There’s one thing they don’t teach you in journalism school about working in journalism:
Newspapers are businesses.
So are radio stations, TV stations, magazines, websites — in other words, virtually all sources of information about the world around us. Like all businesses, media companies have to make money to survive.
I started at the Star Courier a half-century ago armed with basic knowledge about news-gathering and writing, and expected to receive a good deal of on-the-job experience that would hone my skills as a reporter.
That happened, of course, but daily encounters with slim paychecks, bookkeepers demanding receipts for claimed expenses and learning that needed new equipment wouldn’t be purchased because it couldn’t be afforded also taught me, in short order, about the need for the newspaper to be profitable.
This simple and obvious truth explains the state of newspapers today — all newspapers, but especially small community papers like the Star Courier.
Newspapers and other media outlets get their revenues from two major sources: Circulation and advertising. And for newspapers, both of those sources have plummeted in the past couple of decades.
Circulation declines came first. People had always been able to turn on their radios and TVs for news broadcasts which could be much more up-to-the-minute than a daily newspaper, but looked to the newspaper for broader and more in-depth coverage.
Internet news sites offered both timeliness and detail, and newspapers haven’t been able to compete.
With fewer and fewer readers, papers couldn’t offer advertisers as much bang for the buck, which drove them away. At the same time, national and regional chain stores started putting the squeeze on smaller retail stores.
This has been especially true in Kewanee. The downtown was filled with local stores that were regular newspaper advertisers, but only a handful of such businesses remain.
Major retailers like Montgomery Ward, JC Penney, Sears, Spurgeons and True-Value Hardware once were found in Kewanee, but are long gone now.
There’s still a strong retail presence in Kewanee, but the major players — Walmart, Farm King, Menards — advertise through less-costly flyers inserted into the paper. When they advertise at all.
The trend has been for financially-struggling smaller papers to be purchased by large media companies. That was the case in Kewanee starting in the late 1990s, when Lee Enterprises — a media company based in Davenport which had owned the local paper since 1928 — transferred the Star Courier to a company called Liberty Group Publishing.
That started a downward trend in employment levels here, such that when I retired in 2017 there were fewer than 10 employees (down from the 40 or so who worked at the paper when I started there).
And now, I don’t know if anybody works for the Star Courier in Kewanee at all. As you know, the newspaper’s building at Main Street and Central Boulevard has been sold, and editor Mike Helenthal has moved on.
All of this mournful history is what led to a new direction for myself and onetime Star Courier reporter Susan DeVilder. Thanks to a website called NewsBreak, Sue and I can share our reporting with anyone who wants to log onto the site.
At the top of the NewsBreak screen is a bar with the message “Search locations, channels, topics, people. . .” Type “Mike Berry,” “Susan DeVilder” or “Kewanee” in there, and you’ll be taken to a page that displays our recent contributions to the site.
And if you click on “Follow” when you’re reading one of our stories, our work will come up whenever you log onto the site.
It’s easy. And it’s free.
If you don’t have a desktop computer, you can get a free NewsBreak app for your smartphone or tablet. The apps are free too.
If you don’t want to go through that process, and if you’re on Facebook, go to our Facebook page called “Kewanee News Now.” We’re linking to our NewsBreak stories through that page.
It’s a new era in local journalism, and while we can’t promise the vast quantity of local content that the Star Courier once offered six days a week, we hope to at least keep on top of the major local stories.