January 5, 2012 in Washington Voices

Front Porch: Hyperlocal news had home at Star

By The Spokesman-Review
 

As a new year begins, another newspaper bites the dust. The Star (originally the Rathdrum Star), a weekly paper that covered the news of the North Idaho communities of Rathdrum, Spirit Lake, Blanchard, Athol and Hauser Lake, has closed its doors.

Unless you live in one of those communities, you may not care. I suspect a lot of the residents there don’t care just yet either, though I believe they will. But I think the demise of the Star says something particularly sad about the disappearing print media because weeklies just like the Star were held up as the hope for the future of print journalism.

Larger print publications than the Star have gone out of business as online access has radically changed how we consume news. Adapt or die. But it worked a little differently for news coverage in smaller communities, where that instant online reporting of local happenings wasn’t so readily available.

So I am alarmed at the death of the Star. It and papers like it provide the kind of hyperfocused local coverage for small communities that the bigger newspapers from surrounding larger communities didn’t. I remember a conversation a few years ago with my friend, the author and journalist Patrick F. McManus, in which he pointed to the Star and commented that this was where print journalism was going to flourish.

Also seated at the table that day was another friend, Tom Burnett, editor of the Star. Tom and I were reporters for The Spokesman-Review back in the days of manual typewriters and letterpress printing and go back a long way personally, as he and his wife and my husband and I have been close friends these many decades.

So when Tom came up with the idea eight years ago to start a weekly newspaper in Rathdrum, where he lives, prospects looked good. He had identified a market niche in an area largely overlooked by the larger dailies in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. He decided that his Rathdrum Star would be mailed free to all residents in the zip codes covered by the paper. It would be financed by advertising. The draw for local advertisers was that everyone in their service area would receive the paper no matter what – no need for picking it up at newsstands and no subscription fees.

Advertisers came. And it was good. Of course, Tom was pretty much a one-man band, reporting and photographing most everything himself. He also laid out the paper, paid the bills and did bank deposits. He worked six and a half days a week, 52 weeks a year, and never took a vacation. He even picked up the finished copies of the paper – all 10,000 of them – from his printer in Spokane and drove them to the post office for mailing. This was a huge commitment, yet Tom considered it a privilege to be able to provide the kind of news coverage that gave his community a real voice.

The pace that kind of commitment requires is telling, and at age 70, Tom doesn’t quite have the spring in his step that he used to. Even so, this was his passion. The looming increases in bulk mail rates and the probable increase in printing costs were a concern, but the real killer was his accounts receivable. “Those were about 75 percent of my decision to hang it up,” Tom told me.

Increasing numbers of people not paying their advertising bills has been a problem for years now, and I’ve been exhorting him to get tough about collections. Easy for me to say, I don’t have to live there. But Tom took the attitude that I think merchants in earlier times took in rural areas – like when the grocer would run a tab for you until harvest or until the economy turned around. Tom wanted to be a good neighbor and figured people would come through when they could, and he let them continue to advertise with the Star.

So a couple of years ago he began putting his personal resources into keeping the newspaper afloat. At our dining room table early in December, Tom told us he couldn’t afford do it any more, that the Star would have to fold at the end of 2011. He was sad – but not so much because of unpaid accounts. He regretted that, of course, but the most painful thing was the loss of a voice for the communities of North Idaho.

No other news media outlet would really care about the small stuff that keeps a community in touch with itself – a report of donations to the food bank, a student winning a spelling bee, machinations in city hall. Oh sure, let there be an explosion along Highway 53 or something, and there will be coverage, but otherwise, the media is a no-show in small communities like Tom’s.

I contributed a letter to the editor to the Star in which I waggled my finger a bit at the community for not supporting their local paper better. I know, it was none of my business, and I’m pretty sure I probably shouldn’t show my face in Rathdrum anytime soon. But I still believe deeply that in time people will realize what is lost to them, at least I hope so.

In the final issue of the Star last week, Tom provided a recap of the year’s news in North Idaho, information about a town hall meeting, a story about a fund to help a local priest get back on his feet, a community events calendar, the honor roll list from Lakeland Junior High School, photos of construction projects in Rathdrum, sports scores from local schools, a feature on a girl who knits scarves – and more.

It was everything a small community weekly paper should be. And now, like hundreds of papers across the country, it’s done.

I guess weekly newspapers won’t be the savior of print journalism after all.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@ comcast.net. Previous columns are available at spokesman.com/ columnists.


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