Review: The Last Stand, Beacons in the Darkness: Hope and Transformation Among America’s Community Newspapers, by Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has loved newspapers since his boyhood in west suburban Naperville. He understands the important role newspapers play in the life of a community, and how a newspaper—the best of them anyway—can create a sense of place. But, as Hoekstra makes clear in his excellent Beacons in the Darkness: Hope and Transformation among America’s Community Newspapers, the community newspaper is under siege, their numbers dwindling by the day.

Newspaper circulation is at its lowest point since 1940, Hoekstra reports. The loss of
advertising and a turn to digital publishing led more and more papers to end their
print editions altogether, resulting in continuing rounds of buyouts, layoffs, pay cuts, and
furloughs. Countless papers have completely shut down. In 2006, 75,000 journalists worked in the newspaper industry. Today that number has fallen to a mere 31,000, according to a 2022 report issued by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The report went on to state that newspapers die at the rate of two per week in the United States, and some 70 million Americans live in a county with few or no local news outlets. The COVID pandemic created even more havoc and uncertainty in the industry.

But Hoekstra finds hope where others see only despair. As research for Beacons of Darkness, Hoekstra crossed the country, interviewing family newspaper publishers, reporters, and other staff members. His travels took him to far-flung corners. He writes about the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Hillsboro Journal-News, Paddock Publications, Shaw Media, Carroll Times Herald in Iowa, the Madison Courier in Indiana, the Eldon Advertiser in Missouri, the Post and Courier in South Carolina, and the Big Bend Sentinel in Texas, among others. Chicago is here too. He provides the backstory—and turbulent present—of the Chicago Reader. He conducted 50 interviews for the book.

Beacons… is full of anecdotes that capture the flavor of small-town life as seen through
its local papers—the kind of stories that only appear in small town papers. From the 1940s to the late 1980s, the Benton Evening News in tiny Benton, Illinois, was owned by the family of actor John Malkovich. John’s brother, Danny Malkovich was the paper’s managing editor while John’s sister Becky Malkovich was a staff reporter. In 1963, Becky wrote a piece about George Harrison’s visit to the town to visit his sister, Louise, who was living there at the time. “She told me she had,” Hoekstra writes, “‘The Beatles Beat’ in proud small-town tones.”

Another example of a small-town newspaper is the Journal-News in the central-southern Illinois town of Hillsboro (population just under 6,000), run by fifth-generation owner John Galer. Calling the paper his “North Star,” Hoekstra seems genuinely impressed by Galer’s optimism, finding it “a rare commodity in cynical times.” To Hoekstra, the Journal-News embodies the best characteristics of family newspapers: history, humility, empathy, advocacy, and a sense of community.

Hoekstra started his career when he was a junior in high school, working as a stringer for the Aurora Beacon-News. The Beacon News had a bureau office in Naperville, where he grew up. It was there where he first learned the tricks of the trade. Hoekstra was fortunate enough to come of age at a time when the Chicago area’s newspaper culture was strong
and vibrant—and competition often fierce.

Hoekstra recalls that his father would bring home four daily newspapers from his job in downtown Chicago: the morning papers (the Sun-Times and the Tribune) and the afternoon papers (the Chicago American––later Chicago Today––and the Chicago Daily News). Young Dave read Mike Royko, Roger Ebert––who began his career at the Champaign News-Gazette––M. W. “Bill” Newman, and sports columnists Ray Sons and Rick Talley.

In 1985, Hoekstra was hired at the Sun-Times, where he stayed for decades becoming one of Chicago’s most reliable and respected journalists. But life at the Sun-Times was often unpredictable. Buffeted by layoffs, resignations, retirements, firings, and filing for bankruptcy protection under the shaky leadership of various owners—from Rupert Murdoch to Conrad Black—led to constant turmoil. In 2013, conditions deteriorated to such a degree at the financially struggling paper that editors fired all the staff photographers and reporters. Writers were told to take their own photos on their cell phones—with no commensurate bump in salary. Hoekstra had seen enough and accepted a buyout in 2014.

Like the best of Chicago journalists, Hoekstra writes in a plainspoken style. He calls it “blue-collar journalism.” He doesn’t have a college degree and he doesn’t act “like the smartest person in the room.” Instead, he gives the people he interviews the time and opportunity to talk—to tell their story. “I keep my mouth shut. I listen,” he says. In this way, Beacons in the Darkness is typical Hoekstra: accessible and inspirational, with his usual keen eye for detail and a deep appreciation for the subject. His warmth and empathy come shining through on every page.

As Hoekstra emphasizes, the people who run the local papers are far removed from the Murdochs and Bezos of the world. For the most part, family newspaper owners don’t publish newspapers to make money for the sake of making money (not that there is a lot of money to be made). They exist to share the everyday stories of the people who live there—the people who make up the bulk of their readership. “These newspapers were about life itself, an ethic as entrenched as a century-old oak tree,” writes Hoekstra.

Nowadays, outsourcing of news stories has become the rule rather than the exception. Newspaper beats have been eliminated. Fewer and fewer reporters are covering more and more stories and working harder than ever to attract an increasingly smaller readership.
And yet despite the struggles, Hoekstra found a “spirit of resilience” among many of the
small-town newspapers, an ability to adapt to changing times. For some, part of that
change relies on an entirely different economic model.

In 2020, Mary and Larry Gavin of Evanston formed the nonprofit Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), which serves as a resource for newspapers committed to public service journalism. These papers and organizations adhere to strict standards involving editorial quality, editorial and organizational independence, and transparency. According to Hoekstra, as of spring 2022 the INN consisted of 350 nonprofit organizations in North America. Meanwhile, in early 2022, Hoekstra’s old paper, the Sun-Times (“my feisty alma mater,” as he calls it), merged with Chicago radio station WBEZ to create one of the largest nonprofit news organizations in the country. The Chicago Reader is another newspaper owned by a nonprofit organization, the Reader Institute for Community Journalism.

Is this nonprofit model the future of journalism? Perhaps. Meanwhile, the editors and reporters of the family-run and community newspapers will do what they always do: ask the questions that need to be asked and publish what needs to be published in order to serve the common good. “A community is only as strong as its community paper,” Hoekstra says.

Dave Hoekstra has done journalists everywhere a public service. Beacons in the Darkness offers hope and inspiration to an industry in dire need of good news.

Beacons in the Darkness: Hope and Transformation among America’s Community
Newspapers is available in bookstores and through the Agate Publishing website.

June Sawyers
June Sawyers

June Sawyers has published more than 25 books. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New City, San Francisco Chronicle, and Stagebill. She teaches at the Newberry Library and is the founder of the arts group, the Phantom Collective.