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Virginia Loses 1st Newspaper (More TK)

The Clarke Courier was a small newspaper for a small place. Its circulation was but 2,240, but in a county of just 14,000 people, that meant that if you wanted to know what was going on in Clarke, you had better check the Courier.

No more. The Courier last week became Virginia's first paid circulation newspaper to die in the epidemic of closings, layoffs and cutbacks that are part of the dismantling of the American news infrastructure. It won't be the last.

More than 10,000 journalism jobs have disappeared from U.S. newspapers so far this year, a pittance compared to what the automobile industry is going through, but a huge excision from the country's newsgathering and reporting capabilities. And in communities such as Clarke--located just beyond the edge of sprawl west of Loudoun County (Routes 7 and 50 go through it)--

The Courier, a weekly, had been publishing since 1869, not missing a beat even during the Great Depression. The paper was deeply rooted in its home--it had only 10 publishers over its long history. And one man--G. Kenneth Levi--was editor or publisher of the paper from 1932 to 1981. His sons worked at the paper and his wife wrote a column for it. They have all died.

The paper was just sold to a new owner last year. But the publisher of the Winchester Star was unable to save the Courier. The problem was not circulation or readership--they held steady, as they have for most community weeklies. After all, local news is one commodity that is still available primarily from newspapers--the wire services and aggregators (YahooNews, Google News, etc.) that have turned national and foreign news into a nameless, brandless stream of free, raw data don't handle local news. But ad revenue, the lifeblood of journalism, dried up, both because of the recession and because of the massive shift of advertisers' dollars, interest and energy from the old standby of print papers to a hodgepodge of other outlets, both online and not (mostly to nowhere, actually--this is the great unwritten story of the dismantling of the news industry, the concomitant decline of the advertising and public relations businesses).

The death of the Courier follows a familiar darkening of downtown Berryville, the county seat. As the paper reports in its final edition, "Within the past year, the Gold Leaf gift shop closed, The Daily Grind and Berryville News Stand closed, Berryville Graphics laid off 70 workers, and American Woodmark Corp. announced that it was closing its Berryville plant. Downtown now has more than 11,000 square feet of empty space."

But two of those stores have reopened, and the town is gearing up to attract new businesses. No such optimism exists for replacing the Courier. Last week, a high school softball pitcher named Jordan Wolford hurled a no-hitter, a big story in the Courier. Such an achievement might get noticed by one of the surviving papers from surrounding areas--perhaps the Northern Virginia Daily or the Winchester Star. But you won't find a word about the no-hitter on Google News. But regular coverage of the county's high school sports teams? Probing reports on the county's economy, government, schools and crime? Nope.

The only paper that really cared about Clarke County is gone. Will life in Clarke be diminished as a result? People aren't exactly broken up about the paper's death. It's just another sign of the times. But it says here that over time, each lost strand of community adds up to more disconnected lives. The web makes up for that kind of lost connection in many ways--smaller groups of neighbors may find each other through community bulletin boards and listservs, and certainly people organize themselves and find one another online by interests, political activities and hobbies. But a service that listens to people and tells them about each other's lives where they live has been an essential organizing concept in how we live for nearly half a millennium. We'll certainly figure out a way to reinvent that connection, probably better than it's ever existed before. We just haven't gotten it done yet; we're too busy taking apart the old jalopy.

Join me Thursday for the last regular edition of "Potomac Confidential"--straight up at noon here on the big web site, where we'll talk about whatever's on your mind.

By Marc Fisher |  June 1, 2009; 8:22 AM ET  | Category:  Business , Newspapers , Virginia
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While we await a successful new model for disseminating news, I can't help but think, however, that breaking the connection between advertising dollars and news is a good thing.

What will replace these dollars remains to be seen.

Posted by: smssms | June 1, 2009 11:55 AM

Its a difficult time for the Newspaper business as news shifts to a new model. Ultimately some form of the daily paper should survive, perhaps in the form of an "e-paper". For example, Newspaper X sells a "kindle" like device in the form of a contract (12 payments of $30) and a service agreement. The Kindle comes with a "free" year of the paper. After one year of reading the paper on the Kindle, at least some portion of the users (perhaps a large portion of the users) will pay for a monthly subscription for the e-paper.

Would it work? I think so. Its not the same thing as "internet" browsing, and the key is to get the e-book into the hands of users and convince them to use it.

Posted by: dcraven925 | June 1, 2009 12:01 PM

Newspapers, which traditionally can be considered bloated monopolies, don't know how to innovate. The internet is killing the newspaper because anyone can get information quickly and just because newspapers go away doesn’t mean sources will. Why read about yesterday's news when you can get it online? Newspapers should begin to offer evening delivery.

Posted by: leeh11281 | June 1, 2009 12:11 PM

In the next few years as local coverage in newspapers and on the radio dries up it will be virtually impossible outside of major metropolitan areas to follow local politics outside of bumper stickers and yard signs and an occasional mailer. This includes things like who wants a zoning variance to put up a strip mall or hog farm next door to your idyllic country retreat. If I were an incumbent office holder I'd be pleased that mounting a challenge would be more difficult, but nervous as heck that it would be just as difficult to explain to voters why you made some controversial vote.

Lee11281 suggested evening newspaper delivery. In my childhood there New York City had seven papers, including several evening papers (the NY Post being the most prominent); the same was true in many other big and not so big cities. Virtually all of them either went under or became morning editions years ago as commuting and living habits changed.

Posted by: lpryluck1 | June 1, 2009 1:04 PM

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