Commentary: Interstate highways, shopping malls, the Internet and social media
Over the past 15 years, no less than 1,800 newspaper publications in the United States have folded. The overwhelming majority of these were weekly newspapers serving small communities. In less than two weeks, the Barnesville Enterprise will join that list. How did we get to this place?
Historically, 80 percent of a newspaper’s revenue came from advertising with subscribers and counter sales providing the remaining 20 percent. The disruption of this model, mostly over the past 30 years, is at the heart of the big newspaper die-off. Applying my local history hat, I will outline forces at play in the Barnesville area over the past 60 years that brought the Enterprise to its end.
After efforts to create a new county with Barnesville as the county seat in 1818 failed, the early settlers turned their attention to the town’s location as a natural “market town.” The arrival of the railroad in 1854 sealed the deal also opening opportunities for industrial growth.
From the Great Depression on, Barnesville attracted several regional and national chains including J.C. Penney, Western Auto, Moore’s Store, Keystone Shoes and G.C. Murphy’s. The high mark for Barnesville was Dec. 22, 1960. Late on that Christmas shopping day, the J.C. Penney store was gutted by a fire. After the fire, the company’s leadership decided not to rebuild. Market trends were changing.
Six months later June 30, 1961, the last passenger train departed from the B&O Depot signaling the end of rail travel and the dominance of automobile travel. At that time, the construction of President Eisenhower’s national system of interstate highways was underway. Within the decade, U.S. 40, six miles north of Barnesville, would be replaced by I-70, a four-lane limited-access highway.
James A. Rhodes, state auditor and four-term Ohio governor touted the interstate highways as a way to develop rural areas. While there was limited success on this front, these new roads permitted Barnesville residents to reach the state capitol in two hours and other cities in record time, as well.
Instead of out-of-town shopping trips to Cambridge or Wheeling, area residents were just as likely to strike out for Columbus’ Eastland Mall or South Hills Mall on the outskirts of Pittsburgh.
And as jobs disappeared, many rural towns evolved into bedroom communities with residents driving up to an hour or more to and from work each day.
By the mid-60s, standalone box stores in Lansing (Harts) and Cambridge (Giant Store, later Rinks Bargain City) started drawing local shoppers away as construction of the final segments of I-70 were stitched together.
A massive downtown redevelopment project in Wheeling dubbed the Fort Henry Mall would have created an enclosed downtown shopping and entertainment district. Opposition forces were successful in getting the measure on the ballot in August 1973. It was defeated 2-1.
With no downtown mall on the horizon, several developers sought land in Belmont and Ohio counties for a mall. Of the three proposed, only the Ohio Valley Mall was completed opening officially on Oct. 4, 1978
Moving the region’s major shopping center 12 miles nearer to Barnesville immediately changed shopping habits for many who previously frequented our downtown business district for most shopping needs.
Dan Peddicord related years later that his father Gilbert said business in Barnesville was good until the mall opened. And the Walter Thomas store even placed an ad in the Enterprise that read in part, “Hey Mall, beat these prices!” The national chains at the mall did not respond. In fact, few ads from the huge center were ever placed in the Enterprise.
At the same time, many oldline local businesses that were generous advertisers in the Enterprise were sold or closed including Kirks, T & A Rogers, Moore’s Store, Foster’s and Smith Lumber to name a few. Advertising revenue declined.
A second, but more major blow, was the loss of grocery store advertising. As more women entered the workplace, the grocery industry expanded sales to a full week rather than weekend specials that were common in the post-WW II era. By the time the Enterprise hit the streets on Thursday mornings, grocery sales were already half over.
In March 1983, the Enterprise joined the Caldwell Journal-Leader moving to a Monday publication date with the hopes of recapturing grocery store ads. But the new copy deadlines made it difficult for Bill Davies to provide as detailed weekend sports reports and the public balked at the Monday newspaper. The print deadline shifted to Wednesday the following February in 1984. Losing grocery advertising was another major blow to the paper’s fortunes.
It was during this time in November 1983, the Palmer-Davies family made the decision to sell the paper becoming a member of Dix Communications, owners of the Martins Ferry and Cambridge daily newspapers.
In the early 1990s, several companies including AOL and CompuServe became leaders in the new technology called Email. The Internet was changing the way we communicated and lived our lives.
As the Internet evolved platforms appeared, most notably Craigslist, which permitted free postings of sale items including yard sales and another major source of advertising for the Enterprise basically disappeared.
Unlike sister weeklies in Cadiz, Caldwell and Woodsfield, Barnesville rarely received county legal ads. They went to the St. Clairsville weekly then to the Times Leader. Each spring, however, villages and townships in western Belmont County printed their annual financial reports in this paper. After the Internet arrived, state law was changed to allow a short notice in the paper that the annual fiscal report was complete and available for review. Another source of advertising was lost.
In July 1991, Cambridge-based ACV Communications launched WBNV Radio. For the first time, local businesses were offered a Barnesville radio station where they could promote themselves. Many did just that opting to drop print advertising in the paper.
Moving into the 21st century, the arrival of social media – My Space (2003) and Facebook (2004) – along with the introduction of the I-Phone in 2007 heavily impacted the newspaper industry.
News could be shared online albeit not to newspaper journalism standards. The arrival of the smartphone meant anyone could view information online almost anywhere at any time. The result was revenue generated by the once popular “Parade of Kids” and “Parade of Pets” dried up as families opted instead to share photos online.
Industry-wide, newspaper subscriptions have trended downward for the past quarter century. For the Enterprise, we experienced an average 3- to 5-percent drop each year since I was at the helm (1996) when the weekly print run exceeded 4,800.
With the sale of the paper, a little less than five years ago and the subsequent loss of all local staff and a physical office accelerated this decline. The 2020 Publisher’s Report for the first time revealed a weekly print run of less than 1,000 copies.
Local advertising dropped off at the same time. This paper carried 40 local “business directory” ads each week in 2018. The last two dropped out in June of this year.
So, there was a myriad of market changes that brought us to where we are today with but one more edition to go next week.
Historians in the 22nd century will at least be able to look back at the final editions of the Barnesville Enterprise and know what brought us to this sad point in time.
Bruce Yarnell is a former Barnesville Enterprise general manager.