In 2008, I wrote a post entitled Ye olde town crier… In it I wrote that sadly, but inevitably, town criers disappeared. They were replaced by a more modern form of communication—the newspaper. Yes, newspapers could now publish themselves on the Internet—but how could they monetize their sites sufficiently to meet expenses, when the Internet is awash with free news?
The answer is simple—the newspapers can’t monetize worth a dime. The conclusion is inevitable—newspapers will be joining the town crier, as another quaint historical footnote in the Wikipedia.
My old hometown, Lebanon, Illinois, population 4,400, has a newspaper called the Lebanon Advertiser. The paper recently published an article that they too would be passing away. The paper was established over a hundred years ago and I still receive it today in far-off California.
I would like to believe that, unlike the large daily newspapers, there is still a place for a small town newspaper. Where else will you read about the local homecoming parade, and who is running for town alderman? Certainly not in the major newspapers.
The mass media focuses on an ever-narrowing group of people bringing them celebrity, fame, and often vast wealth. As we grow poorer, the media lets us peek into the lives of an exclusive few—the poor watching the rich.
It doesn’t have to be this way. I gain more satisfaction and inspiration reading about a small boy I knew in Lebanon who went on to graduate from Lebanon’s college, became a teacher, and is now one of Lebanon’s aldermen.
Yes, Lebanon is a college town and home to successful and growing McKendree University—another place that may not make the network news.
McKendree started out as the Lebanon Seminary in 1828 and was originally built by a circuit rider—a Methodist preacher. McKendree was financed by donations from “the people of Lebanon, a village of about 200 souls,” as the town history states.
Lebanon has a history worth preserving and a newspaper worth preserving.
The article, below, in much better words than mine, is from the Lebanon Advertiser.
Consider the future of Lebanon’s paper
“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “To talk of many things: Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax …And whether pigs have wings.”
Maybe ten years ago I called a meeting, to be held in Mermaid House, to hear suggestions on the future of newspapering in Lebanon. About five people attended, and I did almost all the talking, quite the opposite of my intention.
Now it’s time to try again, although I won’t go so far as to call a public meeting, just comments on where we’re all going, as I’m now 71 and in rapidly failing health. We’ve tried to find a new publisher for the Lebanon paper, and the one qualified buyer studied our records and told us, quite correctly, he’d concluded the only way for the Advertiser to survive is for us to stay right here running it.
That, however, cannot last very long. And I’d really rather pull the plug deliberately than just let the Advertiser fail to appear the week after I become disabled or dead.
About 30 years ago I did a study of the figures involved in publishing a local newspaper. In those days, the state issued to us publishers a periodic report on sales tax returns to the cities of the state. More recently, those reports were discontinued, yet we could get them on request. More lately yet, they have been declared contraband to us, and we cannot discover them unless we can persuade the various cities to share with us the figures they get from the sales ax returns that come their way.
Anyway, I guessed that sales tax returns to the city should reflect retail sales locally, and that retail sales should give a fair indication of the potential for display advertising in the local newspaper.
In those days, we typically ran six pages a week of Lebanon Advertiser, whereas Trenton typically ran eight pages of Trenton Sun. Comparing those two figures to the sales tax figures for the two communities, it appeared that if Trenton business supported eight pages of local news-paper, Lebanon should support six, which it pretty much did, except that our advertising percentage has never been anywhere near where it “ought“ to be.
Then, moving from Trenton to Mascoutah, it appeared that the proportions and ratios indicated that the Advertiser should be a four-page newspaper. And compared to O’Fallon, Lebanon should have a single sheet with news on the front and advertising on the back.
In journalism school I was taught that newspapers need 60 per cent advertising in order to break even and that one keeps going at that figure only if things seem to be looking up toward the 70 per cent figure needed to make the newspaper a business worth continuing.
The Advertiser has tended to run anywhere from about 18 per cent to (sometimes) 40 per cent in recent times, most lately being the best years of our lives.
