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Kansas City newspaper sends a warning with a blank front page

The Northeast News in Kansas City, Mo., printed a blank front page for Wednesday's issue, meant to send a message to its community about the outlet's financial state and importance of hyperlocal journalism. (Michael Bushnell)

Editors of Kansas City’s Northeast News opted for an unusual choice for the front page of Wednesday’s issue: They left it blank.

It was not a printing error, they assured confused readers who called and emailed their newsroom. Like many other local newsrooms, the News has lost advertising revenue at an unprecedented rate during the coronavirus pandemic. So the six-member staff kept its front page empty, a warning sign to the community about what might come if it ceased publication.

“That’s the message we wanted to send: What happens if we’re gone?” publisher and co-owner Michael Bushnell said. “If we print a blank front page with no news, people are going to see what it’s like if we’re gone.”

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The 89-year-old weekly newspaper with a circulation of 8,500 was already struggling financially before the pandemic as advertising dollars waned. The newspaper is free, and the website does not have a paywall. When the economy spiraled in 2020, two laundromats, a charter school and a grocery store pulled their ads, a monthly loss of about $2,700, Bushnell said.

While the Kansas City Star and other larger local outlets cover the city’s most significant news, the News is alone in exclusively covering Northeast Kansas City, focusing on the neighborhood’s stories, such as an ironworking union rebuilding a cemetery’s historic gate or a cleanup effort under a bridge where homeless people camp.

The closure of local news outlets has left communities without that consistent coverage. Another hyperlocal newspaper in the area, the Jackson County Advocate, which covered south Kansas City and Grandview for 68 years, printed its last issue in December. The pandemic has exacerbated the strain on already-cash-strapped newsrooms, leading to the closure of more than 60, according to the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.

In 15 years, one-fourth of newspapers nationwide were forced to close, according to a 2020 study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At least 1,800 communities that had a local news outlet in 2004 were without one at the beginning of 2020, the UNC team found.

“This repeated almost weekly across the country, another community newspaper closes up and a community loses its voice,” Bushnell said.

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Abby Cambiano Hoover, the newspaper’s managing editor, signaled that the News could be next, writing in Wednesday’s issue: “Imagine a world where people only get their news from social media. Better yet, imagine a Northeast where residents and neighbors don’t get the news.”

“While many in the Zip codes the paper serves have the privilege of Internet at home, like many urban core areas in Kansas City and throughout the U.S., more than a few do not, and they rely on this print product for vital information,” she added.

Hoover, 25, lived in the neighborhood when she was an infant and grew up in Kansas City. When she saw the job opening at the News, she said it was an easy choice to return.

She has seen firsthand stories in her community that would be left untold if it weren’t for the News, she said in an interview.

“It’s the smaller things that might not be newsworthy to those bigger outlets, like telling the story of the immigrant who’s opening a new store and talking to the kids about getting a new soccer field,” she said. “Stories like that are so special and important to the people who live where we do.”

Regular readers also rely on the newspaper’s election guides and politics coverage to inform their choices, Bushnell said.

“Who is going to research these candidates, host the candidate forums, take pictures of the Scouts getting on a bus going to camp?” Bushnell said. “If not our team at the News, who? Who is going to step up? That’s what kills me ... there is not going to be anybody here to do that.”

Bushnell’s questions were heard. After readers saw the blank page and read three articles in the edition about the newspaper’s history, financial state and significance to the community, offers for help poured in.

The newspaper’s fundraiser on its website raised about $800 in a day, Bushnell said, and local businesses reached out to ask how they could lend support. Bushnell said he is considering a subscription model and working with a local banker who offered to assist with filing for a second loan issued under the federal Paycheck Protection Program after Bushnell was unable to get those funds from another bank.

To survive, the newspaper would need to find a regular stream of revenue within two months, he said.

Bushnell, his voice breaking as he described the heartwarming responses from people who saw the front page and local coverage about it, said he feels optimistic that the community will support its newspaper and the businesses that place ads. But the publisher also imagines what the end of the News would look like, from selling office furniture to donating the stockpile of print copies to a historical society.

“I think what would get me is walking out of the door for the last time,” Bushnell said. “There’s no more, there’s no more to us, there’s no more to Northeast News.”

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