I hope you’ll allow me Nieman Lab director’s privilege to write something brief about the demise of a newspaper dear to my heart. Yesterday, the final edition of The Rayne Independent came off the presses. The Independent was a weekly newspaper in my hometown of Rayne, Louisiana (home of the Frog Festival!), a small town of about 8,000 people in the middle of Cajun country.
As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the future of newspapers, I was always keenly aware of how unusual Rayne was in one respect — it has, for the past 45 years and despite its small size, had two dueling weekly newspapers. Both were dominated by strong women: The Acadian Tribune by Myrta Fair Craig and The Independent by Jo Cart. Craig was publisher of the Acadian Tribune for an astonishing 70 years, from 1924 to 1994. Miss Jo, as she was known, didn’t get along too well with Myrta, so she started the Independent in 1967.
We were an Independent household growing up, despite the fact that by most any objective judgment, the Acadian Tribune was the better paper — more pages, bigger staff, better layout. But we read the Independent because Jo was a local force of nature and because the Acadian Tribune had become part of a chain back in 1963, Louisiana State Newspapers. (Hence the name “Independent,” started four years later.) For decades, Jo wrote a front-page column called From the Streets of Rayne that was sort of in the Herb Caen mode — an item-by-item recounting of who’d been in town that week, what people were talking about at City Hall, how good the shrimp poboy Jo had at Gabe’s was on Monday, and so on. The rest of the paper was pretty much just photos of kids who won awards at Rayne High and the attendees at the volunteer firemen’s ball, but From the Streets was the key read of the week in town.
Jo Cart died two years ago, but there was a succession plan in place — her son Tommy would take over. But Tommy died unexpectedly less than a month later, and since then the paper’s been in a sort of limbo, now owned by family members who no longer lived in town and didn’t have as much interest in running a newspaper.
In the front page announcement in the last edition, Scott Cart (Tommy’s son) wrote:
Two newspapers battled competitively for all of these years. There may not be another community of 10,000 people in our country that has published two weekly newspapers for 45 years. Our community of Rayne has done that. We have our advertisers to thank. Our local businesses felt it important to advertise their business and help to publish the news of the community. We had very loyal advertisers. We sincerely thank all of our businesses that made the success of this newspaper possible.
That’s right: I doubt any advertiser in the Independent was thinking about raw financial ROI. Rayne’s a small town; there aren’t many businesses, and the ones we do have everybody knows about. It was about being part of the community. In another piece, Becky Boudreaux — who’d been at the Independent since 1977 and was its primary non-Jo writer most of those years — wrote about Miss Jo:
She wanted to give Rayne a community newspaper. Whether it was the local child’s birthday party, the bridal and baby shower, the wedding announcement, the poster winner at the local elementary school, the top awards at the high school, and then on to our local citizens with their accomplishments in college and in their professional lives.
The Independent never won any Pulitzers. It didn’t have a website. To the extent anyone out of my hometown has ever heard of it, it’s probably because Jim Romenesko noticed a rather incredible copy-editing slipup a year ago. (The Independent may not have had a website, but it has a Deadspin tag.) And the Acadian Tribune remains, and will probably be a bit stronger without a competitor for subscriptions and advertisers. But Rayne’s unlikely to see a new hyperlocal startup or a foundation-supported nonprofit news outlet anytime soon. It’s up to the local newspaper to be the information source that glues the community together. And when the local newspaper goes, it’s unclear that anything will fill that void. Communities make newspapers, but newspapers also helped make communities. As William Allen White wrote in 1916:
Our papers, our little country papers, seem drab and miserably provincial to strangers; yet we who read them read in their lines the sweet, intimate story of life.
In a typical Nieman Lab story, this is the part where I’d try to draw out the lessons others might learn from the Independent’s demise. But for the moment, I’ll just say it’ll be missed.