Newspapers by now were supposed to have become the dodo birds of the new-media environment, extinguished by a cruel and changing world in which they could never compete.
The prophecy hasn’t quite come true. Granted, a sad number of local papers of note have been felled by the advance of digital publishing and the concomitant shift in advertising revenues and reader appetites. Who wants a newspaper on their doorstep when they can read it on their smartphone?
The losses have been especially hard felt in former two-newspaper towns that have just one daily paper anymore, usually with a much smaller news hole and opinion pages, and far fewer reporters and editorial writers than in the good old days. Boston comes to mind. So do Cincinnati, Detroit, and Seattle.
Yet solid regional newspapers of substance survive, and even flourish. That’s true in part because they’ve been able to adapt their business models and cross the digital divide by establishing an all-important online presence to go with their traditional newsprint product, which it turns out some people still want. The other key ingredient, it seems, is in honoring the principals of why newspapers have readers to begin with.
The Paducah Sun is a case in point. Like most modern newspapers, the Sun publishes both in print and online. It doesn’t give its content away, however, like many news organizations do—you have to drop a little coin to see what’s behind the pay wall at paducahsun.com—which is one reason it’s been able to manage the digital transition. The other reason is that it publishes substantive journalism.
The family-owned Sun is a throwback in several ways, in fact. Beetle Bailey and Blondie top its daily comics section, the paper still prints obituaries as a community service rather than as a cash cow, and it runs house ads whenever—imagine this—it has an open delivery route. It’s also seriously old school in the sense that it prints forceful and informed commentary.
Its editorial-page activism over the past several months on how the city’s electricity company is damaging the economy of Paducah has been especially commendable. The paper, under the guidance of Executive Editor Steve Wilson, has published a series of masthead editorials questioning why Paducah Power System continues to stay in a battered relationship with the poorly conceived Prairie State Energy Campus. Those editorials have noted that the arrangement is a costly one for businesses and households, which have to pay far more for electricity than they would if Paducah Power were to reconsider its commitment to Prairie State.
The paper laid the problem out in an editorial this past fall that explained in sharp relief how Paducah Power foolishly bought into the Prairie State project in 2010—one arranged by big out-of-town banks and Peabody Coal—and put itself on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in debt it may never be able to repay. “Add it all up and you have a small utility of 22,000 customers carrying debt well over one-half billion dollars and contracted to buy way more power than it can use or profitably resell,” said that editorial, published on Sept. 28.
Wilson printed a column the same day dinging the mayor for refusing that week at a public meeting to let critics of the deal respond in full to the presentations made by Paducah Power and plant officials.
The Sun followed up with a biting Oct. 23 editorial that charged city leaders and utility officials with failing to appreciate the deep distress businesses and residents were feeling from the absurd rates charged by Paducah Power System. The paper said it estimated its own electricity bill would soar by $75,000 in 2014. In its news columns it also reported a growing restiveness in the city, with a dry-cleaning business that opened in the 1950s opting to close shop and leave town because it couldn’t afford to stay and the local not-for-profit hospital saying it would have trouble absorbing electricity-rate increase that were costing it $800,000 per year.
The paper stayed with the issue by publishing editorials in November and December, including one that exposed a conflict of interest by a firm advising the utility not to declare bankruptcy. Its lead Dec. 30 commentary was a paradigm in the art of editorial writing, summarizing the known history of the deal, the cold equations the city and its power company are facing, and the likelihood that Paducah Power System’s leaders would implicitly or otherwise eventually concede error and find a way forward “through asset sales, sale of the whole entity, or even bankruptcy.”
It’s worth noting that the Sun has taken the high road throughout, offering its commentary absent vindictiveness or name-calling, a temptation the business-as-usual proponents have not been able to resist.
Wilson topped off the year’s editorial advocacy in late December with a self-deprecating Carnac the Magnificent column in which he looks into the future and sees the University of Kentucky winning the national basketball championship in 2015, the Dow Jones Industrial Average topping 20,000 and the movie “Boyhood” taking the best picture Oscar.
Oh, and he glimpses the future of Paducah Power System too.
“The utility’s rate-recovery plan, designed to bring relief to its customers by next July, fails to deliver.”
Karl Cates is IEEFA’s director of media relations.