Grassroots journalism remains vital

People in Kansas, and across this country, depend on strong community journalism to keep them informed and connected to one another. In spite of all the inroads with social media, many of the folks who live in rural communities across Kansas still rely on home-town newspapers such as the Hoxie Sentinel where I grew up.

Just like the local grocery, school or courthouse, inhabitants of rural Kansas consider their community newspaper vital. Some even believe if they lose their paper, they could lose their entire town.

While in southwestern Kansas a couple weeks ago a long-time cattleman friend told me he'd be lost without his weekly paper. He told me, "Just like my livestock, we need to nurture this process. Folks gotta' support their local paper (advertising and subscriptions) just like they have to support other businesses up and down Main Street."

Community newspapers report the "real news." What's really happening in a small town or village. You remember, the local news -- the births, deaths, weddings, city council meetings, high school events, sporting events -- they cover it all.

As a youngster growing up in Sheridan County, I could catch up on all the events going on in all of the small villages in my county including Seguin, Studley, Menlo and Selden. While these communities were too small to publish their own newspaper, stringers (usually a volunteer with a flair for writing within the community) submitted this local news to the Sentinel each week.

Each community had a handle and the vital dinner parties, who visited whom and the weekly rainfall reports were found by reading the "Seguin Items" from my little burg of 50 people.

By the way, Vona Lee Dempewolf was a crack reporter and kept everyone in the know. Many of her sources went unnamed and some of this news was gathered by listening in on the party line. That's when six or seven families shared the same telephone line. If two people were having a conversation and a third party lifted the phone receiver, he/she could listen in on the conversation. Now that's another story in itself.

But back to local newspapers that remain the voice of rural communities. Today's volunteer organizations should make it a point to visit with the local newspapers in their region. Cultivating first-name relationships with reporters, editors and publishers is vital to getting the word out on what your organization is doing. It's all part of the process of community. Letting people know what you're all about.

While much of today's big city and national media have a less than stellar reputation, it's different in small towns. In small towns, people know their reporters and editors. One of the best ways for anyone in public life to connect with constituents is through community newspapers.

Coverage is different too. Community papers report the facts. Sometimes the large metropolitan papers miss the point and end up talking about themselves. They make the news -- they become the news.

Today, avenues for delivering news continue to expand. Social media continues to explode, especially among the younger crowd. Still, 171 million people in the United States read a newspaper -- in print or online -- on a weekly basis. More than 48 million read a paper daily.

Although there is no doubt print newspaper readership is slowly declining, reports about the pending death of the newspaper industry are exaggerated. Given the fragmentation of media choices, printed newspapers are holding onto their audiences relatively well. And nowhere is this more true than in rural states like Kansas.

John Schlageck, born and raised in northwest Kansas, is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas.