A small-town Michigan newspaper said goodbye. Then readers stepped in.

Tran Longmoore, left, and wife Andrea Worthing, cover a Saline High School football game. Longmoore was going to shut down The Saline Post until community members pitched in to save it. (Photo courtesy of Pete Draugalis)

SALINE – It was 7:10 a.m. on Aug. 5 when Saline residents learned they were losing their local newspaper.

The Saline Post, an online-only publication, had covered this small Washtenaw community like a soft, warm blanket for five years. It filled a void left when big media corporations no longer saw profit in reporting city council meetings and traffic accidents. But Tran Longmoore was exhausted. He had worked seven days a week for most of those years as a one-man media band. He could handle the hours, he said, but he couldn’t handle the bills that were piling up.

Early that morning, he typed a message to readers. “Hello friends,” he started. “I’m ceasing publication of The Saline Post after five years. For various reasons, I simply failed to generate the revenue I required to continue publishing.”

Sitting at his dining room table, he hit a button on his Acer laptop, posting the announcement on the newspaper website and social media.

Then, something unexpected happened.

Really, truly, Jimmy-Stewart-in-“It’s a Wonderful Life” unexpected.

“I started getting texts within 20 minutes,” Longmoore said.

“I got a call from someone telling me, ‘You can’t close your doors, ‘cause no one else is covering Saline.’” On Facebook, community members asked what they could do to keep the Post alive.

“Checks started coming in,” Longmoore said. “Five-dollar checks, ten-dollar checks…. it was overwhelming.”

In 24 hours, Longmoore had enough money to keep publishing. Saline’s community newspaper had been saved by, of all things, the community itself.

Longmore said he is more comfortable writing about the Friday night Saline Hornets football game than talking about the future of journalism. But the 46-year-old admits that what happened to his little newspaper may have implications beyond this Washtenaw County town of 9,000.

Communities around Michigan are losing their local newspapers, and industry leaders seem at a loss as to how to save them. Could the salvation of journalism come not from industry focus groups and page-view algorithms, but from readers themselves?

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Tran Longmoore is often the only reporter at meetings in Saline. “You’re providing a public service.” (Bridge photo by Jack Nissen)

It all seemed unlikely this summer, when The Saline Post found itself in the same financial straits as many newspapers. Newspaper circulation peaked in 1990 at 62 million papers sold daily across the country. Pew Research estimates that number has dropped by almost half in 2016—a little over 34 million.

Advertising revenue, which has always paid the bills at newspapers, hit its peak in the mid 2000s, but has since dropped by almost half—from $49 billion a year to just over $25 billion in 2012.

“It’s not exaggerating to say that all kinds of local reporting — from day-to-day city hall coverage to world-changing investigations like the one celebrated in the movie “Spotlight” — is faced with extinction,” media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote in the Washington Post recently.

Like most towns, Saline had a traditional, hometown newspaper, The Saline Reporter. It closed up shop in 2014.

The website that was supposed to provide local news to that community survived just a year before it too was closed when its corporate owners said they were “exploring strategic alternatives.”

Longmoore, already a veteran of small-town Michigan newspapers in Milford and Blissfield, began publishing the Post in 2013. It’s not a glamorous life. Longmoore is the Saline Post’s only full-time employee, working about 55 hours a week. He writes most of the articles, edits all of the content that comes through, and runs the web traffic while managing the advertising.

He works in the guest bedroom of his home, at a local coffee shop, and even at a table near the front of Busch’s grocery store. “Anywhere there’s Wi-Fi, I’ll work,” Longmoore said. “There was a fire this morning,” Longmoore said during a recent interview. “A drunk driver drove through the park the other night. If anyone is going to have it, it’s going to be on my website.”

Often, he’s the only journalist at city council and school board meetings.

“When you see the metrics (indicating readership of an online story), you think, why bother?” Longmoore said. “But most journalists are civic-minded. What’s the old saying, about journalism being democracy’s oxygen? You have to provide the people who are interested in the information they need to decide who they’re going to vote for, or which city council members to call on certain issues.”

His presence at meetings hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“The reality is having a media presence, having someone who is not affiliated with the district able to ask the tough questions publicly and share that information, is important,” said Saline Area Schools Superintendent Scot Graden.

When it looked like that media presence was going to disappear, the community banded together to save it.

In his letter to readers in August, Longmoore said he needed commitments for an additional $1,000 a month in donations and advertising than he’d had previously, and $2,000 for immediate improvements to the paper’s equipment.

To Longmoore’s surprise, community members took action. “When you’re working by yourself, you don’t know what people think,” he said. “You don’t know if they value you.”

He soon found out.

“When he was close to going out of business, I suddenly thought, ‘How else would we know what’s going at city council meetings or the school district?’” said Lori Hall, who donates money monthly to the newspaper.

“It’s out of sight, out of mind,” said Jared Falkowski, a high school teacher and donor to the Saline Post. “You want to be able to consume the news of the day, but also you don’t concern yourself honestly with how this product is getting funded. And the people behind the scenes obviously have to make a living as well.

“Having a local publication or reporter in town, I personally just find it so important,” Falkowski said. “Obviously, it’s where people get a lot of their local news. But it’s a place where community members can voice concerns, too.”

Because of this sentiment, it may not be surprising to hear that advertisers rarely ask Longmoore how many people are reading his articles.

