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It’s easy to forget—or to not even know—about the vast and diverse ecosystem of independent weekly papers doing journalism in towns across the country. Staffers at many of these smaller, locally owned papers have been innovating and adapting to hard times in their own cities and in their own ways.
In Idaho, the Boise Weekly faced a precipitous drop in ad revenues after the recession shut down small businesses across town. Their solution: trading ad space for gift-card credit at local restaurants and then selling the credit at a discount to readers.
Todd Stauffer, publisher of the Jackson Free Press, told me about a similar gift-card plan at his paper. The scheme sounds win-win-win: restaurants get ad space, the paper gets revenue, and customers get a discount. (For what it's worth, Creative Loafing, which owns the Reader, has run a similar program in cities other than Chicago.)
But for all the side chat about business models, the focus of the conference was on craft. In Santa Fe, Denver, Birmingham, Portland, and a slew of other cities, writers are digging in at their weeklies and telling amazing stories.
According to Donna Ladd, the editor and cofounder of the Jackson Free Press, a renewed focus on storytelling will secure the survival of the weeklies. As the quality of reporting in the mainstream media continues to decline, “good work in our business is more important than ever,” Ladd says. She knows what an impact journalism can have on communities—her paper’s investigative reporting in Mississippi has landed former Klansmen behind bars for decades-old civil rights murders.
Facts, pieces of stories, abound in our world. But people have an instinctual need for narrative, a need powerful enough to make stories a potent shaping force in our lives and communities. As long as the weeklies are telling stories that matter, they’ll ride out any crisis.
At least that’s what I believed after spending a weekend with some of the country’s master storytellers.