted.

But Davis said she built up trust by developing relationships and taking pride in the little things like listening and ensuring each fact is accurate.

“They will tell me if they like something and they will tell me if they don’t,” Davis laughed. “When you’re a journalist in a small community, you get to know the community. You’re running into these people at the grocery store you’re taking pictures of their kids at football games. You know what they care about and you get to write about it.”

Why does small-town reporting matter?

Davis said she knows reporting makes a difference in small towns.  

Several months back, the company that owned the nearby coal mine declared bankruptcy and announced they were going to stop paying for health care and retiree pensions. They even planned to cut employee wages.

Everyone was panicking, she recounted. People from the community had been working at that coal mine, in some cases, their entire lives. A group of coal miners planned a protest and Davis managed to break into their circle and cover the story because she had built the community’s trust in her ability to fairly represent both sides.

“It was something that affects their lives,” Davis said. “No one else was going to cover that story.”

Brian Muir, a Kemmerer city administrator, said the paper helps the community know how important local forces like the coal mine and power plan impact the economy. It also unifies and engages the community, he explained.

If the paper went away, Muir said it would leave an economic and emotional void.

Kemmerer resident and part-time Gazette reporter Michelle Tibbetts is originally from Boston. Four days after she and her husband were married, the two traveled west with $300 and their two dogs, ultimately settling in Kemmerer. Tibbetts pointed out that city residents like to hold onto the historic attitude of what it’s like to live in a small Wyoming town and the paper enables that.

Tibbets said she thinks if the Kemmerer Gazette ever closed, it would kill part of the camaraderie that comes with living in such a compact community. Similar attitudes are reflected in other small towns across Utah and southern Wyoming, particularly among politicians and older residents. But many younger residents seem less convinced.

Read a profile of Michelle Tibbetts here.

Moab, a southern Utah town known for neighboring national parks, a steady tourism industry and its sandy red rocks, has two newspapers — an anomaly for such a small community.

Mike Duncan, Moab City Council member, said the The Times-Independent and Moab Sun News are invaluable, especially for someone like him — a member of city government.

“When something controversial comes up we try to answer as many letters as we can, but for the most part, the newspaper is the name of the game,” Duncan said. “We’re all on a first name basis for the most part with reporters who cover meetings.”

Duncan said he struggles to imagine what the community would be like without the two papers.

People would probably turn to social media more, but a lot of council members are opposed to that because it’s so easy to take information out of context, he explained.

While both Moab papers and the Kemmerer Gazette offer a tantalizing taste of the role a newspaper can still play in small-town America, the broader menu of information available via social media has impacted most communities of any size. Digital natives aren’t easily persuaded that a weekly ink-on-paper publication is relevant — or has any staying power. 

What fills the void when local news coverage evaporates?

Patty Herndon used to read her local paper cover to cover. She still lives in Magna, Utah, but the newspaper, the Magna Times, folded in September 2018 after 96 years of operation.

The Magna Times editor Emily Gould last posted on the newspaper’s Facebook page Sept. 10. She wrote that when she agreed to take over the Magna Times, she wasn’t fully aware of the issues and situations surrounding it. For this reason, getting the paper’s registration and licensing switched to her name wasn’t working.

“Over the past several months my focus has been on straightening things out behind the scenes so that I can restore this paper to hopefully once again be the staple it was in this community,” Gould wrote. “It is a decision that I have fought against for weeks now, but I need to do what is best for the paper in the long run.”

Herndon said she misses the paper immensely, but many people in the community rarely took the time to read it. They might have read the headline, formed an opinion and moved on, but they didn’t read the entire story, she explained.

Which, she said, is frustrating because people can’t fix problems in a small community if they don’t know about them.

Suzanne Dean, owner and editor of the Sanpete Messenger, knows how important local news is to residents in any small town.

Utah’s Highland and Alpine area has never had an official paper. Kurt Ostler, a Highland City Council member, said the community used to have an unofficial news source called the Crossroad Journal, though it hasn’t posted anything since last fall. A reporter from the Daily Herald, a newspaper based in Provo, used to cover Northern Utah County, but they left around the same time as the journal.

He said residents have mostly turned to Facebook for their news, but struggle with discerning accurate information.

To counter this, Ostler said the city government tries to push out regular Facebook updates and newsletters.

Morgan County News from Morgan Utah has shrunk over time. The newsroom shares office space with a craft store and, according to a store worker, newsroom staff are rarely present.

Morgan County News’ website is updated every couple of days and the paper is delivered weekly. A one year print and online subscription costs $30 for the general public and $25 for seniors.

While the Morgan County News has a Facebook page, it does not maintain a lively presence. The most recent post is dated Oct. 31.

Many people just aren’t reading their local newspaper.

