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Small-town Nebraska newspaper, hammered by loss of revenue, finds new life with new owners

Small-town Nebraska newspaper, hammered by loss of revenue, finds new life with new owners

stantonregister

The new owners of the Stanton Register, Wade and Carrie Pitzer, look over the first edition of the paper since they acquired it last month. At right is daughter Shelby Pitzer, who also works for the family’s media company.

LINCOLN — Over 140 years, the Stanton Register has detailed the history of its northeast Nebraska circulation area, from the advent of electricity in 1903 to the violent twin tornadoes that roared past in 2014 and the devastating flood of 2019.

But late last month, with advertising revenue drying up as businesses closed because of COVID-19, the owners of the 600-circulation weekly newspaper decided to call it quits.

“All of advertising basically disappeared, or a large portion of it,” said editor and publisher Dani Hadcock, who had owned Stanton County’s only newspaper since 2016. “We had subscribers telling us, ‘I just can’t afford to renew my subscription because I’m out of a job.’ ”

But the Register didn’t die.

After reading of the newspaper’s impending demise, Carrie and Wade Pitzer of Neligh, whose four-year-old media company covers six communities in Antelope and Knox Counties, stepped in.

The Pitzers used to live just south of Stanton after they were married in 2000, and Carrie Pitzer, the president of Pitzer Media, said she couldn’t bear to see an institution disappear in a community where their family built their foundation.

“Stanton is the only legal paper in the entire county,” she said. “We couldn’t let them lose their only paper.

“If you lose your school or you lose your newspaper, you start losing ground as a community.”

Amazingly, when the Pitzers called to offer their help, the former owners asked them to take over the Register — at no charge.

Hadcock, who had worked for the paper since her freshman year of high school, said it was more important to keep the stories coming than to squeeze out a few dollars for a business that was making only $3,000 to $5,000 a year before the virus hit.

“I grew up here. So we’re into telling our town’s story. I didn’t want to see that die,” said Hadcock, who has three teenage kids and works another job as an ombudsman for a Navy support center in Omaha.

All across the nation, newspapers are struggling with falling ad revenue as businesses shut down or scale back because of the pandemic.

In a small farm town like Stanton, population 1,511, ads purchased by the mom-and-pop businesses along main street are the revenue mainstays, as are ads related to the local school, which closed down, and county fairs and town festivals, which are on hold.

A recent survey of the state’s 163 newspapers found that revenue was down from 10% to as much as 70%, with only a couple of papers saying they were doing better than before COVID-19, according to Dennis DeRossett, executive director of the Nebraska Press Association.

“I think people are holding their breath and hoping that July and August will start to show improvement, or it will be very, very bad,” he said.

In Stanton, the locals are liking the changes to the Register already launched by the Pitzers.

There’s a Facebook page and other social media platforms pumping out news. The parade for graduating seniors from Stanton High School was streamed live online by the Pitzers, and every senior was interviewed for a video posted online. The annual newspaper section for graduating seniors included full-color photographs for the first time.

“They’ve done some really good things,” said Seth Pohlman, who runs an insurance agency in Stanton and figures that he’s saved every copy of the Stanton Register.

“I was born and raised here, and I just like history,” he said. “The previous owners did a really good job, but it’s been a godsend that the Pitzers came in.”

Jodie Arens, the activities secretary at the high school, said saving the newspaper also means that local sports will continue to be covered.

Carrie Pitzer said she was shocked when the newspaper was offered to them free of charge. But she said the offer shows the depth of commitment to local news by the previous owners.

The second edition of the Stanton Register under the new owners rolled off the press last week, and Pitzer said she’s already signed up some new subscribers.

She said it will take a commitment by the community, and its advertisers, to keep the newspaper running, but she’s already getting offers from some local residents to help write stories or take photos. Adding the social media outlets, like a Facebook page, is essential, Pitzer added, because that’s what people want these days.

“If we can change from being a newspaper to news source, I think the future is very bright,” she said. “It’s old-fashioned journalism presented in a high-tech way.”