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When Bill Underhill moved west after World War I, he decided to homestead in Twentynine Palms, California. He helped build the first roads, the first swimming pool and the first American Legion Post. To help the community, he started the first weekly newspaper in 1935, the four-page Desert Trail, which he published with his wife, Prudence. This mural is on The Desert Trail building and was painted by Susan Smith Evans. Photo: Murals of 29 Palms
Most county seats in rural Missouri are configured in about the same way. Generally speaking, in the center of the town is a town square, and in the center of the square is the courthouse. Around the outside of the square is the business district. It used to be that town squares had stores where residents could buy clothing, footwear, groceries, prescription medications, toiletries, appliances, and just about anything else that families and farms would need. On the square you’d also find a newspaper office.
While many of the stores are gone from small town squares, local newspapers are still there and widely read within their communities. Most of the papers in the towns near my home sit either on the square or on Main Street. Anyone who wants can walk through the front door and speak to the editor to share news, curry favor for political goals, seek community support, or just to pick a bone regarding the most recent editorial. The way small town editors continue to operate their publications and serve their readers is a story in small town entrepreneurship worthy of the front page on any paper.
Last year I got to know several editors in northwest Missouri. They are all public spirited, dedicated to their communities, and savvy business people. All of them are principled, and most are political. Each paper has a personality of its own based on the beliefs of the editor and the community it serves. (One of the toughest situations I’ve ever been in was as a candidate from one political party seeking support from an editor who obviously favored the other.)
I learned last year that not all the editors of the local papers share my politics, but I respect them just the same, because they embody the gritty strength and determination of freedom of speech that, to me, symbolizes American values. They are values that seem equally tied to my own profession: farming.
An abandoned newspaper office in Baird, Nebraska
Photo: Bill Walsh
The recent sale of Dow Jones (and The Wall Street Journal) to Rupert Murdoch seems a precursor to bigger and badder things for newspapers in general. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, the dismantling of newspaper family dynasties generally happens by the third generation. Analyst John Martin compared news dynasties to family farms that are split up among heirs and generations to the point that they become impossibly divided. It’s an interesting comparison. From what I know both of farming and reporting the news, I would tend to agree.
In the North Platte Bulletin, Editor George Lauby has written a story about some Sandhills ranchers who are concerned about changes in ownership of large tracts of land in their state. For example, billionaire Ted Turner now owns five percent of Cherry County, the largest county in Nebraska. Turner’s Cherry County acreage is equal in area to all of Douglas County, where Omaha is located. Not only are individuals like Turner a concern, but institutions like the Nature Conservancy also draw some attention as they control increasing numbers of acres to the possible detriment of communities and family ranchers.
Across broad reaches of Middle America, there are similar concerns about ownership of land and origin of our food. In Vernon, Wisconsin, residents are pondering the impact of CAFO agriculture — the mega-operations of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. One resident, Patrick Strickler, said he saw an old struggle in the works. “I am seeing here a classic issue in the American frontier and the American way of life in which we have large corporate interests at work,” Strickler said. “They are pursuing their own earnings and investment interests. That’s good; it has driven our economy… But frequently those interests come into conflict with the existing infrastructure of an area like Vernon County. What I see here tonight is a case of a bunch of people who have a very strong shared interest in the future of Vernon County somehow being led into a dispute among ourselves over who is right and who is wrong when in fact we are all right. We are all interested in the good of Vernon County.”
The Alcona County Review of Harrisville, Michigan
The San Francisco Chronicle tells of wineries placing themselves up for sale to corporate bidders that consolidate and control increasing numbers of family owned vineyards in the Napa Valley. Such large ownership of well-known labels, and soaring land prices, make it difficult for small vineyards to compete. This is an interesting parallel of agriculture, because in Missouri at one time, almost every county had at least one vineyard. Only recently has Missouri winemaking enjoyed a resurgence in popularity after losing nearly all its wine production capability following the turn of the century.
Because newspapers in America stand for and help defend the freedoms in our Bill of Rights, they seem to be particularly important to America. Local newspapers, like local businesses and local churches, are mainstays of rural communities. All bring the community together in different ways and help preserve them with common goals, common benefits, and common understandings.
Most importantly, they bring us together with common knowledge of our communities and the world in which we live.
As a human being, it is important for me to know where my food comes from and who produces it.
As an American, it is just as important for me to know the same thing about the news.