Dave Hoekstra has written a love story about community journalism in an age when many newspapers are dying and small towns are transforming.
The retired Chicago Sun-Times reporter traveled the nation talking to families that have operated newspapers for generations, an increasingly rare proposition as advertising dollars have shifted to the internet and conglomerates such as Gannett have swallowed once proud local institutions.
"I've done a few books, and the most successful one was one I did on Midwest supper clubs," said Hoekstra. "I wanted to explore multi-generational operations, what the struggles are to keep a third- and fourth-generation restaurant open in mostly rural areas. We did Wisconsin and Iowa. ... I wanted to use the same template to explore four- and five-generation family newspapers. I zeroed in on Hillsboro. I know the area a little bit. My mom's side of the family is from Taylorville."
Beacons in the Darkness: Hope and Transformation Among America's Community Newspapers was published Oct. 12 and also looks at newspapers in Texas, Iowa and Missouri.
One of the newspapers he visited was the Journal-News in Hillsboro. The paper has been owned by the Galer family for three generations.
John Galer has worked at the Hillsboro paper, which he owns with his wife Susie, for nearly half a century.
"It's a good book, but the whole situation with the newspaper industry is just depressing," Galer said.
A book party will be held at 7 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Historic Red Rooster Inn at 123 E. Seward St. in Hillsboro. The evening will feature a panel discussion celebrating the Hillsboro community and the importance of community journalism.
Hoeksta said it is appropriate that the event will be at the hotel that has been reimagined as a downtown hotel, apartment building, taproom and distillery. The Red Rooster building turns 120 years old on Nov. 21. Just as that business has found a way to reinvent itself, many community newspapers have as well.
For example, in Marfa, Texas, a community of 1,700, the local newspaper has opened a coffee shop. A couple in their 30s from Brooklyn, New York, purchased the newspaper from an area family.
"They've got an operation where they have a gift shop, they have a coffee shop," Hoekstra said. "So, you go in and you pay your bill for the weekly newspaper and you go have a cup of coffee and you hang around the newspaper office. That's tremendous. That's really making the paper a part of the community and lifting the curtain."
Galer said his twice-a-week newspaper has reinvented itself with a strong online edition.
"We now have as many online readers as we do print readers. But the reality is that most of our revenue is still coming from the print side of things," he said.
Classified advertising, which was once a wellspring of revenue, has slipped away to free online forums such as Facebook, Galer said. But he said the newspaper maintains excellent relationships with local businesses that continue to advertise with the Journal-News.
"I believe in the value of the advertising that we are providing them," he said.
Galer said his newspaper is focused on local news and has a better-staffed newsroom than many corporate-owned newspapers in much larger communities.
"I feel very disappointed at what's happened in some of those markets because continued, in-depth news coverage in those communities seems to be secondary for those operations when they're purchased."
Another newspaper Hoekstra examined was the Carroll Times Herald in Iowa.
Doug Burns, the owner of the Times Herald, said in a column written for the Iowa Dispatch that the decline of newspapers is the "central reason for the rot eating our democracy from the inside, the insatiable whipworm of a growing fascism."
Hoekstra wrote in the book, "Doug Burns was frustrated and tired. He told me he had considered suicide. He told me to go ahead and print that."
Burns wrote, "Dave's book is a love letter to America at its best, to towns large and small, and a cautionary tale about the proliferation of news deserts in which Americans don't know what they don't know about local government and the happenings around the block from them, not to mention in our courthouses and statehouses where the fourth estate is increasingly absent in a culture that values the whiz-bang silliness of Instagram influencers more than the grit of determined beat reporters on democracy's guard duty."
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at email@example.com.