Our opinion: The closing of the Hutchinson Herald in Menno is a cautionary reminder that, without public backing from subscribers and the business community, newspapers could cease to exist.
A letter from the publisher to the Menno community in this week’s Hutchinson Herald expands on the difficult announcement last week that the June 27, 2019 issue of the Menno and Olivet weekly newspaper would be the last. It notes that closing a community newspaper is a big loss for any town. After all, newspapers inform, enlighten and connect people without bias or prejudice. Newspapers provide a unique public record of community life and history.
The decision to cease publication of the Herald and expand the Freeman Courier to include news from Menno starting in July was extraordinarily difficult. The Herald goes back to 1882 — seven years before South Dakota became a state. It’s been a central part of the lives of the people who have called the center of Hutchinson County home for 137 years.
Inevitably, the passing of time brings changes to all communities, institutions, expectations and how we do things. But the pressure on small rural communities — that includes the majority of the small towns and cities in rural America — is unique. The combination of dwindling population, consolidation of businesses and institutions, and increasing globalization in nearly every aspect of life is taking a toll. It’s a dramatically different social dynamic than what’s playing out in urban centers, where the population growth, land use issues, congestion and growing demands on infrastructure pose far different challenges.
What is happening in our rural communities is not unique to South Dakota. The reality facing much of rural America is that we’re reaching the point where independent sustainability is unrealistic. Look at consolidation of schools and sports cooperatives across South Dakota. The trend has shifted dramatically in the last 20 years, and it continues.
The residents of the Menno and Olivet communities who will be adjusting to a new way of staying in touch reflect that changing landscape. But we’re optimistic.
The commitment from the Courier to help the folks of Menno and Olivet “stay in touch” means that our communities will be sharing some things. The letter from the publisher in this week’s Herald notes:
“Menno will have its own section in the Freeman Courier. It may not be the 12-16 pages that you’re used to on a weekly basis, but it will be made for you and your community.
“You will also, of course, get to know the latest about what’s happening in Freeman, and Freeman will get to learn the latest about what’s happening in Menno. Who knows; it might even act as a conduit that brings the two communities closer together.”
The letter also notes a harsh reality: This is all about economics.
“One of the reasons many small community newspapers like the Herald are discontinuing publication is because of the financial struggles that are serious and deep. Fact is, it is impossible for the Herald to continue as its own newspaper because of the dollars and cents of it all. That’s what led to the decision to close up shop.
“But we still need support (from the Menno community),” the letter continues. “The more of it we get, the better the job we can do.”
Ultimately, this is a cautionary tale.
The Courier has been successful because of the support from the business community. Of course, subscribers pay to have their news printed and delivered. But without the ongoing support from the members of the Freeman business community who use our publications to promote their services and products and to support special newspaper-initiated projects, the Courier, as we know it, would cease to exist.
Bottom line is this: Businesses who use the Freeman Courier, the Area Wide Connection and the Dakota Action Rocket to advertise who they are and what they do are making a significant investment in the lifeblood of this community by supporting community journalism.
Paying attention to changing dynamics in how society functions is important for any business. That’s why the Courier has supplemented the print edition with an online presence for nearly two decades. It’s why the Courier has significantly expanded its service to the community to include graphic design, printing and new marketing services. Community support of these services is an important element in enabling the Courier to be true to its mission of service to the community.
The letter to the publisher to the Menno community concludes with this.
“Please walk alongside us. You’ll be glad you did.”
The same holds true in this community.
Jeremy Waltner has published the Courier and Herald since 2016