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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Saturday, June 15, 2024
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Florence, Wisconsin Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A Florence County newspaper struggles in a news desert, but this editor is determined to report

A dwindling news landscape and the rise of social media echo chambers have made local news reporting more difficult, according to a Florence County newspaper editor.

Stationed on the Northeastern edge of Wisconsin, Sarah Gidding’s parents operated the Florence Mining News, a small newspaper in Florence County, from 1998 to 2004. She has worked there on and off ever since.

Gidding, an editor for the publication, has watched the business struggle amid a declining journalism industry in a rural county dominated by Facebook users and news avoiders. 

Florence County stands as Wisconsin's second-least populous county, just behind Menominee County, with a population of roughly 4,500 residents. The Florence Mining News is the only newspaper in the county. 

The county’s population is growing, but the Florence Mining News readership is decreasing. Giddings told The Daily Cardinal when her parents owned the paper there were over 2,000 subscribers. By 2016, they were down to 1,000 physical paper subscribers. Now, they are sitting at 870 paper subscribers and 200 online subscribers.

As one of many counties nationwide with a single, diminishing local news outlet, Florence County is a news desert. News deserts are the result of small communities unable to maintain a local newspaper or a reliable alternative in today’s media climate.

“Journalism wasn't my first choice of career, but I am a strong writer and editor and I care about what's going on in my community,” Giddings said in an email. “I learned a lot from my previous editor who had decades of experience in bigger city newsrooms. I've worked on and off here since my parents owned it from 1998 to 2005, and when the job became available in 2016, I was the best candidate of the applicants.”

The decrease in readership has introduced a decrease in staff, Giddings said. The Mining News’  main reporter quit three years ago, and a new one has not been hired. Giddings writes a couple articles a week in addition to her roles as editor, office manager and advertising coordinator. 

“She was the main reporter. She wouldn't have quit except her eyesight started to fail. She was really upset when she finally called it quits,” Giddings said. 

Florence Mining News operates with two full-time employees and two part-time employees, who also serve the neighboring Forest County paper, The Forest Republican. The Mining News’ advertisers also dropped down from seven to three, Giddings told the Cardinal. 

Social media echo chambers

In recent years, social media has become an increasingly popular source of news. As of November 2023, half of U.S. adults incorporated social media into their news diets, with Facebook becoming the main platform.

According to a study done by the University of Virginia, the echo chamber effect is prominent on Facebook, especially among conservatives.

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Echo chambers occur when an individual only consumes information that reflects their current beliefs. Multiple academic studies show echo chambers can accelerate the spread of misinformation and political polarization.

Giddings has turned to social media to find news to cover herself, but she is not the only Florence resident to find local events and news through social media.

“I use a lot of press releases for upcoming events and go to some of said events for photos. Sometimes I follow up on tips when people bring me topics, or increasingly, when I see something on Facebook,” she said. 

Even without many readers of local news, Giddings said Florence County residents are still politically active. 

Florence Republican Facebook group dominates politics

Roughly 75% of Florence County’s eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2020 Presidential election, higher than the national turnout rate of 66.8%.

The April 2 Florence County Spring election featured many seats on the ballot, including school board members and the county supervisor. Florence Mining News covers local elections and provides coverage on the candidates, their backgrounds and when and how to vote.

But even with election coverage, political information also spreads through the county via social media. Facebook groups representing the two major parties — the Florence County WI Republican Party and Florence County Democrats — post about events and political issues to serve consumer needs.  

In 2020, 72.6% of Florence County votes went to former President Donald Trump. The Florence County Republican Party is very well organized, a stark contrast to their Democratic Party, according to Giddings.

The Republican Facebook group has over 1,000 members — more than the Florence Mining News subscribers — whereas the Democratic Facebook group houses 28 members. 

“It [the Democratic Party] hasn’t been active in many years,” Giddings said. 

The Republican Facebook group primarily posts information ranging from town hall meetings  to criticisms of President Biden’s border policies.

Corporation amass control over news

A lack of local news is a problem that expands beyond Florence County. In the United States, more than 50% of counties have limited or no access to local news. This phenomenon is demonstrated by Gannett. 

Gannett is a corporation that publishes USA Today as well as hundreds of media outlets nationwide and into the United Kingdom. The corporation has previously bought out newspapers and cut staff to maximize profit. 

Local newspaper circulation has been facing a decline for years, and Gannett’s papers are no exception. From 2018-2022, Gannett’s top local newspapers faced an average of a 66.8% decline in readership.

With the rapid shift to online readership, loss of advertisers and conglomeration, many local newspapers, including Florence Mining News, are facing the same challenges as Gannett’s local newspapers. 

“I’ve felt us circling the drain for several years, with very little power to change anything,” Giddings said.  

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