I had the distinct honor this week of speaking to the Fort Payne Rotary Club. I found their feedback and questions fascinating. We in the newspaper biz are rarely at a shortage of words to share, but we are at our best when we listen to what our readers have to say.

Since we experienced a pandemic when I became the publisher, this was one of the first opportunities I’ve had to introduce myself to a lot of people. Or, I should say, re-introduce myself since I’ve known most of the distinguished men and women in Rotary for decades now.

With a contagious disease circulating, most heads of industry aren’t terribly fond of visitors dropping by their offices to extend a hand to shake. With about 22% of the local population fully vaccinated, a lot of people are feeling more comfortable leaving their homes and returning to life as we knew it. I wish that number was higher, but forcing people to get the shot would only reinforce the rhetoric claiming that merely attempting to persuade people to get vaccinated is somehow tyrannical.

Anyway, during the Q&A part of the visit, I was asked about a couple of points that consume a good bit of my headspace these days.

First, one of the members wanted to know about the viability of print journalism in the digital age. Another wanted to know why we do not specifically include more information with a conservative-leaning take on it since this area is overwhelmingly Republican. The gentleman extended his arms out to serve as a broad range of options, declaring, “This is CNN and this is Fox. Which are you?”

As for myself, I don’t want to be perceived as one or the other binary choice or limit my reporting to only telling readers things they want to hear. I also don’t want to silence anyone whose point of view might differ from the majority. Thus, the solution is to welcome a variety of voices and perspectives rather than playing “cancel culture” to comments that I might agree or disagree with.

Which is not to say that we cannot attempt to achieve a better balance and encourage content that this or that group feels better represents their take on the world. I’m trying to figure out ways to do that, so I welcome your feedback and suggestions on what you want in your community newspaper. We run Mr. Flowers (to your left) each week, and I think he does a pretty good job of talking about politics from the conservative perspective.

I definitely encourage anyone to go to their computer and type up a letter to the editor. Or send an email politely suggesting a story that could be done about this or that under-covered topic. That’s why we are here.

One of the other members at the meeting pointed out that a newspaper sharing a mix of voices communicates a welcoming attitude to people visiting DeKalb County from other parts of the country.

I spoke briefly about the challenges that small newspapers face in the shadow of tech giants like Facebook and Google bringing unfair muscle to the game and leveraging their reach to deliver content others have invested money to create without offering compensation. Together, those two companies have gobbled up 80% of the digital advertising market, leaving scraps for the rest of us.

The Times-Journal is more fortunate than most community newspapers, in that we have a very loyal subscriber base. Our readers know that supporting their newspaper is supporting the community.

I read a story this week where French regulators fined Google $582 million for failing to negotiate with publishers in good faith to compensate publishers and news agencies for their content. That’s a positive step that I hope leads to less piracy of our content.

It’s only going to get tougher for small community newspapers as U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy plans to raise mailing rates so the price increase for periodicals will increase by more than 8% on August 29. This will have a damaging impact on rural daily and weekly community newspapers that rely heavily on the Postal Service to deliver their products.

I encouraged the Rotary members to contact their Congressional representative and express support for House Resolution 2940, which would help small businesses receive tax credits to cover advertising costs and make it easier for newspapers to afford competent journalists on the ground in our communities, covering the news and avoid the plague of governments operating in darkness.

Community newspapers still offer an incredibly important public service. We capture the moments that are historic and special.

We serve as guardrails to place public scrutiny on our schools, city halls and court systems. A shortage of professional journalism manifests itself in invisible ways: stories not written, scandals not exposed, government waste not discovered, health dangers not identified in time, local elections involving candidates about whom we know little.

Thank you for subscribing, advertising and for giving us your feedback on how we can do a better job and give you the product you want.

— Steven Stiefel is the publisher of the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: steven.stiefel@times-journal.com.

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