Newspapers are crucial to our American way of life. Freedom of the press is in the First Amendment to the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights.
You couldn’t help but notice if you are a subscriber that our local newspaper has been seemingly on a diet in the past several years. It has lost a lot of its bulk, a lot of its income and a lot of its advertising. Because I, along with many others, care about the News-Miner as an important community and cultural part of our lives here, I decided to have a discussion course through the Osher Lifelong Learning Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (a series of educational options for older adults).
There are some changed or changing things that are important to understand about the present circumstances of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. First, few people seem to understand that the News-Miner, a for-profit LLC, is owned by Helen E. Snedden Foundation, a 501(c)(3). The purchase by the foundation happened around 2015. This is just another sign of why there is concern in the community, and certainly I am concerned personally, about the survival of the Daily News-Miner. Financial concerns are a constant pressure and getting worse.
A second concern about the economic situation of the Daily News-Miner, is that it has lost much of its former ad revenue, which has gone online in digital form, and also much of the readership is going online trying to get the paper for free at a time when it’s difficult to simply produce the paper because of dwindling revenue. All of these factors lead to concern about the ability of the News-Miner to survive in such a hostile financial environment. And because the News-Miner is our only prospect for journalism of a local nature, and all sorts of local news such as obituaries, police blotters, current events and cultural events, it would be a major setback to community cohesion, community awareness and community identity if we lost the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
For all these reasons I developed a course at Osher Lifelong Learning called “Survival of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.” The course has met three times now, and it attracted 49 community members who are all concerned with the same core element: how to keep the News-Miner alive in our community, and keep it as aware, vital and central to our community culture as possible. That this course attracted so many people is a testament to the recognition of the importance of our paper to the community and the community’s concern for its vitality in our future.
Finding options for aiding in the financial survival of the paper are daunting. It is not that we can offer a quick and easy solution to this concern, but we all want to partake in and perhaps even participate in its survival and be able to affect and contribute as much as possible to its success. A free press, as a major functioning aspect of our democracy, is crucial and very meaningful to our community. But there is an old and often cited saying: “A free press isn’t free. It costs money!” Obtaining quality journalism without too strong a political bias, and with opportunities for hearing opinions of all stripes, is a community value.
Having some input to how our paper’s editorial board is selected would be a real step forward, and there are many ideas for financial models which can help to provide continuing support for the paper and might even accommodate a wider role for community influence in staffing and maintaining a vibrant neutrality in reporting. But it is all very complicated and needs more community attention.
The Osher Lifelong Learning course shows the community is very concerned and it may be a right time to capture the interest and perhaps have some further dialog and development of ideas on ensuring the survival of our local newspaper. I am reporting on our course here as it clearly identifies a core concern of our community for the survival of a core element of our democracy. Asking the question of how we might help each other to achieve a solvent, vital newspaper is the first step.
Stay tuned. There may be more on this as we proceed.
Rich Seifert is a professor emeritus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He lives in Fairbanks.