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Friday, November 18, 2011

The Power of the Small Town Press

Allen Burke
Canadian is heavily dependent on Oil. McCook is still very much tied to the successes of local farms and ranches. Both towns have made efforts to diversity. Linton, ND is different. Much more than Canadian or McCook, Linton is not trying to economically reinvent itself and diversify from the industry it was founded on- farming.

Alan Burke, Owner and Editor of the Linton weekly paper, The Record, has a deep appreciation for the role a newspaper plays in a small town. “In many ways we are the scrapbook keeper for the community,” he states while sitting in his bare bones (concrete floor) but well used office. It is Thursday, and if there can ever be a time that is called a “down day” for a weekly paper, this may be it. The weekly deadlines have been met and this week’s addition is in the mail, deposited in the vending machines and posted on the paper’s website for its digital subscribers. “We also do a lot of printing locally and that is never slow,” the editor corrects an inquiry as to when would be the best time to sit and talk with a visitor.

The 64 year old newsman quickly shifts to a more moderate pace as he is relaxed and gracious in discussing and answering what could be construed as hard ball questions for a small town newspaperman.

The Emmons County Record, Emmons County's oldest business, was established in May 1884 by Darwin R. Streeter, at the now extinct town of Williamsport. It was moved to Linton in Feb. 1899.

Burke has owned the Record since 1993. “It was in federal government receivership (bankruptcy) when we bought it,” he recalls. The paper today is the 5th largest weekly in North Dakota, despite Linton having only the 54th largest population of towns in North Dakota. “We have worked hard to build up our advertising. By having a solid advertising base, we can offer a much larger paper. We have lots of pictures. We cover lots of sporting events, not only Linton, but in the other four schools here in the area. We think that is important because those are always positive stories and they help to bind a community together.”
A fine line any small town paper must walk it its obligation as a watchdog for the public and the desire not to alienate local business owners and their advertising dollars. Burke, who spent a long career in public relations work before re-entering the newspaper business in his mid-40’s, credits experience gained in PR work with helping him traverse this potential mine field. “You have to use some common sense,” he states. “If the public has a right to know and the story is important to the citizens, then we will print it. It is pretty clear in our country how important freedom of the press is. It is the backbone of our basic freedoms as citizens and newspapers have historically been the leaders in protecting that freedom. Several years ago we had a situation here where we felt the city was violating the law in the way they were collecting deposits for water. We got an opinion from the State Attorney General’s Office that confirmed we were right and the city had to refund some money. That made about as many people around here mad at us as those that appreciated what we were doing.”
In an industry undergoing massive upheavals, especially amongst once powerful big city dailies, Burke still claims he sees a bright future for the small down papers, if they are willing to adapt. “We have had to reinvent ourselves the last few years,” he says. “It is the digital age and you cannot ignore that. We sell a lot of papers out of the state, mostly to former residents who keep a subscription. The postal service has gotten very expensive and not very dependable (a complaint I heard from all three editors in my Highway 83 towns).  Going digital just makes sense. We can send it out in a PDF format and we can sell you the subscription cheaper. We don’t have the paper, ink and mailing expense. You get it right away and in many cases the visual quality is higher than our paper edition. More and more of our out of town subscribers are going to the digital edition.”
“Newspapers play a critical role in keeping small towns viable,” says Burke, who started in the newspaper business at age 11, throwing papers, before moving into the corporate world of banking and public relations, only to return to his true passion 20 years ago. “We need, like any other business today, to stay ahead of the curve. But we are doing that. It is sometimes a challenge, but we have to. Small town weeklies are too important to let die off.”   


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