“No one ever asks when they buy an ad, ‘How much traffic do you get in a month?’ I think my advertisers are there because they want their ads next to the kids playing sports, next to the things going on downtown.”

“Advertising, in the long run, isn’t going to fund journalism,” Longmoore said. “It’s going to have to be readers of journalism, like it was in the old days when people subscribed to newspapers.”

The Saline Post is free, so “subscribers” have been replaced by “donors” who view local news not as a commodity, but a public service to support, like parks and streets. It’s a different mindset for the community, and for Longmoore.

“By covering all these meetings and the field hockey team and the school board, you’re showing the community you are standing by them. You’re not just there to make money off of clicks. You’re providing a community service.”

The Saline Post is going to make money when 2017 is over, Longmoore said, though he is uncertain how much. He’s planning a fundraiser for next August to build on donations already raised. If everything works out, the Post’s doors won’t be closing anytime soon.

“I used to think, it’s free, how much can you expect,” Longmoore said. “Now that people are putting their money in, I feel like I have to raise my standards. People are invested now.”

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Barry Visel
Thu, 10/05/2017 - 9:18am

You should check out South County News covering the Schoolcraft/Vicksburg area in south Kalamazoo County. They’ve been publishing a monthly for several years...printed paper delivered through the mail and available at local outlets. SouthCountyNews.org.

Jim Borden
Thu, 10/05/2017 - 9:29am

I think your advertising revenue figures are way off. Is that an average? Or should it be billions?

David Zeman
Thu, 10/05/2017 - 2:12pm

jim, we spotted and corrected that this morning. Thanks for pointing out. Yes, it should have been billions. 

Bill
Thu, 10/05/2017 - 9:57am

We have a printed newspaper in Vicksburg that is run primarily by volunteers and supported by community donations. It is only monthly but it covers local news that isn't covered elsewhere.

Paul Jordan
Thu, 10/05/2017 - 9:59am

An excellent story, and an excellent effort by Mr. Longmoore and his community.
Maybe the NPR funding model is the future of journalism.

Gregg Smith
Thu, 10/05/2017 - 10:10am

Hats off to the good citizens of Saline for recognizing the importance of their community newspaper. Countless public meetings across the country are now held with no objective, professional coverage. Elected officials are allowed to operate in secrecy. All this is due in large part to the demise of community newspapers. Perhaps what has happened in Saline is the start of a much larger move to restore transparency to the citizens to which elected officials are accountable?

Patrice Johnson
Thu, 10/05/2017 - 11:03am

Hi. I'm the editor in chief of the Stockbridge Community News, which grew from a need much as described in the story above. May we have your permission to repost your story on our website? It's at stockbridgecommunitynews.com Thanks!

stockbridgecommunitynews@gmail.com

Tom
Thu, 10/05/2017 - 12:14pm

Chelsea also has a wonderful on-line newspaper called The Chelsea Update. It is also largely a one person operation. It's editor has not been bashful about seeking donations to keep it going and her readers have responded. Local businesses have also responded with advertising dollars. This may be the only means of maintaining local news coverage for many communities like Chelsea and Saline. I think the on-line newspapers are actually better than their hard copy counterparts because they don't have to worry about printing costs and can therefore include stories that would not make it into traditional publications because of limited space and printing costs.

Lisa Allmendinger
Fri, 10/06/2017 - 10:37am

Thank you Tom, for your kind words. I work super hard on Chelsea Update and am so thrilled that Tran is able to continue The Saline Post. He does a fabulous job. After five years of personal experience going it alone vs. 40-plus years of working for companies in the newspaper industry, it's much easier to have that passion for covering local news than it is for the business side of the equation. It's a balancing act to cover the news AND get those advertisers and donations. Without reader's support, sites like Chelsea Update and Saline Post could not continue to operate. Please continue to support the efforts of local journalists. We do this for you.

John Q. Public
Thu, 10/05/2017 - 2:55pm

This recalls memories of Dave Askins and Mary Morgan.

There was nothing quite like the Ann Arbor Chronicle, and the citizenry there is poorer for its demise. I gave to it financially strictly in support of its mission and philosophy, even though I didn't live within an hour's drive of Ann Arbor.

duane
Thu, 10/05/2017 - 7:31pm

I think it is as simple as Mr. Longmoore is delivering something his readers want, in a form they like, and they find sufficient value in what he is delivering that they will pay for it.

I would encourage Mr. Longmoore to reach out to those that are stepping forward with financial support, asking them for suggestions on how he might develop this support into regular financial support so he isn't working from financial crisis to crisis.
I don't live in Saline, this story adds to its appeal for it tells much about the community and its culture.

Al Cross
Tue, 10/10/2017 - 3:48pm

This shows why community journalism, despite the closure of some papers, remains the strongest part of the traditional news business; it shows that the most fundamental element of the business is the demand for news of one's locality, even as the online world leads people into non-geographic communities of interest.

Doug Schantz
Sat, 12/16/2017 - 8:26am

Not only does Tran benefit the City of Saline, it's really the whole Saline area (primarily the portions of the surrounding townships served by Saline Area Schools). He's truly a local treasure and those of us who fund his work have already seen enhancements about which he speaks. This is modern-day small town journalism coverage at its finest.