A large percentage of people approached by the Daily Universe said they’ve never even picked it up.

How have surviving papers adapted?

Even papers like the Kemmerer Gazette that still hold a prominent role in their community have suffered budget and staff cuts. Journalists have become increasingly creative and strategic with their resources in order to keep local papers afloat.

Michael D. Olson, editor of the Payson Chronicle,a local paper that operates out of Southern Utah County, said the staff is small. It’s just him and his daughter.

They compile the bulk of their coverage around sporting events and local government issues.

Olson said he gets around the small staff size by encouraging the community to submit stories. They’ve run stories written by the Chamber of Commerce for years, he explained.

Olson said he recognizes that younger generations rarely pick up newspapers, so he started going to high school sporting games, taking photos and posting them to Instagram.

“At least (young people) know we exist,” he said. “They’re a lot more aware that somebody is there who cares about them.”  

The Tooele Transcript Bulletin also accepts community submissions, though it is not a “small-town” newspaper in the same sense that Kemmerer, Wyoming, is. With a population of nearly 35,000, Tooele is becoming a bedroom community to the Salt Lake metro area and will likely continue to grow as a result. It is three time as large as the next smallest city — Evanston, Wyoming — that was part of the Daily Universe reporting project.

Even so, Transcript Bulletin Editor Tim Gillie said his staff has been gutted during 12 years of working there. When he started, there were nine full-time newsroom employees. Now there are just four.

“It’s just been difficult trying to fill a paper,” Gillie explained. “We work longer hours, write more stories, try and recruit interns and work with community people that are willing to write the occasional column for no charge.”

The paper has been family-owned for four generations. In contrast to the majority of other small-town news sources, it prints twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

Despite the staff cuts, readership is good, Gillie said. The Tooele Transcript Bulletin website receives about 40,000 user visits each month. He estimated they have about 11,000 print subscribers.

Business is so good, the paper even bought a $3 million printing press five years ago. As major metro papers continue to struggle with shrinking ad revenue and cost-cutting, the Transcript Bulletin may be the only small-circulation news operation the the Intermountain West to have invested so heavily in the future of print journalism.

“We’re one of the very few papers that prints our own,” Gillie said.

Most news sources go to outside parties to print their content, but the Tooele Transcript Bulletin’s parent company, Transcript Bulletin Publishing, handles publishing.

The newsroom and publishing company share a building and resources. The company has in-house graphic designers, content creators, technical crews and photographers and regularly pumps out posters, phone books, magazines and advertisements.

Journalism awards can also help give small papers greater notoriety. Richfield, Utah’s paper, the Richfield Reaper, is decorated with several awards gifted by the Utah Press Association and the Brehm Communications Better Newspaper Contest.

Richfield officials did not respond to repeated queries from the Daily Universe to comment on their city or local paper.

Evanston, Wyoming’s paper, the Uinta County Herald, is a twice-weekly paper that serves southwest Wyoming and Rich County. The Wyoming Press Association recently recognized the Herald for its coverage of the school board, crime and local government. With just over 12,000 residents, Evanston is the county seat and the paper’s coverage of city and county government coverage is vital to residents.

Like many smaller papers, the Herald relies on a regularly-updated Facebook page to fill the news gap between editions, particularly because it is the major new source for the 2000+ square miles that is southwest Wyoming. 

While major metro areas have suffered greatly as their advertisers migrate online, revenue generated by small, hometown advertisers helps many small papers continue pumping forward.

Cheryl Brewer is the editor of the Mount Pleasant Pyramid in central Utah. She said advertising revenue, which accounts for about 75% of the paper’s profits, has actually gone up in the past five years.

Brewer saves expenses by personally delivering the paper weekly to local grocery and convenience stores dotted around Mount Pleasant, Fairview, Moroni, Manti and several other small central Utah towns. She also sells the advertising.

Like other editors at surviving papers, Brewer makes do with a small staff and aging office furniture and equipment. 

As Brewer knows, geographic isolation can be an advantage for small papers, no matter what the local economics.

Bundled up in the craggy Wasatch Range, Park City’s paper, the Park Record Newspaper, is still doing well.

Like in Tooele, papers are published twice a week and coverage is available in print and online. Its digital edition is updated several times daily with government, business, crime, culture and weather stories. Its staff of 15-20 is much larger than most small-town papers, and the staff regularly wins a variety of statewide journalism awards for a publication its size.

The paper receives more than 4 million views a year and it is distributed free of charge from more than 200 different locations spanning the Park City area, according to Swift Local Solutions.  Park City’s permanent population is approximately 8,500, but can swell to double or triple that number during peak ski season. 

How do communities feel about their local paper?

