North central Florida newspapers attempt to remedy Gilchrist County news desert
Cindy Jo Ayers was amazed that the seats at the Gilchrist County Commission meeting were full – a rare occasion in a county of small farming towns.
Ayers tagged along with her husband, John Ayers, as he covered a contentious dairy farm proposal many years ago. Her husband, the editor of the Gilchrist County Journal, was determined to withstand pressure from either side. His wife assured him that he was being fair.
Nonetheless, 30 minutes after the newspaper was released that Thursday, leaders on both sides threw the paper down on his desk in Trenton. They were angry about how they were portrayed.
But that’s what the Journal did for 91 years: print the facts.
“You’re not supposed to make anybody happy,” Ayers, now 64, told her husband, now 65. “They both read what they wanted to in it.”
The Ayerses have owned the Journal since 1939, when J. Min Ayers, John Ayers’ father, bought it in installments of $18 after working there for five years. The last issue was printed Feb. 24.
Although the couple had an offer to buy the newspaper, they weren’t able to put a price on eight decades of history and family ownership. While other local news outlets hope to fill the local news breech, none of them have Gilchrist County as their primary focus.
Just as Cindy Jo Ayers’ great grandfather’s job of cutting cross ties on Florida railroads in the 1800s became obsolete, she worries print journalism has, too: “We’re just going to go away.”
Listen below: Cindy Jo Ayers reflects on her decades-long experience at the Gilchrist County Journal and why it recently closed. (Alan Halaly/WUFT News)
John Ayers declined to talk about the closing to maintain his privacy during an emotional time.
With a bill on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk proposing to strip local papers of legal notices, which often fill lots of pages, the future of small town journalism across Florida is uncertain.
Unlike Gainesville and Alachua County, Gilchrist’s school board, county commission and various city commissions don’t livestream or otherwise broadcast their meetings.
Gilchrist County has over 18,000 residents spread over 350 square miles, compared to 280,000 over 970 square miles in Alachua County. Gilchrist has two cities (Trenton and Fanning Springs) and one town (Bell) as well as the incorporated area of Spring Ridge. Trenton, where the Journal’s office is located, is its largest municipality, with just over 2,000 residents.
Jessica Clackum, 52, has read the Journal since she was 12, after moving with her family from Miami to a farm three miles north of Bell, a town of just over 500. Before the internet, it was the newspaper that connected these rural people with acres between them.
Not much of note happens in the county, Clackum said, but the tight knit, family-like, atmosphere county residents cling to manifested itself through the Journal.
Clackum said worries what could happen without reporters being at local government meetings.
“The media has always been something people can count on to help protect democracy,” Clackum said. “Without that, I feel that we’ve lost something.”
Penny Abernathy, a Northwestern University professor and expert in news desert research, said a rural community loses much more than just nostalgia when its paper closes.
Voter participation will drop, corruption in local government can increase and taxpayers lose an important watchdog for how agencies spend taxpayer dollars, Abernathy said.
And it’s not just Gilchrist County. As of November, 2,200 local newspapers had closed across the country since 2005 – and the number of newspaper journalists fell by more than half between 2008 and 2020, according to data used in a Washington Post report.
The 2008 recession rapidly decreased the Ayers’ advertising base. It never restored what it once had, and the newspaper was no longer profitable. What happened on Wall Street trickled down into all industries, Abernathy said, and many small-town businesses never recovered.
Later, technology hurt it further. The Journal never rose above 100 digital subscribers. It didn’t help when county Facebook groups popped up with thousands of members each.
Social media is not an adequate replacement for a newspaper, Abernathy said.
“One of the hopes of technology was that it would bring us all closer together, and give us information at our fingertips,” Abernathy said. “The problem is that you need someone to curate that information. We just get to drink from a firehose every day.”
A remedy for the ensuant lack of local coverage has come via another paper serving a neighboring county to the west: the Dixie County Advocate in Cross City.
Editor Katherine McKinney, 53, of Old Town, said she has hired a reporter to bolster coverage on the Advocate’s Gilchrist County page as well as extended its delivery trail to Bell.
“They really missed the paper,” McKinney said. “The people want it. But the thing is: Will businesses step up to support it?”
Another major potential issue facing Florida newspapers, McKinney said, is a bill that would give governmental agencies the option to publish legal notices on county websites instead of in a print newspaper. Legal notices keep papers afloat financially, she said.
“We’re just trying to keep the doors open,” McKinney said.
The fluid media landscape has changed even in counties with multiple newspapers, like Alachua. In a densely populated region that benefits from coverage by University of Florida students for WUFT News and The Independent Florida Alligator, it’s often a race to get big news out first.
The Gainesville Sun, a daily owned by the Gannett media company, recently announced it would cease printing its Saturday edition. However, Douglas Ray, who has been editor-in-chief for eight years, said The Sun has embraced an online format, releasing an e-edition each day.
Ray said online subscription numbers have surpassed print ones for the first time this year.
“The strategy really is trying to find stories that no one else is reporting that are unique, local, important, relevant stories that people care enough about to pay for,” he said.
As for WUFT and the Alligator, Ray said: “I don’t mind having a competition at all. I think it’s good for people who live here to have choices.”
Mainstreet Daily News, which was founded in 2020, announced in March that it would start printing a free newspaper after debuting digitally. Instead of comprising all of its content, the print edition will feature the staff’s best work each week, publisher J.C. Derrick said.
While the Daily News’ focus still lies in Alachua County, the Journal’s closure will likely cause his staff to look more closely at what’s happening in Gilchrist, Derrick said.
His company approached the Ayerses to buy the Journal when its closure was first announced, but they were unable to come to an agreement, both sides said.
“We want to see news deserts being filled in by good local coverage,” Derrick said. “What we’re seeing is the opposite: They’re kind of drying up.”
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, said it struggling papers are more likely sell to a larger company like Gannett or The New York Times.
“There’s handwriting on the wall that they should consider selling to a chain that has a little bit more scale,” Edmonds said. “They want to get out while their property is still worth something.”
Eddy Scott, 62, has lived in Gilchrist County most of his life. His one constant: Going into town every Thursday as a child with his uncle to read the Journal.
Scott said he has read about everything from a man falling in a sinkhole to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to letters from World War II soldiers wanting to reach their families. It’s also documented the birth of his twin daughters as well as marriage announcements and obituaries.
He said he’s seen other outlets try to bridge the gap. He even saw a TV reporter at a local plant sale event that hadn’t gotten much coverage throughout the years.
And while he understands why the Ayerses are burnt out, Scott said he missing having a paper that builds community trust: “I wish somebody would take it over. But it’s just a fact of life.”
Now, all that remains of the Journal is vacant office space and a message on its website thanking county residents for their support. On the back of its last issue, the Ayerses wrote that during The Great Depression, John Ayers’ father would trade a $1 yearly subscription for a turkey, fresh produce or a bottle of cane syrup.
“Ink is most definitely in our blood,” John and Cindy Jo Ayers wrote in a farewell column.
Ayers said she and her husband are looking forward to retirement.
“After a while, you just get rundown,” Cindy Jo Ayers said. “It just doesn’t seem worth it to keep fighting. Things change. It’s a different generation, a different outlook.”