Gov. Jim Pillen speaks at NPA convention
Gov. Jim Pillen speaks at NPA 150th anniversary convention and announces newspaper recognition week. Photo credit: Jeremy Buss

The U.S. government established Nebraska as a state in 1867, 156 years ago. Founded just six years later, in 1873, the Nebraska Press Association is now celebrating its 150th anniversary of working with and for local newspapers throughout the state. 

Additionally, Gov. Jim Pillen designated June 26-30 as community newspaper recognition week, partially to highlight the 150th anniversary of the NPA.

Dennis DeRossett, the executive director of the NPA, said the organization’s contribution to journalism has remained consistent throughout the century and a half. 

Today, there are about 150 newspapers operating in Nebraska that are part of the NPA, according to DeRossett. 

One hundred thirty of them publish weekly or semi-weekly newspapers. Fourteen dailies run every day in towns spanning from Norfolk to Beatrice. McCook publishes three times a week, and Ogallala publishes twice, according to DeRossett.

DeRossett said local journalism remains crucial to smaller towns and communities throughout Nebraska, as local journalists can cover their local government, school districts and every aspect of their area. 

“Many people call the local newspaper the first draft of history,” DeRossett said. “It’s ‘This is what’s happened in the past week or two since we published, and here’s what’s coming ahead in the near future.’ It really keeps the community tied together.”

The NPA works with local newspapers across Nebraska to provide training, awards, revenue through advertising and events, along with providing advocacy in the Nebraska legislature for government transparency, DeRossett said.

“We’re here to service and support the members in a lot of different areas, and it’s continued today the same as when it was started years ago,” DeRossett said. “We’re sort of the common tie among all the newspapers.”

According to DeRossett, the NPA is likely the oldest association in Nebraska that is still in operation. As the group was founded near the end of the Civil War, he said that it was more important than ever to bring journalists across the state together.

“It was huge for the newspapers back then to get together in a common association,” DeRossett said. 

He highlighted journalism’s recent shift to online prioritization as a large benefit to communities, as people in a town now have more access to information than ever before. Even if someone has moved away from their hometown, they can remain connected through their local publication’s website, he said. 

Tory Duncan, managing editor of the Clay County Times, said the Nebraska Press Association’s contributions to every publication in the state are pivotal to journalism’s success in local communities.

As journalism is an ever-changing industry, Duncan said the NPA has helped them move to digital media and social media as a way to stay connected to more people the papers cover every day. 

“It’s a changing world; there’s no doubt about it,” Duncan said. “Thankfully, with the association, we’ve got people to lean on.”

According to Duncan, 100% of locally run newspapers in Nebraska are members of the NPA, something he highlighted as unique to other states. 

Duncan said the association helps him at the Clay County Times in a variety of ways, whether that’s offering legal advice when covering a major crime like a recent stabbing or helping generate story ideas that the paper can bring to their uniquely local area. 

“Without that entire staff we would be jumping a lot more hurdles today than we are,” Duncan said. “Without that association, it would be a much different world.”

Duncan said the governor’s recognition of the contributions of community journalism is important. He said that Pillen’s recognition showed just how important the association, and each local newspaper, is collectively.

“That was a huge moment for me,” Duncan said. 

Duncan has worked in local journalism for 40 years, growing up in the industry. In that time, he said the publication’s position to cover every event in the county, good or bad, has remained integral to supporting the people in the area. 

He cited covering the Clay County Fair each year as a key factor of how his paper highlights the community. At that time when everyone in the county has gathered, Duncan said they work 12-13 hours a day covering every event.

“It’s our job to record the history being made by the young kids and families and the successes they reach,” Duncan said. “Whether they get a grand champion heifer or a red ribbon, it doesn’t matter to us.”

Duncan said although he and his team often work between 50-80 hours a week, this dedication to the members of his community is essential. 

“It never gets old after 14 years,” Duncan said. “You may cover the county fair every year. You may cover the Sutton and Sandy Creek football game, or whatever the case may be every year. But it’s always different, there’s always a different story to write.”

In recent years, a shift happened in Nebraskan community journalism as Lee Enterprises, an Iowa-based news conglomerate, bought the majority of publications throughout the state. 

Joan Von Kampen, the Western Nebraska regional editor for Lee Enterprises, said this shift hasn’t changed the mission of community newspapers. 

Von Kampen has worked in Nebraska community journalism for decades and has seen and been a part of this change. Today, she oversees the staff of the North Platte Telegraph, Scottsbluff Star-Herald, Gering Courier and Hemingford Ledger. 

During her 19-year career at the Omaha World-Herald, she saw this shift from an employee-owned newspaper to being owned by BH Media. During her time as editor of the North Platte Telegraph, the company was sold to Lee Enterprises. 

With this shift to corporate ownership at Lee Enterprises, Von Kampen said many have developed a conception that local publications are controlled by someone out of town. 

This isn’t necessarily true, she said, as out-of-state news directors don’t know what is happening on a local level and can’t delegate stories for those communities.

“We have other local issues, and that has to take precedence,” VonKampen said. “I think it is really important to have those roots in the community and have an understanding of the nature of a particular community.”

She highlighted a smaller community newspaper’s unique ability to represent a collective voice. To be trusted by the town to publish birth announcements, obituaries and high school graduations is a special ability that only that town’s paper can do, she said. 

If someone’s child gets a scholarship, they can call the North Platte Telegraph and ask the paper to publish it.

Once it’s in there, Von Kampen said people come in to buy a stack of papers and send them to their relatives.

“The community doesn’t own the paper, but it takes a personal sense of ownership in the paper,” Von Kampen said. “We’re privileged to tell their stories.”

William Huse, publisher of the Norfolk Daily News, said community journalism is more crucial now than ever. At his publication, and among most other ones, the Daily News has been able to add more accessible ways to reach community members using social media.

“We have multiple ways to communicate electronically: our website, email blasts, Twitter, Facebook, etc.,” Huse said. “It’s crucial. To have a healthy community you’ve got to have a healthy community news organization.”

Without a local newspaper, communities lose advocacy, he said. Whether it’s exposing the negative or highlighting the positive, he said, the press’s role in that remains essential.

Huse told a story about how Norfolk’s transit system, which he said was crucial for helping people get around town, was shut down. It was believed to be caused by a government official who was in charge of it stealing money. 

Because they were there to cover the story, the community could stay informed and involved. 

“As the local community advocates, we’re reporting these facts, but we’re also working with the chamber, city governments and local interests to promote and encourage everyone to do all we can to help resurrect this,” Huse said.

Eventually, the town raised enough funds to cover what was stolen, and the system is back up and running. 

Seeing the governor emphasize the importance of local press demonstrated to Huse that he understands the need to encourage a strong and independent free press in every community throughout the state, he said. 

“Crucial to democracy is an independent, trusted, reliable free press to keep citizens informed and those in power accountable,” Huse said, “Without it, you go off the rails, and democracy would fail.”