Sunshine Week: Part I of three
Five minutes late, Darrell Todd Maurina sweeps into a meeting room and plugs in his laptop computer. He places a Wi-Fi hotspot on the table and turns on a digital recorder. The earplug in his left ear is attached to a police scanner in his pants pocket.
He wears a tie; Maurina insists upon professionalism.
He is the press — in its entirety.
Maurina, who posts his work to Facebook, is the only person who has come to the Pulaski County courthouse to tell residents what their commissioners are up to, the only one who will report on their deliberations — specifically, their discussions about how to satisfy the Federal Emergency Management Agency so it will pay to repair a road inundated during a 2013 flood.
Last September, Waynesville became a statistic. With the shutdown of its newspaper, the Daily Guide, this town of 5,200 people in central Missouri’s Ozark hills joined more than 1,400 other cities and towns across the U.S. to lose a newspaper over the past 15 years, according to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by the University of North Carolina.
Blame revenue siphoned by online competition, cost-cutting ownership, a death spiral in quality, sheer disinterest among readers or reasons peculiar to given locales for that development.
While national outlets worry about a president who calls the press an enemy of the people, many Americans no longer have someone watching the city council for them, chronicling the soccer exploits of their children or reporting on the kindly neighbor who died of cancer.
Local journalism is dying in plain sight.
A rock outcropping painted by a local tattoo artist to resemble a frog greets visitors who follow the old Route 66 into Waynesville.
Along with its sister city St. Robert, the military towns are dominated by the nearby Fort Leonard Wood, which has kept the county’s population steadily around 50,000 for the past decade.
Five of Waynesville’s eight city council members are former military, and Mayor Luge Hardman says the meetings run efficiently as a result.
“This is a small town where you can be from somewhere else and not feel like an outsider,” said Kevin Hillman, Pulaski County prosecuting attorney.
The Daily Guide, which traces to 1962, was a family owned paper into the 1980s before it was sold to a series of corporate owners that culminated with GateHouse Media Inc., the nation’s largest newspaper company.
Five of the 10 largest newspaper companies are owned by hedge funds or other investors with several unrelated holdings, and GateHouse is among them, said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who studies news industry trends.
Critics have said GateHouse and some other newspaper companies follow a strategy of aggressive cost-cutting without making significant investments in newsrooms.
GateHouse rejects the notion that their motivations are strictly financial, pointing to measures taken in Waynesville and elsewhere to keep news flowing, said Bernie Szachara, the company’s president of U.S. newspaper operations.
All newspaper owners face a brutal reality that calls into question whether it’s an economically sustainable model anymore unless, like the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post, the boss is the world’s richest man.
That’s especially true in smaller communities.
“They’re getting eaten away at every level,” said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst at Harvard’s Nieman Lab.
Newspaper circulation in the U.S. has declined every year for three decades, while advertising revenue has nosedived since 2006, according to the Pew Research Center. Staffing at newspapers large and small has followed that grim trendline:
Pew says the number of reporters, editors, photographers and other newsroom employees in the industry fell by 45 percent nationwide between 2004 and 2017.
In the mid-1990s, when former Daily Guide publisher Tim Berrier was replaced, the newspaper had a news editor, sports editor, photographer and two reporters on staff. Along with traditional community news, the Daily Guide covered the Army’s decision to move its chemical warfare training facility to Fort Leonard Wood in the 1990s, and a flood that swept a mother and son to their deaths in 2013.
As recently as 2010, the Daily Guide had four full-time news people, along with a page designer and three ad salespeople.
But people left and weren’t replaced. Last spring, the Daily Guide was cut from five to three days a week.
In June, the last newsroom staffer, editor Natalie Sanders, quit — she was burned out, she said.
She made a bet with the only other full-time employee, ad sales person Tiffany Baker, over when the newspaper would close.
Sanders said three years; Baker said one.
The last edition was published three months later, on Sept. 7.
“It felt like an old friend died,” Sanders said. “I sat and I cried, I really did. Because being the editor of the Daily Guide was all I wanted for a really long time.”
Adam Yeomans of AP is sharing this Sunshine Week report about the decrease in local newspapers across the U.S. and the impact on local communities.
Associated Press Business writer Alexandra Olson in New York and video journalist Peter Banda, from Waynesville, contributed to this report.
Follow Dave Bauder at https://twitter.com/dbauder and David A. Lieb at https://twitter.com/DavidALieb