Last month, I took a trip back to the Midwest to visit family in Ohio and in Michigan, my home state. I looked forward to meeting my new niece, eating some good food, and catching up on sleep. But I also made a special trip to Allegan, Mich. where I spent four years as a staff writer for the Allegan County News, a weekly newspaper that comes out every Thursday. The company also publishes two other weeklies in the area and several supplements.
It was my first newspaper job out of college, and like many other small, community newspapers, everyone on staff had to wear different hats. I covered city and township meetings, took photos at holiday parades and other gatherings around the county, edited press releases, laid out ads and copy on production day, and helped unload the truck when the newspapers and mail bags arrived the next day. When I left in 2009 for warmer weather in California, it was a bittersweet feeling. When you work for a small newsroom, it starts to feel like a family, and you don’t want to leave family behind.
Over the years I kept in touch with my former co-workers. Some have left the newspaper; others are still there. I learned the paper had been sold to a new owner who also became the new publisher. The paper also recently moved into a smaller building downtown. They were doing more video now. They had raised newsstand prices. They had changed printers. They were hosting more contests in order to attract more subscribers. They were producing more supplements. They put ads on the front page now. They redesigned the website and got a Facebook page that currently has more than 4,000 followers. It’s not the same publication it was when I left in 2009, but then again, what newspaper is the same as it was eight years ago?
I’m sure if you were to return to your first newspaper job, the office might look different, there will be faces there you don’t recognize, or faces that aren’t there anymore, but the mission of the newspaper is still the same: to report the news and to report it fairly and accurately. We may be competing against social media with how our readers receive their news, but we have to remember a newspaper’s unique connection to its community. It’s something that can’t be duplicated or replaced.
I wasn’t surprised by all the changes at my former workplace though. I had gone from writing for newspapers to writing about newspapers, so of course, I understood why they were all necessary. In fact, I was quite impressed that they were trying so many new things. I was also happy to hear that they subscribed to the E&P newsletter and read it every morning.
As I finished my trip down memory lane at the Allegan County News, it occurred to me that this small, weekly paper in southwest Michigan also has a very similar story to many of the large, dailies in bigger cities. A new owner. A smaller newsroom operating with a leaner staff. Video experimentations. Contests. A stronger digital presence. It doesn’t matter the size of your circulation or market; we’re all navigating the same boat.
Some of you may be in a boat that is sinking and you’re just trying to plug up the hole before it sinks. Some of you may be grabbing a life jacket, ready to jump ship. Others may have already thrown down your anchor, frustrated and thinking “Enough is enough.”
But then I think about my former colleagues at the Allegan County News and the countless amounts of publishers, editors, reporters, sales reps, circulation directors, production crews, and digital teams out there working hard to put out their newspaper day after day.
To them, I say keep rowing, keep sailing, even if it’s through choppy waters.