Thus, I’ve always said that we are low-potential, overachievers. But the Advertiser has kept us in hamburger, we live low on the hog, so-to-speak, and, as my dad used to query, “What else would we do?” And so the Church family has published the Advertiser on a donative basis for the past two generations.
Location, Location, Location
Lebanon lacks a homogeneous population, has no overall sense of community. Instead, we have several identifiable sectors, many of which do not shop locally, nor do much else on a communitywide basis. And all the apartment dwellings going up recently do not make for people putting down roots of local participation. That, in turn, results in few new subscribers to the local newspaper, while the older ones keep dying off or becoming too impoverished by the wreckage of the national economy to continue paying for anything they do not feel is an absolute necessity.
Nor is our local plight unique. When I studied journalism in university 50 years ago, the nation had seventeen thousand weekly newspapers and seventeen hundred dailies. By the mid 1990’s, those figures had dropped to ten thousand and one thousand. Now the count is lower yet. For example Chicago has gone from four major dailies to two, St. Louis from three to one, Belleville from two to one. Even the weekly newspapers have suffered the same fate, with Waterloo losing one of its two, the same for Carlyle and for Highland.
And it’s not just “the economy, stupid,” that is causing this problem. To some extent, times change, such as the advent of the internet, to which so many people now refer for whatever news they desire. And even in that last 50 years, the technology of newspaper production has changed dramatically, from “hot-type” letter-press to “cold-type” “photo-offset” and even beyond, from photographic plate-making to direct-to-plate electronic production. We’re the only paper I’m aware of that still uses film negatives in its production, and the Centralia Sentinel the only place know that continues to offer that method to the small papers for whom it prints—and we may well be the only one at all who still uses it. But I’m too old and far gone to make the new transition to all-electronic computer production and platemaking. So when the industry drops us, it’s all over.
Hope Springs Eternal
Still, it would be nice if Lebanon could keep a newspaper. And we’ve had plenty of them here, about 14 at latest count, and most of them hobby ventures, as often as not in conjunction with McKendree College, whose president sponsored the very first paper here, the Lebanon Journal of 1847. But modern times mean there’s more than good intentions involved in producing a local newspaper qualified for distribution by U. S. mail and legally entitled to publish public notices that count, with-out either of which it is inconceivable that a small newspaper could survive today.
The long and short of it is that Lebanon seems likely to lose its paper soon, the longest-lived of all those tried here and now a century old. Closest behind was the second Lebanon Journal, which lasted from shortly after the War Between the States to shortly after the first world war.
If anyone has reasonable ideas on how to keep things going, we’d like to hear them now. Thank you.
—Harrison and Harriet Church
Note from John Harding: A bit of history concerning The Lebanon Advertiser
SYLVAN E. WILLIAMS, printer and publisher, was born in Douglas County, Illinois, December 17, 1899. Both of his parents, Silas and Rosezella Williams, are living at Lebanon, Indiana.
In 1918 Sylvan was graduated from the high school of Lebanon, Indiana, and the two years following he spent in the U. S. Navy. Upon his discharge from the service, he entered a printing office, and at the same time took a course in printing and journalism, at Lebanon, Indiana. He worked at his trade for five years in Indiana before coming to Illinois in 1925 to take charge of the Advertiser, Lebanon’s first class weekly publication. This paper had previously been published by Gerking in 1911, Allen in 1917, and Bartlett in 1920. Soon after Mr. Williams took charge, he moved the printing plant to the place where it is now located, improved his equipment, and built an up-to-date establishment, from which he not only turns out a good weekly of from eight to fourteen pages, but also prints the McKendree Review and the Bulletin. He also does an excellent grade of job printing.
Mrs. Williams assists in the newspaper office, and her efforts have made the social news of the publication one of the leading pages in Southern Illinois newspapers. Mrs. Williams was formerly Miss Myrtle Smith, a native of the Hoosier state.
Mr. Williams is a capable newspaper editor, attends diligently to his business, and is a booster for civic and industrial improvement in his community.