Public trust in the media is steadily declining nationwide. A June 2018 Gallup poll found a long-term decline in Americans’ confidence in newspapers since 1973, including a decline in confidence ratings between 2017 and 2018 despite a slight increase in previous years.  

The 2018 poll asked Americans how much confidence they held in a number of institutions, including newspapers. Twenty-three percent of people reported having a great deal or quite a lot of trust in newspapers, whereas 40% said they had either very little or no trust in newspapers.

(Auburn Wilcox)
This graphic shows the state of the newspapers in the US from 2016-2017. All data comes from the Pew Research Center. (Auburn Wilcox)

Newspaper editors across Utah and southern Wyoming are experiencing this national trend at the local level.  Although newspapers strive to build trust with their communities, some citizens still report disappointment with their local paper’s coverage.

Davis noted the difficulty of gaining trust as a journalist in a small town in an age of fake news and heavy media scrutiny. However, she said she’s been able to build trust with the Kemmerer community through accurate reporting.

“Some people still are just not going to trust you no matter what, or they’re going to look down your profession,” Davis said. “But that’s when you just have to take pride in the little things — so getting the facts right or getting that extra interview or just listening more than you talk.”

Tooele Community Development Director Jim Bolser voiced several disappointments with the Tooele Transcript Bulletin’s reporting. He said even when reporters are accurate, an editor can introduce errors into a story.

“(The editor) may change things in the article of the way it’s presented and may even attach a headline to that article to get attention to the article that really is not factual when it comes to what actually happened,” Bolser said.

Bolser also expressed concerns that the Tooele Transcript Bulletin calls its staff members writers, not reporters, holding them to a lower factual standard. He said he’s been misquoted in the paper before in his role as a city official.

Listen to an interview with Councilman Pratt and Directer Bolser.

Payson resident John Nielsen said the Payson Chronicle is accurate and fair, but only offers surface-level coverage.

“If you want to know the real stuff, go to the coffee shop where the power players sit and have coffee every morning,” Nielsen said.

Olson said he’s unsure if newspapers can recover from the damage that’s been done to the industry and its reputation.

“I think newspapers are very important, and I hate to see the whole thing disappear,” he said. “Nobody knows what they can trust. They’re not sure where they’re getting the information, and then they end up trusting whatever they like.”

However, despite some citizens’ lack of trust of their papers, others interviewed by The Daily Universe had more positive perceptions of their local newspapers.

Kemmerer City Council member Robert Bowen said the Kemmerer Gazette has room for improvement when it comes to reporting in-depth and controversial stories, but also recognized the paper for doing good work with a small staff.

“I know they can’t cover everything. They can’t be everywhere,” Bowen said. “They only know what we tell them, and I do commend them for the job they do. But there are some areas for improvement, but that’s with everything.”

Although Kristi Carter does not currently subscribe to her local paper in Heber City, Utah, she’s beginning to think that she should.

“I’ve been wanting to order the paper because it does give a lot of local news and sports and community oriented items that I would like to be more educated upon,” she said. “So the fact that I don’t take it I do feel like I’m left out of a lot of the community information.”

Price City Council member Layne Miller, who worked as a journalist for 15 years, said he’s grateful ETV News stepped up in the Price Sun Advocate’s place when it closed.

“I appreciate the service of a small town newspaper,” Miller said. “In most cases, they are the glue that holds the community together and provide the information needed by everyone in its distribution area.”

What are towns doing in place of newspapers?

Despite the fact that small-town paper readership is no longer what it once was, groups of people living in compact communities are still finding ways to keep up to date on community news.

According to Layne Miller, a member of Price City Council, social media plays a big role in helping citizens stay current on news.

“A great deal of my time on the council is social media work, which can shape the direction of the city,” Miller said. “It’s absolutely vital that our residents understand how we make the decisions we do and why we do what we do.”

Many communities rely on Facebook to distribute government information that newspapers used to cover. Small communities like Price, Tooele, Morgan, Evanston and Kemmerer all boast their own Facebook pages where residents go to discuss and learn about community events.

Miller said he believes residents can go to places other than the local paper and social media sites to learn about community happenings.

“If a town lacks a newspaper, places like the local post office and coffee shop become the center of information,” Miller said.

Although social media and word of mouth can be valuable sources of information, Renae Ellsworth, a local business owner in Payson, Utah, said she doesn’t believe they can help residents learn about everything going on in the community.

“Maybe like 10% (can be learned from social media). I don’t know that the paper is essential, but it is good to have. It is one of the last remaining threads of kind of the small-town feel.”

Reporting: Sahalie Donaldson, Auburn Wilcox, Jenna Alton, Mariana Monteiro, Sarah Matthews, Sadie Anderson, Abigail Keenan, Laurie Rackham, Courtney Tietjen and Erica West

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