Hometown newspapers have daunting responsibility to provide credible information

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Having spent more than 30 years of my life working at major newspapers and national chains, I’m qualified to talk about the state of media. As the need for credible information grows, especially in the age of COVID-19, so does the need for residents to rely on their hometown papers.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 61% are getting their information about the deadly virus from their local newspapers compared to national outlets.

As we continue to move through this worldwide maze of misery, I suspect those numbers to shift closer to home.

The research company concluded while the pandemic is global in scale, Americans are relying more on their hometown newspapers for information.

But what is a local newspaper?

Just because most cities have their own newspaper, doesn’t make them local. It’s not possible to have the pulse of Clay County when some of your work is done in other states. Local coverage can’t be done by long distance and the internet. Face to face, front and center, is the only way to get the whole story.

Clay County Health Department Administrator Heather Huffman told the Board of County Commissioners Tuesday our county probably won’t get any of the 170,000 Pfizer vaccines in the first wave of medicine headed to Florida next week. You won’t see that on any of the national cable outlets. In fact, you won’t find that in any other local news outlet, including ones based on the other side of the river. By design, they have to paint with a wider brush to include everyone in a 100-mile radius.

A hometown newspaper should operate within its local borders.

There’s no question the virus has affected Clay County in a severe way. As of Wednesday morning, 8,730 people have tested positive in the county for COVID-19. Of them, 162 have died and 508 have required hospitalization. Those numbers are shocking, especially since they involve our family, friends and neighbors.

Clay County faces other issues. There is a desperate need to help our needy neighbors. Some are hungry. Some are cold. Many are desperate.

As we try to find our own ways through the pandemic, it’s important to remember the people who’ve either lost their way or don’t have one. By helping during a time of adversity, 2020 can be defined more by the way we respond to our challenges than a virus.

Our children also face a crisis in education. Some are trying to learn from home. Others are back in the classroom. It’s a mishmash of responses to a virus that pushes our educators to work longer hours and be more creative. Teachers have become every bit as essential as police officers, firefighters, doctors and nurses, especially since classrooms have become another battleground in the war against COVID-19.

That’s why we’re committed to focusing on our local news.

The Media Audit, an international research company, found that residents 18 and older spent more time reading local newspapers during the pandemic than compared to last year. The same audit found that more residents are watching less television and relying on their hometown newspaper for the information that affects their lives.

Pew also found half of the readers believe local newspapers report more accurately than regional and national outlets.

At the same time, readers are more apt to count on their local newspapers to affect their spending habits.

“Undoubtedly, the need for news about the pandemic, especially local statistics and local government guidelines and restrictions, was the primary driver of the increase in daily newspaper minutes in these markets,” said Nick Miller, vice president at The Media Audit. “Another factor, however, is the 70% of consumers responding to a Valassis survey saying they were more conscious of their household budgets during the pandemic, which likely increased the search for coupons in newspapers.”

According to Editor and Publisher, the Valassis survey found shoppers still rely more on coupons clipped from the newspaper than online.

“It’s difficult to know if these increases in average daily minutes among adults 18-plus and adults 18 to 34 will continue after the pandemic,” Miller said. “Nonetheless, more young adults have been exposed to newspapers, and likely many for the first time, motivating some portion to include newspapers in their future daily media mix.”

That’s a daunting responsibility for any local newspaper. But it’s one we’ve eagerly accepted.

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