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Community Newspapers Truly Are ‘Beacons In The Darkness’

For thousands of young journalists, they start their careers and earn their deadline spurs working for community newspapers.

Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Mike Royko’s first job was at City News Bureau. But he quickly snagged a job at Lerner Newspapers, then ascended to the Chicago Daily News, becoming one of the best U.S. columnists.

This writer labored for class credits for more than three years on the Columbia Missourian while earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Missouri journalism school. After graduation in 1968, I landed a job as a financial writer at the Daily News.

Later, I worked as a sports copy editor, was promoted to real estate editor, and when the Daily News folded in 1978, I was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times, eventually rising to assistant managing editor of business and real estate news.

The role of small-town and community newspapers in developing the careers of young journalists is why veteran Chicago journalist and author Dave Hoekstra’s new book—“Beacons in the Darkness”—is an important read.

The book is an impressive yarn on the history and survival of more than 15 family-owned community newspapers coast-to-coast in 10 states—from Charleston, SC to Bakersfield, CA. Over four years, Hoekstra traveled more than 8,000 miles interviewing dozens of publishers, editors, and reporters—people who are trying to keep the lights on at community papers nationwide amid buyouts, declining revenues, fake news, and a global pandemic.

Hoekstra, an award-winning former Sun-Times journalist, spent time in rural Illinois at the Hillsboro Journal-News in downstate Hillsboro, IL.

“To understand a community newspaper like the Journal-News, you need to understand the meaning of community, and the idea that the sense of place these publications are trying to foster is becoming more distant in modern America,” Hoekstra, writes in the book’s introduction. “This is not just a book about journalism. It is not another account of the miseries of the newspaper industry,” Hoekstra writes. “It is a book about the vanishing terrain of community ties and dedication to the common good. It is a celebration of the potential of the newspaper model when it embraces and understands neighbors and possibilities.

“Beacons in the Darkness” provides an intimate view inside the “corn-cob” organizations that still publish photos of the local bowling league and celebrate the giant mushrooms grown on the edge of town in farm country.

Hoekstra also recounts the sometimes-scandalous, but always industrious stories of families who built these fine newspapers and passed them down—sometimes through five generations—under such titles as: the South Carolina Post and Courier, the Bakersfield Californian, the Eureka Springs Independent (AK), the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Champaign News-Gazette, the Eldon Advertiser (MO), the Carroll Times Herald (IA), the Madison Courier (IN) and the Tri-State Defender (TN), to name a few.

In an interview with The Home Front, Hoekstra said small community newspapers continue to survive and thrive, while the greedy big corporate players are cutting budgets, reporters and editors, slowly killing major daily newspapers.

“At the Hillsboro Journal-News, owner John Galer, says they do it for love of the game,” Hoekstra said. “If we make a dollar at the end of the year, we are a success,” Galer told the author.

This paper, Hoekstra’s North Star in the book, is dedicated to the meaning of community, respect of history, humility and empathy in a town of 6,000 people.

When Hoekstra first visited the Journal-News newsroom in the spring of 2019, it was a throwback experience—like a scene from the 1948 movie, “Call Northside 777,” starring Jimmy Stewart.

“There were four staffers in the quiet office. No one was on their cell phone or iPad,” he wrote. “Instead, they talked in hushed tones as they wrote stories. It appeared as if they should have been writing on typewriters and their world was all black and white.”

Today, Hoekstra believes that readers are “hungry for real local news. Reporters take chances in small community papers,” he wrote.

This writer believes “Beacons in the Darkness” should be required reading in every high-school English class and in all journalism schools in America, including one of the finest—the University of Missouri.

Despite Hoekstra’s fine work outlining survival techniques of successful community newspapers, U.S. newspapers continue to die at a rate of two per week, according to a report by the Northwestern University School of Journalism.

Some 360 newspapers have shut down since the end of 2019, including 24 community weeklies. According to the Northwestern report, an estimated 75,000 journalists worked in newspapers in 2006, and now that’s down to 31,000.

“Beacons in the Darkness,” (289 pages, published in late 2022 by Evanston-based Agate Publishing) is available for purchase at Barnes & Noble, at local independent book stores, and on Amazon, in paperback ($18.99) and Kindle ($9.99).

About Inside Publications

Although the newspaper you are reading is not included in Hoekstra’s book, it could have been. Inside Publications is the last family-owned and operated neighborhood newspaper serving the North Side communities of Chicago.

Inside’s mission statement: “We are your friendly neighborhood newspaper serving Chicago’s better North Side neighborhoods,” noted publisher Ronald Roenigk, who also lists himself as “janitor” on his website.

“Our community papers are offered free to our readers courtesy of our advertisers,” Roenigk said. “We are proud members of many chambers of commerce, neighborhood associations, local professional and social service organizations and we have an open-door policy to all inquiries.”

Roenigk also is proud of another mission: “To get hard core criminals, who have no fear of police, off the street.” His papers print more than 100 column inches of crime reports each week. “Demand for local news has never been stronger,” he said.

The history of Inside Publications in Chicago goes back over a century. The Booster, Skyline and News-Star newspapers were founded in January of 1904 as part of the Lerner chain of community newspapers serving Chicago’s Near North, North and Northwest Sides.

In 2009 those papers were purchased [Skyline in 2012] by publisher Roenigk who merged them with his own community newspapers. Each edition is devoted to news, events and the promotion of better business throughout the paper’s territory.

“As a free newspaper, our sole source of income are the businesses who buy advertising,” he said. “Our 108 years in business speaks to our success in delivering the product into these market areas, and serving as a vehicle for our advertisers’ messages.”

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