What’s happening to The Breeze isn’t uncommon
As you can see from the story on this week’s front page, you won’t be reading The Breeze much longer.
After more than 130 years of reporting the comings and goings of Wauneta residents, our last edition will come out Nov. 19. We’re not really disappearing, but will be merged with the Imperial Republican.
Not only is it purely a business decision, it’s the same decision that’s becoming common nationwide. Smaller papers are disappearing all over the nation and we’re just the latest casualty of a number of factors.
I know our shutdown is going to anger some folks in town, but before I go any further, I want to say a couple of things.
I’m obviously not happy with the situation, but please know that I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision for Russ and Lori Pankonin.
I’ve worked at a lot of places that claimed to be family-oriented, but this is probably the only one that’s ever walked that particular walk. From a personal standpoint, the Pankonins have been extremely good to Karon and me. It took me most of my career, but I finally found myself working for people who actually cared about me as a human being. I won’t forget that.
But more than that, because Johnson Publications is a family operation, an increasingly rare thing in the newspaper business, they basically have been forced to kill off one of their children. The Breeze has been in their family for a while, and such operations are more than a business to their owners. This was not a decision they made lightly.
And the closing of the paper is not a comment on Wauneta. That fact is, I personally wasn’t surprised when this shoe finally dropped. Wauneta is a very small town, and we simply don’t have the advertising base to pay the cost of publishing a newspaper. The advertisers we had were loyal, and I personally thank each one of you, but there simply weren’t enough.
As I said, this is happening all over the country. Even before the internet, small-town newspapers were an endangered species. For decades, we have been creatures of a time that was rapidly fading.
Of course, the internet played arguably the largest role in killing off smaller papers.
Our business model, a publication supported by advertising, goes back to the early 1800s, when businesses didn’t have a lot of options for promoting themselves.
Every new technology chipped away at that business model. Radio did it. TV did it. Every time there was a new way to give the news, it hurt newspapers a little bit more. (Fun fact: You know all those stories about how people panicked when “War of the Worlds” was on the radio in the 1930s? Turns out they were bogus. Newspapers flogged a few instances of panic because they wanted to make radio look bad.)
But the internet was a seismic event, particularly in one area, classified ads. Those were always a steady, dependable source of income for newspapers. But the internet is sort of tailor-made for the kind of things classifieds well, small items, cars and particularly job openings. And you can search for exactly what you want in those things, rather than reading through a whole page of ads. It’s hard for us to compete with that.
Let me get a little personal here. My background is in community journalism, the fancy name for small-town papers. The biggest paper I ever worked on was a medium-sized daily, but other than that it’s been small-town publications. When I got my master’s degree, even my thesis was on an aspect of small-town journalism.
I have friends who work on publications like the Washington Post, major national papers that have huge impact on the national scene. There was a time when I would’ve loved a job like that, but I long ago came to appreciate the value of small-town journalism.
To put it starkly, if you needed to know something about Wauneta, The Breeze was basically the only place to get that information completely and consistently. It’s pretty rare that the Washington Post is going to run a story about Wauneta (although the New York Times did run a story about this year’s drone mystery and quoted a Palisade resident).
I did a lot of things here that I never would have done on bigger papers. Most bigger publications, for example, don’t run pictures of people presenting donation checks to the school. We do. And there’s a reason for that. Such photos are more important in a small town than they are in a bigger area. They’re more a part of the life of the community.
There’s some irony in this happening now. Because of the pandemic, I’ve rarely, in my career, felt my job was so useful. I’ve been able to give people information that is literally potentially life-saving.
But even before the pandemic, I realized long ago that a job like mine was a rare privilege. I’ve been honored with the task of chronicling the life of a small community full of good people. And you’ve honored me by allowing me to do that. Many of you have been very complimentary of my work here; that’s a prize beyond pearls, especially in my business.
On an even more personal note, Karon and I don’t plan to leave town any time soon. She’ll continue as director of the Senior Center. The most likely outcome for me is early retirement; I turn 62 in December. Quite frankly, nobody in either of my professions, journalism or teaching, is likely to hire somebody my age. And it’s entirely possible this is the Lord’s way of telling me it’s time to hang up my keyboard.
This isn’t the last you’ll hear from me, either; I have a couple more columns in me before I shuffle off this professional coil. I just wanted to let you know that despite what’s happened, Karon and I — and more importantly, Wauneta — will be all right.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: email@example.com