It’s a sad fact that many small town papers throughout America are no longer in publication. Chalk it up to the 24/7 news cycle, cable stations that provide real-time access to events, the movement from print to online sources, the decline of daily subscriptions, or a public’s lack of attention span beyond sound bites—for a myriad of reasons, the hometown newspaper is becoming a thing of the past. The loss of a hometown newspaper for a community is more than just a loss of a news source. It is the loss of a collected history, the loss of a shared identity, the loss of a source of connection.
We don’t need a hometown paper for national or world news. We can get that on our smart phones, listen to it on our satellite radios, or watch a live stream on our laptops. We need a hometown paper for the ties that it binds. We need it to find out about the scarecrow workshops put on by tireless volunteers for the kids in our community. We need it to learn about the volleyball team who brought home another victory last Thursday night and the elementary class who took a trip to the school farm last Wednesday. We need it to find out what events are taking place at the Senior Center and which churches are hosting potluck dinners. We need it to learn about exciting changes in our community and to read about businesses that are breathing new life into previously abandoned buildings left to rot after the exodus of industrial jobs in the 70s. But most of all, we need it to keep connected with our neighbors and to remain rooted in our collective history. We need it to tell our town’s story.
If I walk down into my basement right now, I would find a scrapbook of all of the newspaper clippings featuring my accomplishments as a kid growing up in this small town. I’d venture to guess that most of you reading this would find something similar in the attics, basements, and closets of your own homes. I want my kids to be able to say the same when they get to be my age. I want them to have books filled with grainy black and white photos next to articles featuring their names. I want them to get excited when they see a shot of themselves on the front page playing in the water sprayed by the fire trucks at the Commons. I want a community member to see them at the hardware store and say something like, “I heard about the big win—great job!” or “I saw that the marching band scored a one at Festival, that’s terrific!” I want them to feel like big fish, if only in a little pond. Because, soon enough, they will be little fish in a great big pond, encountering deep waters and cold currents. And when they are struggling to keep afloat, I want them to reach back for the confidence of their youth and just keep swimming.
My Grandfather, Paul Dodson Sr., was a newspaperman. He spent his career as a journalist for multiple publications and had a passion for the written word. I can’t say I blame him. There is something about an artfully spun tale that can put you right in the middle of the story, even if you weren’t there to actually experience it for yourself. He once wrote an article about making 400 jars of homemade jams and maple syrups from the fruits and trees on his hobby farm to be used as guest favors for his granddaughter’s rustic themed wedding in the woods. It’s been eight years since the publication of that article in our local paper, and to this day I still run into folks at the grocery story who warmly recall the time my grandpa helped plan my wedding. I guess that’s what is so important about maintaining a small town newspaper—the collective experience that it provides to all who read it. We might not have made it out to the event, but we know the who, what, when, where, and why and we can talk about it over morning coffee with our friends and neighbors.
It’s the original Facebook. Except instead of knowing what you did three seconds ago, the town knows what you did three days ago. And, unlike Facebook, the pictures and stories from the hometown newspaper can be cut and pasted (with real scissors and glue…as opposed to clicking Command X and Command V on your keyboard) onto the refrigerator door or into a scrapbook for posterity. And one day you can pull that scrapbook out and tell your grandkids about that time you scored the winning touchdown during the homecoming game or the time you won 2nd place in the spelling bee. And you won’t even need an Internet connection to show them the pictures. Besides, you’ll be making a much better connection anyway—the old fashioned kind that folds smoothly along fresh creases, leaves ashen, inky smudges on your fingertips, and smells faintly of pine and hometown pride.
(Author's Note: This article was originally published in my weekly column for my hometown newspaper, The Berrien County Record, on October 8, 2015. The owners are residents of Buchanan, are major contributors to our hometown, and have done an amazing job of revamping the paper. However, in order to remain in print and to be financially solvent, the paper is in need of 2,500 new subscriptions. Please consider purchasing a yearly subscription for yourself or a friend ($40 in-county, $45 out of county annually) or purchasing an advertisement for your local business. Visit their site at http://bcrnews.net/savethebcr/ today! HELP US SAVE OUR SMALL TOWN NEWSPAPER!)