The Official Newspaper for Foster County

Independent to 'headline' national study

Once again, the Central City will be at the forefront of innovation. This time, it's the local newspaper you're holding in your hand that needs a reinvention.

The time for change is now, and with help from national researchers, the Foster County Independent will be the first and only newspaper in North Dakota to test a new business model for community news.

Teri Finneman, a tenured professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, chose Carrington as the pilot North Dakota community for her "Reviving Rural News" initiative aimed at preserving and strengthening newsrooms in rural communities.

"When I am determining which newspapers I want to work with, the very first thing that I look at is who the publisher is," Finneman said. "Because I want to work with a publisher who I know is going to be innovative, who cares deeply about journalism and is invested in making their newspaper a national model for the rest of the country, and Amy does that. Amy fits all of the criteria."

For the next six months, the community of Carrington will be the testing grounds for innovative solutions identified by Finneman and her team.

"Local newspapers are most critical for democracy and for our nation," Finneman said. Yet, since 2004, the U.S. has lost a quarter of its community newspapers – more than 2,500 in total – many of them in counties with no other news sources. It's time to reverse the trend.

Finneman knows firsthand what happens when a community loses its newspaper. In addition to her roles as professor and researcher, she is also a publisher. She is at the helm of a nationally recognized student-run news source called "The Eudora Times," which she opened in 2019 after the community of Eudora, Kansas, had been without a newspaper for 10 years.

Through both research and lived experience, she discovered that community newspapers are one of the only industries in the country operating on a business model that hasn't changed in 200 years.

The model currently in place for delivering community news dates back to 1833, when Andrew Jackson was president. The "penny press" model was founded by Mr. Benjamin Day. He said, "The object of this paper is to lay before the public, at a price within the means of every one, all the news of the day, and at the same time offer an advantageous medium for advertisements." That's right, newspaper publishers have made a living off of cheap subscriptions and advertising since 1833.

Case in point: right now, anyone can pick up a copy of this newspaper for $1 on newsstands, a price that hasn't changed in decades.

Despite recent increases, a one-year subscription to the Independent still costs less than $1 a week for any North Dakota resident – 94 cents per week, to be exact. Meanwhile, it costs more than twice that to buy a mass-produced bottle of pop or a candy bar from the local convenience store.

Yet, it takes an average of 200 hours of staff time per week to gather the news, capture photos of local sports and community events, and produce an issue of the newspaper.

On top of that, the price to print and mail the newspaper also continues to increase.

"Change is not the enemy, Complacency is."

"Something needs to change, and this newspaper's publisher and staff will not be complacent," said Amy Wobbema, publisher of the Foster County Independent. "We are the only newspaper in North Dakota participating in this study, so we will write the playbook for sustainability that other community newspapers throughout the country can utilize."

The work begins this week, when Finneman will lead a focus group with local citizens to gain insight on how readers and advertisers view the newspaper and what new methods of revenue generation might be effective here. Then, she'll take what she learns and come up with ideas for Independent staff to implement, documenting community response throughout a six-month period.

"The town of Carrington is going to play a critical role in the national success of this experiment in saving local news," Finneman said.

This will be a homecoming of sorts for Finneman. She is a native of Hazen, N.D. and a former reporter for Forum Communications-owned newspapers and WDAY-TV personality.

All readers are welcome and encouraged to participate, first by filling out a short survey available here: Paper copies of the survey will be available at the Independent office starting July 8.

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