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Saving community journalism...

In a day and age when newspapers take a back seat to social media, there is hope on the horizon for print journalism and hope for those who support journalism. It comes in the form of a three-year-old weekly newspaper in South Dakota, the Belle Fourche Beacon.

In 2004, the Belle Fourche Post & Bee was sold to the Rapid City Journal, along with the Meade County Times in Sturgis. Lee Enterprises, the Omaha parent company of the Journal, closed the papers in November 2017. Not letting the corporation dictate what is news in Belle Fourche, Doug Cole started a newspaper called the Belle Fourche Beacon that’s been operating since June 2018. In addition, the former Valley Irrigator of Newell was revived and now takes up an entire section in the Beacon with a front page of its own.

Here’s what Cole said about the situation after the Journal purchased the newspaper in Belle Fourche, “It’s hard to overstate the vitally important role that a strong newspaper can play in improving the quality of life for residents of the communities they serve. It is an exercise in tying together the reality of the present with the possibility of the future.”

In effect, Cole saved community journalism in the northern Black Hills, and it’s obvious by the amount of advertising in the Beacon that he’s got plenty of community backing. The Bacon is just that, a beacon of light for this community of 5,800 that didn’t want its identity faded into social media oblivion.

Things haven’t developed so quickly in Sturgis, but Cole has printed sample newspapers in Sturgis called the Meade County Herald. There are a number of people in Sturgis who have contacted him about lack of news in the Journal. When the Journal bought the Belle Fourche and Sturgis papers, its publisher stated there would be a northern Black Hills page, and these communities would still have representation in Rapid City’s daily newspaper. That didn’t happen, or at least not nearly as well as it was perceived. The Rapid City Journal mistakenly assumed it would gain official county newspaper status for Meade and Butte counties. The plan backfired as all the legals were absorbed by the Black Hills Pioneer, a Spearfish daily newspaper.

Assume none of this happened, and both communities were left without a newspaper. There’s actually a pretty good example of what happens when a community loses its newspaper and the locals think Facebook is the best thing since electricity came to the farm.

Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan is the journalistic equivalent of a canary in a coal mine? The Moose Jaw Times-Herald, which had published continually for 123 years, folded Dec. 7, 2017. A traditional newspaper that reported on everything from who won the bonspiel to a fighter jet crash to a homicide in the city, it was a typical daily in the fourth largest city in Saskatchewan with its 34,000 residents.

Months after the Times-Herald closed, a free paper called the Moose Jaw Express began. It portrays itself as a newspaper that prints “good” news about the community. Moose Jaw is a nice community, but it’s not Shangri La and bad things sometimes happen. As a result of not having an objective source of journalism, crimes, public officials getting caught with their hand in the cookie jar, or weird circumstances that sometimes happen like a suspicious fire, will not get reported since it’s not “good” news.

The other problem is in the rumor mill. When rumors get started, it’s the newspaper that shuts them down. Social media isn’t going to step in, and TV in Regina doesn’t care about Moose Jaw. The only recourse is in CHAB radio. It’s a popular radio station but is like all others. News bites are limited - 30 seconds to a minute, and some of the fine details of an event are missed or misinterpreted. There’s Facebook, but it’s dangerous when it replaces local journalism. It’s near 100 percent opinion, and when there’s too many opinions, rumors get started and steam roll through a community.

Social media might be great for posting pictures of your kids or the beautiful cherry blossoms in your back yard, but it will never replace your newspaper. The people of Moose Jaw found that out. Thank goodness they won’t have to in Belle Fourche.

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