Oct 17, 2022 - Things to Do

Reinventing small-town papers

Book on a gray screen

Courtesy of Agate

Dave Hoekstra spent decades chronicling Chicago nightlife and music culture.

  • But his latest book zeroes in on the culture of small towns, specifically innovative newspapers reinventing themselves in an age of layoffs and fake news.

What's happening: Hoekstra is launching "Beacons in the Darkness" (Agate) with a book party at WeeGees in Logan Square on Wednesday at 7pm.

The big picture: Themes of "community and sense of place'' pervade Hoestra's work, including his recent books on supper clubs, soul food in the civil rights movement, and camping communities in Springfield, Mo.

  • "So I wanted to celebrate community and place in the newspaper world by focusing on multigenerational, independent family newspapers rather than big-city, family newspapers," he tells Axios.

Zoom in: Using the innovative Hillsboro Journal-News in South-Central Illinois as his "north star," Hoekstra journeyed to small towns such as Champaign-Urbana; Carroll, Iowa; and Eldon, Mo., to understand their evolutions.

  • There he found "new versions of hope and ideas" from papers experimenting with new models.
  • One is "a young couple from Brooklyn who bought the Marfa, Texas, family paper and wrapped it around a nearby coffee shop. Not so far removed from what Axios does at The Hideout."
  • "In Hillsboro young thinkers have opened a record store, coffee shop, brewery and more under the umbrella of nonprofit Imagine Hillsboro that networks with the newspaper." The program is part of an upcoming Smithsonian "Spark! Places of Innovation" traveling exhibit.

Flashback: These innovative experiments reminded Hoekstra of his proposal for young people to paint Chicago Sun-Times newspaper boxes 15 years ago.

  • "I did not understand why our idea was ignored," he said. "Newspapering can be fun. The next generation is more willing to take chances."

What he's saying: "Engagement builds trust, and when small-town newspapers vanish or get bought out by larger, non-local entities, that trust diminishes. Local is king. I think back to my love of music. Some of the best and most honest music comes from the small, independent labels — not the polished conglomerates."

  • For readers, Hoekstra hopes that "people take away the responsibility to gather their news from reliable sources that recognize their community. This responsibility begins with the consumer supporting the product online, in physical copies or through advertisers."
  • For journalists: "Understand your neighbors. Search for truth in the outside world. We all have the same heartbeat, and if readers only begin to feel that, then this book has been a success."

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