My dad grew up in Lucas, Kansas. “Population 500-something if you include dogs,” I recall hearing somewhere along the way.

His graduating class had 11 members. He played every sport, because 100 percent participation was the only way they could form teams.

My grandparents were butchers with a small business downtown staffed by just the two of them.

Dad explained that by the time he left his last class and arrived at the Locker each day, they already knew what had happened at school. News traveled fast in his hometown.

Admittedly, Dad’s depiction may have been a bit of an exaggeration. I could not help but think of it, though, last night when I heard the question, “How do you get your news?”

In the most recent issue of its publication The Journal, the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) decided to take a deep dive into the current trends in print journalism in Kansas. Last night they hosted an event at their headquarters in Wichita to launch the edition titled, “Missing the News: the future of journalism in Kansas communities.”

With all the end-of-school-year activities in my household, including preparing sack lunches for a first-grade field trip today, I likely would have let that event slide by unattended. Then my friend Loni Jensen emailed me a simple “Maybe we should go,” and I was in.

Loni and I share a little routine, which is probably not all that unique for regular newspaper subscribers. After the latest editions hit our desks, we send text messages to each other to point out items worth noting. Despite our age difference of a decade, the news gives us common ground for conversation, analysis and perspective.

“How do you get your news?” the two men beside me asked as we broke off into small groups. They were shocked to learn I subscribe to five area newspapers. Living in Iola, their options for subscriptions are much more limited with only a local newspaper and the Kansas City Star on Sundays. The Wichita Eagle no longer delivers to Allen County.

Living in the Wichita metropolitan area, I have never considered the concept of a “news desert.” While there is only one county in Kansas without a newspaper (Elk County), 51 counties, nearly half the state, have only one operating newspaper within their borders.

Even in the areas rich with options, fewer people are paying to subscribe. A study cited in The Journal claims that only 14 percent of U.S. adults have “paid for given money to a local news source in the past year.” Among those who do not pay for local news, 49 percent claim “they can find plenty of free local news so there is no need to pay for it.”

Sitting at the crossroads of accessibility and perceived relevance, I arrived back at my office today to find two editions of the Newton Kansan pushed through the mail slot in the door yesterday by circulations employee Kenny.

Thumbing through the newsprint pages, I learned a mobile food truck will provide nutritious meals through the summer for children, work is under way to bring back an alternative high school on the campus of EmberHope, and Clarence Niles, longtime friend of United Way, died last Tuesday. Services will be June 3.

What is the role of the news in the community? Why is this worth using my generous monthly column space to discuss it?

Author Joel Mathis and Journal editor Chris Green offer “Saving the News: four takeaways for community members” in the article:

1) Community Interaction & Engagement: Event announcements and obituaries help us “connect with each other and preserve memories.”

2) Advancing and channeling opinions: Newspapers tackle the serious issues and bring us the facts we need to hold constructive “community dialogue and debate.” Editorials give a voice for all citizens to feel heard.

3) Solutions will be local: As with most challenges and opportunities, no one is going to rush in with buckets of money and save the news. It would seem, though, that the Harvey County track record proves the solutions can come from within.

4) Support your news organizations: Just like shopping at the local grocery store, subscribing to the paper is “a vote in favor of the prosperity of your city.”

When I read those four, the first two were easy to grasp and digest. From recruiting volunteers to donation drives to special events, the numerous nonprofit organizations in this community rely daily on the local media.

Issues in city, county and state government are made understandable by the meeting coverage, articles and editorials.

But the next two are more challenging, which leads me to Ed O’Malley’s concluding remark, “What are you going to do about it?”

As we departed, I looked at Loni and smiled. She knew just what I was going to do.

 

— Tina Payne is director of Harvey County United Way. She can be reached at harveyunitedway@gmail.com.