I can’t let this moment pass without offering what I’m forced to call a eulogy. Like all eulogies, it’s something I’d really rather not do, but circumstances draw it out of me.
It was announced last week that my hometown newspaper, Menno’s Hutchinson Herald, will be shutting down next month. The news was tough to take, but it wasn’t shocking. This 137-year-old weekly is facing a fate that’s happening to too many small-town newspapers these days.
Let me reword that: It’s happening to too many TOWNS these days. Once a small town loses its newspaper, it really loses a piece of its soul and identity. It loses something that it has called its own, something that devoted itself to informing a very select and special group of people — the residents of that community. When the paper vanishes, so does something that serves almost as the town’s connective sinew. The town, not the newspaper, is the real loser.
Still, in this particular moment, two words come to mind: Thank you.
I’m thankful that, when I was growing up in Menno, there was such a thing called the Hutchinson Herald, or the “Hutch,” as we referred to it. (That’s also what we used to call the Hutchinson County basketball tournaments before they, too, were swept into extinction years ago.) I looked forward to that newspaper arriving in the mail every Wednesday because I knew that the paper would be all about me. Not me personally, mind you, but “me” as in the little community that was my life.
Where else was I going to get a complete rundown of how Menno’s sports teams were doing, from varsity or amateur level right down to the youngest kids on the court or field?
Where else would I have found information on events coming up at the school gym or the local churches?
What else was going to give me a weekly reminder of what was playing at the Roxy Theater? (Yet another ghost.)
How else was I going to know what was going on in Wittenberg or Olivet without reading the “Wittenberg and Olivet News” section?
What else would have our slow-pitch softball league standings?
Only the Hutch.
The paper, which was owned for more than a century by the Headley family before they sold it several years ago, also gave me one of my first writing opportunities outside of my school newspaper. Maybe those little articles weren’t earthshaking in the scheme of the world or even the town, but they meant a lot to me at a time when I needed some meaning to guide me.
So, yes, I’m thankful for that little weekly newspaper. It was an intimate publication that enlightened and broadened me in numerous ways that I surely took for granted.
However, these are different times, and the hard fact is that newspapers are struggling in many places. There are myriad reasons why, as well as specific circumstances unique to each situation. Frankly, one of the main culprits — along with shrinking towns and a devastating shift in the retail paradigm — is that the printed product is less embraced by a segment of a busy population, especially younger people who grew up staring at computer screens and find little time for something printed on paper. (This is why so many newspapers jumped online at the start of the internet age, as they realized both the threat and opportunity of the web.) Some people now see their phones — not a newspaper or a radio or television station — as their primary window to the world, and some embrace the fickle eddies and tides of social media as the only “news” source or advertising portal they need.
As a result, local news and local news gathering suffer, a fact that’s largely misunderstood by the general public. In March, a study by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans surveyed believed that local news outlets were doing “just fine” financially, and yet, only 14 percent of those people were paying for that news content. That’s an alarming, unsustainable disconnect.
The consequences are also alarming.
One such consequence is losing your local news source, your face, your voice …
In Menno, that means losing the Hutchinson Herald, which has served its readers since before South Dakota was even a state.
But after June, not anymore.
So, that’s my eulogy. It’s not an uplifting message, for the demise of any newspaper is never a satisfying ending. Instead, it’s a sad and empty tale in more ways than one can count.
And for those who counted on that paper as being part of their lives, it’s a grim loss, indeed.
Follow @kelly_hertz on Twitter.