Despite the endless struggles that larger, daily print newspapers have battled for years — including circulation and revenue declines and increasing digital competition — geographically-bounded, small-town, weekly print newspapers across the United States continuously remain vital to their communities in the digital age, as they remain faithful to their fundamental function as providers of reliable and relevant news to their audiences.
This essay explores why these media remain relevant to their audiences in a global society. Ultimately, the researcher suggests geographically-bounded U.S. weekly print newspapers aren’t facing the same struggles as their larger brethren, the daily newspapers, and audiences across the board want local news in the global and digitally-transformed era because the local content generates a sense of connectedness to a place for news consumers by socially, politically, and economically mapping out community landscapes in a way that helps them make sense of their worlds.
Despite the endless struggles—including circulation and revenue declines and increasing digital competition—that larger daily print newspapers have been battling for years, geographically-bounded, small-town weekly print newspapers across the United States continuously remain vital to their communities in the digital age because they remain faithful to their fundamental function as providers of reliable and relevant news to their audiences (Abernathy, 2016/2019; Knolle, 2016; Radcliffe & Ali, 2017; Still Kicking, 2018; Cross, 2019 ). Also, recent descriptive data (Pew Research Center, 2019; Schroder, 2019) have revealed that despite globalization and technology transformations shaping news production and news access, news consumers still want local news – relevant information that pertains strictly to a certain locality. Ultimately, this researcher argues that audiences want newspapers to provide local news in order to help them create their sense of spaces and places.
While the scholarly literature on geographically-bounded, small-town weekly print newspapers is extremely thin in comparison to the literature on larger daily newspapers, some theoretical insights on this media segment have emerged over the years, with particular focus on the roles and functions of the hyper-local press, including their service as builders of social cohesion between community members (Janowitz, 1952), as advocates for local economies (Edelstein and Larsen, 1960), as resources for helping new residents integrate into the community (Ball-Rokeach, Kim, & Mattei, 2001), and as promoters of community discussions (Lewis, Holton, & Coddington, 2014).
Cultural and Humanistic Geography Theoretical Perspectives
To help further understand why geographically-bounded, small-town weekly print newspapers remain important to their audiences and why media consumers across the board still want local news in the digital age, this researcher contends the theoretical perspective of cultural and humanistic geography offers worthwhile insight into further understanding the social phenomenon of the need of local news in the current globalized and technologically-transformed era. Guided by this interpretive lens, the researcher suggests geographically-bounded, small-town weekly print newspapers remain relevant in the digital age because their audiences continue to think of these news outlets as trusted, reliable sources of information that will help them feel attached to community spaces and places. Furthermore, audiences across the board want local news, despite their growing unlimited access to information because audiences want genuine connections to places.
Within geographic theory, there are two dominant paradigms (Buchanan, 2009): Physical geographers who see places as geographically-bounded locations and cultural and humanistic geographers who view places as cultural and social constructs, meaning they are shaped by layers of influences (Massey, 1994). For cultural and humanistic geographers, there is a distinction between space and place. Space tends to be regarded as a geographically-bounded location. On the other hand, place is a significant social space that holds meaning to a person. For Tuan (1977), a place “achieves concrete reality when our experience of it is total, that is, through all the senses as well as with the active and reflective mind” (p. 18). In other words, places are significant to people because of the attached experiences and meaning(s) they have put on them.
For cultural and humanistic geographers, meaning gets attached to a space through the intertwining of time with social, political, and economic influences (Massey, 1994; Couldry, 2003). Moreover, cultural and humanistic geographers believe news media are among the multiple layers that assist in converting a space into a place that holds meanings for audiences by mapping out people, traditions, institutions, and politics within communities (Figure 1). Understanding the construction of space and place is important, because ultimately, places are about the human experience – the connection people have with other people, their hometown, their nation, and/or their past (Tuan, 1977; Buchanan, 2009).
