I swear I just heard a distant rumble and the earth shake beneath my feet listening to NPR this morning. It must have been William Allen White, the dean emeritus of America’s small-town newspapers everywhere, shifting uncomfortably and rolling over in his grave near Emporia, Kansas.

NPR’s Morning Edition featured a story outlining how a new business model created by a New York hedge fund, Gatehouse Media, is dramatically and irrevocably changing the small-town newspaper landscape – and making millions for the hedge fund in the process.

The story chronicles how Gatehouse Media is thriving by buying up small-town newspapers across the US – over a thousand thus far – consolidating their back office and printing operations in a remote location, and “saving” them from economic ruin in the process. Basically saying it is “saving these newspapers with efficiencies of scale.”  It’s turning them into profitable enterprises by shifting their basic revenue stream from local merchant advertising to marketing services. Local Gatehouse newspapers are discouraged from creating local content – that’s news gathering and reporting for those of us old enough to remember – and encouraged to sell digital marketing services, even apps. Editorial services for all Gatehouse newspapers are farmed out to a Center for News & Design in Austin, Texas.  Gatehouse claims it’s saving these newspapers but the whole process sounds remarkably similar to the bureaucratic doublespeak of the Vietnam War…” we’re destroying the village in order to save it.”

Really?  Saving these local small town newspapers? Sounds more like their making big profits for the New York hedge fund, and further homogenizing and even destroying what’s left of main street America. It’s almost blasphemous to continue to call what’s left of these local enterprises, ‘newspapers.’  They are no longer making news gathering nor local merchant advertising their central focus. Rather, they are now digital marketers. I think I just felt another rumble from White’s grave.

Ironically, just recently I took part in the 150th birthday celebration of William Allen White, the very essence of small-town journalism.  White, from his perch behind a rolltop desk as editor of the Emporia Gazette, deep in rural Kansas, embodied the best and the brightest of main street journalism in America.   He bought the local newspaper at the turn of the century and wrote all its editorials until his death in 1944. Over his many years of stewardship, White battled the Ku Klux Klan, won a Pulitzer prize, befriended local merchants, Kansas farmers and US Presidents alike; and never wavered from his goal of honest reporting and absolute control of his editorial content.  He never shipped his editorials off to Texas or New York. And, he never sold anything digital except what his fingers could type.

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