Moorefield Examiner publishes blank front page as statement on future of community journalism
By Don Smith
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — What happens if your community loses its local newspaper?
Readers of the Moorefield Examiner got an unexpected preview in the June 2 edition when the family-owned Hardy County weekly newspaper ran a blank front page under the banner headline: Is No News Really Good News?
Below that headline were empty design boxes, open photo spaces and one message: Continued on page 2.
For publisher Hannah Heishman, the blank front page was making a statement without making a statement.
“We made them think about it,” Heishman said of residents literally forced to face the impact of a community newspaper closing. “People love it or hate it, but they are all talking about it.”
On page 2 of the June 2 edition, readers found this editorial note:
“It’s No Mistake: Our front page is blank except for legal requirements for mailing. As the editorial stated two weeks ago: Unless people continue reading and, especially, advertising in community newspapers, we’re done. Readership helps: You know what’s happening, and the higher our readership, the easier it is to convince local businesses to purchase advertising. It’s advertising that keeps us reporting, printing, and mailing. This time, front page stories are elsewhere in the paper and there will be a paper next week. If we all don’t start caring and enabling local news, though, the future is grim, and not far off — not just in Moorefield, but for any locally owned, community newspaper.”
The Moorefield Examiner isn’t the first newspaper to run a blank front page. Heishman and the staff had heard about other newspapers doing it, but she did it for her own reason: Heishman is fighting for her newspaper and her community.
With a history of family ownership going back generations to 1902 and an office full of editorial and advertising awards, the Moorefield Examiner represents the best traditions of community journalism. The Heishman family understands the importance of a free press and the responsibility granted newspapers under the First Amendment.
However, Heishman crafted her message to be as much hard news as editorial comment: If the Moorefield Examiner is to continue serving Hardy County, local residents must engage with the newspaper through readership, subscriptions and advertisements.
“Fighting for your newspaper is fighting for your community,” said Heishman, who, like her parents now and grandparents before them, is a local resident.
“We are taken for granted,” Heishman said of all community newspapers. “People think we will always just be here because we are sources of community news.”
Heishman said the local newspaper is also a local business. Like any business, to be successful, a newspaper needs engagement by subscribers and advertisers. “We function month to month, the way most people in this state live.”
Local residents still count on the Moorefield Examiner, Heishman said, but with the growth of social media, fewer residents want to pay for a subscription.
“We hear nobody reads the local newspaper, but everybody knows what’s in it,” Heishman said, adding that the Moorefield Examiner is the primary source for Hardy County news.
“Let us make a mistake, and we will hear about it. People talk about Dad’s column, our meeting coverage, sports, obituaries,” Heishman said, noting popular features including the weekly column written by her father, David Heishman.
“Legal ads are a big deal,” Heishman said, explaining that its news and advertising revenue. “The delinquent tax list ran this month. The money is important, but the reader engagement creates a huge response.”
In a small community, Heishman said, everyone spreads out the delinquent tax list and looks at all the names.
In an editorial titled “You’ll Miss Us” that ran in the May 19 edition, Heishman spoke to the local residents:
“We attend meetings and events, take notes, talk to people, research, and tell you what’s happening and how it might affect you. If we do it right, you don’t know how we, the writers, feel about the topic, but we’ve given you enough information to form your own opinions, make your own decisions, and react as you see fit. …
We are legally responsible for what we publish. Newspapers and other reputable news media are actually, formally responsible for helping keep your government honest by ensuring you know what they’re doing, so you can act and vote accordingly. …
My family owns the Examiner, not (a local industry), Hardy County, the state of West Virginia, or some news corporation based someplace else. … You are us; we are you. This is our community, too, and our lives, families and friends are just as affected as you and yours.”
In that editorial, the newspaper set the stage for the June 2 blank front page:
“We can’t make you care. We can’t make you decide reading a local newspaper — so you know what’s actually happening in your community — is important enough to be worth some of your legitimately precious time, energy, and money.”
Speaking after the publication of the June 2 edition, Heishman said, “We made them think about it today. We have gotten calls and emails about the newspaper, about subscribing and advertising. They care today, but how will they feel in six weeks?”
As Heishman told her readers in the June 2 edition, there are important news articles inside and the newspaper will continue publishing in the coming months, but the long-term future of the Moorefield Examiner, and of all local newspapers, is up to the local residents and business community.
For one week, at least, Heishman made them think about a future without a newspaper.