The Newspaper’s role(s) in Constructing Space and Place
Over the years, media scholars have examined the newspaper’s role in creating this sense of connecting with and belonging to a space, and the construction of a place – a community with meaning to its members (Edelstein & Larsen, 1960; Ball-Rokeach, Kim & Matei, 2001; Buchanan, 2009; Robinson, 2013). At the hyper-local, geographically-bounded newspaper level, conceptual insights have emerged, showing media producers influence neighborhood place identity simply through the way in which they frame the news about people and places in the community and by the types of news stories they choose to publish or not publish (Martin, 2000); generate geographic knowledge by informing audiences through news topics and stories of community official and non-official leaders, community history, and community values (Howe, 2009); create senses of place through their news coverage by serving as community advocates, boosters, critics, and watchdogs (Cass, 2006); and help people stay connected to their communities through online and print subscriptions long after they’ve moved (Robinson, 2013).
Additionally, the extent to which small-town presses create meaning within places for audiences was captured in Wotanis’s (2012) study of the impact of a local, small-town newspaper moving its newsroom out of the area that it served. The study showed community members felt senses of loss after the move, as the newspaper helped construct and maintain the identity of the town to which it belonged. Together, these studies on the local press show the significant impacts geographically-bounded, small-town weekly print newspapers, and local news in general, have in creating spaces and places for their audiences.
Cultural and Humanistic Geography in a Global World
Over the years, scholars have argued for the need to re-conceptualize the appropriateness of cultural and humanistic geography in a global world. For example, Morley (2000) has argued television globalizes the “home,” and ultimately weakens a person’s local connections. Couldry (2003) has contended there is no “place,” but rather a global society that is made up of “places.” Sylvie and Chyi (2007) claimed in their study on the role of geography in online newspaper markets that while the Internet opens doors for media organizations to very wide audiences, newspapers do not always win over those audiences, as their content isn’t always relevant. Furthermore, Mersey (2010) concluded that because of the Internet, localities are no longer distinct from each other, and therefore, theoretical models that aim to understand media use, media production, and media roles in the community have become somewhat irrelevant in the emergent media landscape. More recently, Hess (2013) argued that in light of the changing media landscape, the concept “geo-social” might best be used to describe the way in which scholars understand how newspapers create senses of identity/indentities for their communities without restricting them to specific geographical spaces.
In a Global World, Hyper-Local Print Newspapers Still Relevant
This researcher agrees with the above scholars that there is a need to constantly examine how technological and global changes impact media and their influences in creating spaces and places for audiences. And while the researcher believes it is important to recognize the influences of the Internet on a person’s sense of space and place, the researcher contends that audiences of geographically-bounded, small-town weekly newspapers still heavily rely on the print products over the digital versions, unlike larger newspapers that have continued to lose print circulation revenues (Schwartz, 2017; Still Kicking, 2018). This indicates geography remains a central concern in the production of news for geographically-bounded, small-town weekly newspapers. Therefore, theorizing the function(s) of the geographically-bounded, small-town weekly newspapers and audiences’ desires for local news through the interpretive lens of cultural and humanistic geography remains relevant in the current technologically-transformed era.
While the above exploration of weekly print newspapers through the interpretive lens of cultural and humanistic geography is far from exhaustive, the purpose here was never to present a formal study on the topic. Rather, the researcher hopes this essay lays some groundwork for additional critical scholarly inquiry into why geographically-bounded U.S. weekly print newspapers are surviving, and in some cases exceeding expectations, as well as why audiences still want local news in the digital and global age. To help answer these why questions, the researcher suggests future scholarship should examine the news production methods currently employed by geographically-bounded U.S. weekly print newspapers through the interpretive lenses of cultural and humanistic geography. Understanding the practices in which these newspapers construct spaces and places for their communities and readers is vital, as it is these practices that enable this segment of the media industry to remain faithful to its fundamental function as providers of reliable and relevant news to audiences in the current media climate.
Ultimately, this researcher suggests geographically-bounded U.S. weekly print newspapers aren’t facing the same struggles as their larger brethren, the daily newspapers. Audiences want local news in the global and digitally-transformed era, as local content generates a sense of connectedness to a place for news consumers by socially, politically, and economically mapping out community landscapes in a way that helps them make sense of their world. Simply put, the researcher argues that this sense of connection generates personal and social identities for readers, which provides meaning and purpose to their lives, motivates their behavior, and ultimately guides them in making sense of the worlds around them (Owens, Robinson & Smith-Lovin, 2010; Oyserman, Elmore & Smith, 2012). Furthermore, the researcher contends the insights into media influences on a person’s sense of connectedness to spaces and places might provide valuable lessons to newspaper organizations struggling to survive the emergent media landscape.
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