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A southwest Kansas newspaper printing press is an oasis in an expanding news desert


Newspaper closures hit less-populated rural communities especially hard. That's because often there's no replacement if a newspaper shuts down and no place to turn for important local news. But several towns in rural Kansas are bucking that trend. Their lifeline is a resilient printing press that's been in business for more than a hundred years. Here's Calen Moore of the Kansas News Service.

CALEN MOORE, BYLINE: Liberal, Kan., population 19,000, is in the rural southwestern part of the state. It's about a four-hour drive from Wichita, the state's largest city. In Liberal, there's an unassuming warehouse that contains something increasingly rare for a sparsely populated area - a printing press churning out thousands of newspapers.


MOORE: The operation produces nearly 20 weekly papers for some of the small towns in the region, plus Liberal's own paper, the Leader & Times. Workers change out the metal plates used to print images for each of the different communities.


MOORE: It's all part of the effort to slow the growth of news deserts where people can't find local news. Earl Watt, owner of Liberal's paper, says it's an essential part of the community.

EARL WATT: There are certain fundamental things that make a town a town. One of those, in my view, is a newspaper.

MOORE: Watt has been in the business for more than 30 years. His symbiotic relationship with the surrounding papers, desperately trying to stay open, allow him to keep his own paper in print.

WATT: Having their local newspaper keeps the community pride high. It keeps the community engaged and informed.

MOORE: A Northwestern University report on local news found that over the past two decades, more than 2,900 weekly newspapers have closed down, due to costs and low readership. In Kansas, over half of the state's counties have either just one newspaper or none at all. That's according to a study by the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media. But having a printing press nearby keeps newspapers like the Hugoton Hermes going. Hugoton is 30 miles down the road from Liberal. Co-owner RoGlenda Coulter says not many news outlets would care about some of the stories they run, like the triumphs of local middle school sports.

ROGLENDA COULTER: I've lived here all my life, and one of my other partners has, too. And we read the Hermes when we were little kids, and I would hate to see it go away.

MOORE: Coulter and two other women bought their town's paper in 2007, and it hasn't been easy. They struggled keeping up with finances, staffing and even sexism. So what's the point of going through all that trouble for a newspaper in a town of a few thousand?

EMILY BRADBURY: They cover the city council meetings. They cover how tax dollars are being spent while also informing the community about how they're being spent.

MOORE: That's Emily Bradbury, executive director for the Kansas Press Association. She says newspapers also play a critical role in local politics. For example, in towns without a newspaper, fewer people ran for mayor, and also, fewer voters turned out for local and national elections, according to a study from the journal Urban Affairs Review. And with polls showing trust in the media at a historic low, Bradbury says local media can be key to restoring trust in journalism among rural communities.

BRADBURY: They see there's a huge difference between their local paper and their local journalist versus, quote-unquote, "the mainstream media."

MOORE: Back at the printing press in Liberal, Lisa Diaz and a co-worker fold and bundle the papers by hand, idly chatting and listening to the radio. It's a human touch that small-town papers still rely on. Diaz has lived in Liberal most of her life. She says she hopes these newspapers enhance the sense of community in the region.

LISA DIAZ: In all the counties around here, I think they need to stick together and kind of put us on the map (laughter).

MOORE: And that cooperation has led to these communities not only staying on the map, but also staying on the page.

For NPR News, I'm Calen Moore in Liberal, Kan.

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Calen Moore
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