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Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Obituary for South Dakota newspapers

 The newspaper business in the East River of South Dakota is in its death throes.  Watching it die is not pleasant.  When newspapers announce that they are shutting down their printing presses, such announcements are the gasps of a dying enterprise.  The publishers will insist that they are changing with the times, but the blunt fact is that they are coming to an end.

In fact, they are already laid to rest as far being able to state the news in blunt, factual terms is concerned.  They have outlived their function when they can't state the facts, but have retreated to making feeble public relations gasps.

In April 2020, the Aberdeen American News announced that it was shutting down its printing press and that the newspaper would be printed at the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls.  It said:

Twenty-one positions will be eliminated at the American News. As a result of this transition, Sioux Falls will be adding production staff in the pressroom and in packaging, including press operators and packaging staff. Affected employees will be invited to apply.

Then yesterday, 20 months later, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader announced it was closing down its printing press and that it, along with the Aberdeen American News and the Watertown Public Opinion, would be printed in Des Moines, Iowa.  It stated:

The move means 24 people working in the press room, 15 full-time and nine part-time workers, will be allowed to seek employment elsewhere in Gannett or will receive severance.

If there was a Pulitzer prize for inanity, the Argus Leader would finally win some kind of award for its journalism.  Rather than saying it was firing 24 people, it says they "will be allowed to seek employment elsewhere..."  With news writing like that, the potential end of the newspaper will be a blessing to the literate world.  Editors I knew and worked with would rather be dead than let a line like that get into print.

And one must wonder if any of those 21 canned at the American News got jobs at the Argus Leader so that they could be canned again 20 months later.

Newpapers are keyed to operate around their press runs.  Morning papers tried to cover all that happened during the day preceding the printing of the morning paper.  In Aberdeen that all changed when the newspaper canceled its Sunday edition.  It could still get Friday night sports events into its Saturday morning edition, but Saturday events would be covered in the Monday morning paper.

When the Aberdeen newspaper was printed 200 miles away from its editorial offices, some changes in its coverage was obvious.  Some Friday night athletic events at the high schools and colleges were not reported until Monday morning, and that delay was noted by the local sports fans who like their weekends to be filled with news and chatter about local sporting contests.  There also was some gap between other events such as government and civic meetings and reports on them. 

Now Aberdeen is 480 miles from where its newspaper will be printed.  While copy can be transmitted electronically, it must be edited and assembled, then printed and hauled 480 miles to be delivered to the carriers for distribution.  In addition to the elimination of the production staff, the editorial staffs are also shrinking.  The news columns are meager with fewer capable people out in the communities keeping track of what is going on.

The newspaper business has been taken over by organizations that are interested only in multiplying their capital, not in telling the stories of our communities.  

Gannett publishing which owns the three South Dakota newspapers whose printing facilities are being shut down is the largest news publisher in the U.S.  It was bought out by a venture capital company, Gatehouse, which has presided over a decline in journalism in the past two years.  It is the old story of what happens when the bean-counters take over.

The Atlantic has a detailed story of what happened at the Burlington, Iowa, newspaper, titled WHAT WE LOST WHEN GANNETT CAME TO TOWN.  

 [The local] stories are the connective tissue of a community; they introduce people to their neighbors, and they encourage readers to listen to and empathize with one another. When that tissue disintegrates, something vital rots away. We don’t often stop to ponder the way that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone. As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another.

What Gannett has set up in South Dakota is a scheme that eliminates the most fundamental tool of the working press:  the press itself.  Consolidation of the press actually means termination of the press.  

Newspapers in South Dakota are an endangered species.  If they are to be revived, it will take journalists, not bean-counters. Editors, reporters, and publishers who really want to tell the story of America will have to work out the revival. Journalism provides the information that democracy feeds on.  Can they do it before the republic starves to death?  


Jerry K. Sweeney said...

I have my doubts that the South Dakota Legislature, the governor or the various agencies, will covered with the same degree of exactitude in consequence of the decision announced today. Verily, a circumstance that will surely gladden the heart of every America First Republican.

Anonymous said...

My grandfather on my mother's side spent his entire career selling advertising for the former Mitchell Daily Republic. After his retirement he wrote a historical column. My uncle after growing up in Mitchell spent years in journalism writing for the Milwaukee Journal. The Aberdeen American News was once a great newspaper and remember all the advertising for what was then a strong retail business community especially downtown. It's sad what has happened. I would not be surprised if it devolved into USA Today with a small South Dakota section with community briefs.

With the regional and community news vacuum could a new newspaper emerge provided there is advertising revenue? Could there be the advertising revenue?

Miranda Gohn

Jerry K. Sweeney said...

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