What Kansas would lose without its small-town papers

Original reporting by the Oskaloosa Independent was crucial for his new book about the Floyd Bledsoe case, says Justin Wingerter. Kansas, and the country, needs small, local newspapers to provide the first draft of history, he says. (Justin Wingerter)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Justin Wingerter is a reporter for the Denver Post and author of “Four Shots in Oskie.”

Around this time five years ago, I walked into a shabby and cramped cinderblock building just off the courthouse square in Oskaloosa (population 1,100). It had been a snack shop when it first opened during the Eisenhower administration and still looks like a storefront, minus any retail appeal.

It’s home to the Oskaloosa Independent, a weekly newspaper older than the state of Kansas. I was a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal then and just beginning research on what would become “Four Shots in Oskie,” a new book about the wrongful conviction of Floyd Bledsoe.

Bledsoe was framed by his brother for the murder of 14-year-old Camille Arfmann in Oskaloosa in 1999, a grave injustice that wasn’t undone until 2015, when he was released after 15 years in prison thanks to DNA testing, suicide notes and the tireless work of attorneys with the University of Kansas’ Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies and the Midwest Innocence Project.

That book wouldn’t have been possible — or at least wouldn’t have been as thorough, as good — without the small, local newspapers in Kansas and around the country that provide the first draft of history.

I wouldn’t have known about a prosecutor’s misuse of taxpayer funds if the Independent hadn’t written about it 20 years ago. I wouldn’t have known about a medical examiner’s history of bizarre behavior — including the boiling of human bones — and his role in other questionable convictions if a newspaper in central New York hadn’t written about it 30 years ago. Local elections, county board meetings and police blotters are the connective tissue tying the book together and appear nowhere but small papers.

About 1,800 newspapers in the United States have closed since 2004 — more than 100 a year — and almost all of those were small weeklies. Research shows those closures lead to higher taxes, lower voter participation rates and a less informed public. Crooks and incompetents benefit. Residents lose out.

“You wake up one day, and they’re bulldozing 20 acres of pines at the end of your block to put up a Costco,” is how the incomparable columnist Carl Hiaasen put it in his final piece on March 12. “Your kids ask what’s going on, and you can’t tell them because you don’t have a clue.”

When reporting on a small town I’m unfamiliar with, I’ve made a habit of stopping by the local newspaper and chatting with its editor, who is also its reporter, photographer and more. In 2018, while working in Oklahoma, residents in the small, impoverished town of Comanche asked me to look into air pollution from a former oil refinery that was making them sick, leading to hospitalizations.

Steve Bolton, editor of the Comanche Times, knew the oil refinery well. We wrote story after story about the illnesses — mine were in the state’s biggest newspaper, his were in one of its smallest — until a massive corporation from Houston stopped making the poor people of Comanche sick.

The world lost Steve to a heart attack about six months later, only a few weeks after he became a grandfather for the first time. He was a good person and a great newspaperman. In the months before his death, he told a fellow reporter, “I wouldn’t want to die anywhere else” but Comanche.

Our country needs Steve Boltons. What had happened to the people of Comanche was, for me, an example of corporate wrongdoing and an opportunity to make a difference. In other words, a great story. But to Steve it was personal. Those were his people being wronged in his town. You could read it in his writing, you could hear it in his voice, and you could feel it when in his presence. He cared.

The people of Comanche need the Comanche Times. The people of Oskaloosa need the Oskaloosa Independent. We need them now, we needed them in the past, and we’ll need them in the future. They deserve our subscriptions and our gratitude. If we don’t support them, we’ll all wake up one day and we won’t have a clue.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.