Many rural papers are one-person operations

By Rod Serfoss

I have a great deal of admiration for the smaller weekly newspaper publishers in rural Oklahoma. A growing number of them have other jobs because their communities can no longer support a full-time newspaper office.

In spite of that, they still have the passion to get the news out.

Many small town newspaper publishers are in the office before 7 a.m. A typical day ends after covering a sporting event, city council or the school board meeting that now, because of school consolidations, may be more than 30 miles from the town they live in.

Then there is the long day each week of putting the paper together followed by a mad dash to the print shop to pick it up. Then they insert (if they're lucky enough to have them), get the papers labeled and to the post office and finally fill the racks.

Now they can take a quick breath just before rushing, with camera in hand, to start the whole process over again.

Church is a place most people go to keep their life in balance. But for the small town publisher it is a place to answer questions about what you had and didn't have in that week's paper.

The small weekly's definition of an evening off is not having anything to cover so you can go to the office and write stories and work up the backlog of pictures you now have in your possession. Vacation is finding a week that you can put out the paper a day early so you can take a three-day getaway – without pay.

Call it lack of jobs, lack of trees, lack of rain, better birth control or the lack of sex, but the fact is that many rural communities in Oklahoma are dwindling.

With that comes an even bigger struggle to pay the utilities, the printing bill and the post office. No, I didn't forget payroll. The reality is that many rural papers are a one-person operation and the only way they get paid is if there is any money left at the end of the month.

Because of that, more and more small town publishers are doing other jobs to help subsidize the newspaper.

It is not uncommon to see the weekly newspaper being produced after the day care is closed, with a person selling an insurance policy and a classified ad at the same time or operating an antique mall in the same office as the newspaper.

We have seen a closed sign on a paper's office so the publisher can make an ambulance call and at one point a publisher in southwest Oklahoma cooked breakfast at his restaurant every morning, operated his flower shop during the day and then found the time and energy to put out a newspaper.

When the 2010 census figures come out most western Oklahoma publishers will jump for joy if the population of their community remains close to what it was 10 years ago.

For centuries there has been the provoking question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. In our industry the question has been which died first, the town or the newspaper?

The answer is simple: the town, because I have never seen a town that could support a newspaper not have one. Like many others, some day the number of rural community newspapers will shrink, not because of the decline of the newspaper industry but rather the decline of many rural Oklahoma towns.

The small weekly publisher has been forced to become creative in finding ways to keep the news coming to his or her community.

I appreciate their commitment to do so and hope their readers understand how lucky they are to have someone who is committed to report the news and preserve the history of their town.

© Rod Serfoss 2010

Rod Serfoss is publisher of the Clinton (Okla.) Daily News. This is the column he wrote after being named president of the Oklahoma Press Association, where this column first appeared.

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