When the 2019 planting season was getting underway, rains wouldn’t stop. With fields flooded, farmers couldn’t till the land much less plant seed.
But not growing a crop didn’t mean they weren’t going to get paid. Through the USDA’s Prevented Planting program, farmers received compensation for those unplanted acres.
Community newspapers are in a devastating drought, so severe it is forcing publishers off the nation’s landscape, leaving rural communities a barren information wasteland. We believe there is a solution to help America’s community newspapers based on this USDA program that could be administered through the department’s rural development division.
We’d call it a “Prevented Printing” program. First, let’s look why it’s needed.
What we know about this Internet Age is that it is one global, king-of-the-hill competition. Google and Facebook don’t just dominate in the big cities; they dominate in small communities across America and around the world. There is one Facebook, one Google, one YouTube and one Twitter.
In the first quarter of 2020, Google collected $41.2 billion in revenue and a $6.9 billion net profit. Apple’s second quarter profits were $11.2 billion on $58.3 billion in revenue. They consume over 60% of all digital advertising dollars.
Meanwhile, in the 15 years from 2004 to 2019, America lost more than 2,000 newspapers, many of them in small towns.
As of this past spring, 198 counties in the U.S. no longer had a newspaper.
What we have learned from communities that have lost their newspapers is that fewer people vote. Citizens don’t understand why the school district cut course offerings. They know little about who is running for office. They don’t know why the county is bonding and raising taxes by $30 million. Without a newspaper, the cost of issuing those bonds goes up because investors recognize a greater opportunity for malfeasance. Fewer people run for office. We lose the stories that create a common bond to get things done.
The ability to hold appointed and elected public officials accountable is lost when the newspaper goes away. At the vast majority of public meetings we cover, we are the only citizen in the room. We represent the people of our community. We are their watchdog.
What we have learned from more than 20 years with the internet is that for most community newspapers, its promise was a mirage. We don’t have the population to sustain us on the internet. For most small-town newspapers, digital payments represent 0 to 5% of their income.
Much of rural America isn’t media rich. If there are radio stations, they often get their news from the local newspaper. There are no television stations that cover local news; no internet news companies. There is only the community newspaper — unless you believe the bitter debates, conjecture and outright misinformation on social media count as news.
When 2020 got underway, community newspapers were facing a deepening drought in advertising revenue. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. As businesses were forced to close, advertising budgets dried up. For newspapers the drought became life-threatening. Not all have survived; and more will certainly succumb unless our nation’s leaders recognize an informed electorate is essential to good government.
Many plans have been proposed to save newspapers. So far, all are geared toward large circulation newspapers, leaving small-town, community newspapers out. That is why we find inspiration in modeling a program to help small-town newspapers on the prevented planting farm program.
A prevented printing program is easily scaled to each individual newspaper, representing the extent of its lost advertising. We would also include our lost subscriptions sales as our older readers die off and younger readers turn to the internet for sports, entertainment, social connection and the latest sensationalized story. They know little about their own communities.
Payment would not come without obligation. We would have to publish the number of pages we are getting paid for to provide the reporting and information to our citizens. This would mean more job security for our employees, more payroll taxes paid, payments to our printing plants, to the U.S. Postal Service and a more informed community. With the funds we received to support our circulation, we would provide free subscriptions to citizens.
If the economy came roaring back and we had enough advertising, we wouldn’t get a payment.
A far-fetched plan? We don’t think so. We believe it creates a sound base to keep community newspapers alive and rural communities served with the knowledge citizens require.
To pay for the program, it wouldn’t be necessary to raise all the funds from taxpayers. A fee could be imposed on tech giants Google and Facebook to create a superfund to help pay for the prevented printing program. “This is not punishing success, but rightly seeking compensation for content that online giants transmit and profit from. Google alone made $4.7 billion off news stories it displayed via search and Google News in 2018,” a Seattle Times editorial said. Most of those stories were pirated from newspapers.
In 2018-2019, the Trump administration approved $28 billion in USDA payments to farmers to offset the effects of the trade war with China. The aid a single farmer receives annually would save a community newspaper. Is one community newspaper, the essential source of information for small-town American citizens, any less vital to the future of this country than one farmer?
Our farmers feed America and the world. Our newspapers nourish citizen knowledge essential for representative democracy. If community newspapers go away, local governments will become bureaucratic fiefdoms insulated from public knowledge and accountability, and democracy will starve.
Reed W. Anfinson is publisher and owner of the Swift County Monitor-News, Benson, Minn.; the Grant County Herald, Elbow Lake, Minn.; and the Stevens County Times, Morris, Minn.