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My view: Utah County's small-town voice silenced

By Marc Haddock

Published: Monday, Feb. 16 2009 12:04 a.m. MST

Feb. 19 will mark the end of an era for several communities in north Utah County when the Daily Herald stops publishing five community weekly newspapers.

For the first time in 106 years, people living in American Fork won't be getting the American Fork Citizen. In the case of the Lehi Free Press, 118 years of a community newspaper tradition, dating back to the Lehi Banner, will come to an end. The Pleasant Grove Review, the youngest of the publications in what used to be known as the Tri-City area, will end 97 years of continuous publication.

The other papers to be terminated are the Lone Peak Press, an offshoot of the Citizen, and the Orem Times, which was founded in 1933.

The history of Utah's cities and towns — as it has been written week after week in the pages of their hometown newspapers — captures the day-to-day life of the community in more depth and detail than could ever be compiled in a single book. It is an unparalleled record of births and deaths, weddings and funerals, major news events and small-town happenings.

Anyone who has subscribed to one of Utah's more than 50 weekly or biweekly newspapers will recognize the hole that will be rent in the fabric of the community when these papers cease to exist.

In a sense, the north Utah County weekly newspapers are the victims of our times. Fewer people are reading newspapers. The Internet has ravaged print classified advertising. Add in the current economic downturn, and you have an atmosphere that's toxic for newspapers.

But the general decline of these newspapers can be traced back to 1999 when the Daily Herald, then owned by Pulitzer newspapers, purchased the American Fork, Pleasant Grove and Lehi newspapers from the local owner. At the time it was trendy for daily newspapers to purchase the surrounding weeklies and then leverage the increased circulation into greater advertising revenues. In the process the managers at the daily newspaper damaged their new acquisitions by redesigning the nameplates to resemble the Daily Herald's and combining local celebration news — weddings, missionary announcements, birthday announcements and Eagle Scout awards — into a common section to cut production costs. They also eliminated the newspapers' editorial voice to avoid conflicting opinions with those expressed in the daily newspaper's editorial page, effectively silencing a long-time advocate for each of these towns.

The resulting product was less like the community newspaper readers were familiar with and more like the Daily Herald, to which less than a third of them chose to subscribe.

The readers spoke with their pocketbooks. In Thursday's announcement, the Daily Herald listed circulation in the five weeklies at 5,800 — about half of what it was 10 years ago when the newspapers were purchased.

(It is worth noting that the Daily Herald south county newspapers, the Springville Herald and the Spanish Fork Press, for example, will continue to be published. These newspapers have been allowed to continue publishing much the same product as they did before being purchased by the Daily Herald.)

It's no surprise the company has chosen to cut its losses. These are tough times for newspapers.

Still, I find it sad to see these hometown institutions disappear. Daily Herald executive editor Randy Wright was quoted in the Deseret News as saying that people might experience "a sense of loss of tradition" but said that would be offset because the same news would be available in the pages of the Daily Herald.

That would be true, if the only thing that mattered in the newspaper were the news. But the hometown newspaper is much more than that. It provides a forum for local thought and a bulletin board for community events. It examines in detail the tedious process of small-town government from week to week, written by reporters who care and don't mind letting it show. It records the heartbeat of a small town and then passes out copies of the cardiogram to everyone who wants to read all about it.

It breaks my heart to see that disappear.

Marc Haddock was managing editor of the north Utah County weeklies from 1982 to 2002, an editor at the Daily Herald from 2002 to 2005, and returned as editor at the weeklies from 2005 until October 2008. He was laid off when the newspapers were downsized three months ago. His wife, Sharon, works for the Deseret News.

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