Column by Sumter Item Executive Editor Kayla Green: Amid time of uncertainty for newspapers, Item changes will increase access to news


For the last 130 years, there has not been a Sumter County without The Sumter Item. I do not anticipate that to change.

A lot has changed in those 130 years at the national level, local stage and within the walls of what is currently Sumter County's only newspaper. The main storyline of the newspaper industry seems startling. While there were around 24,000 newspapers in the country at the height of the industry in the early 1900s, an accelerated erosion of staff, resources and publications over the past two decades has left the nation with 6,000 surviving newspapers, according to the 2023 State of Local News report from Northwestern University and Penelope Muse Abernathy.

Without The Sumter Item, our coverage area would become a news desert. The term identifies a place that does not have access to a reliable local news source. Residents in more than half of U.S. counties are either barren or at risk of becoming a news desert. Abernathy's research tracks a trajectory that puts the country as having lost a third of its newspapers since 2005 by the end of next year.

That's more than two newspapers a week closing. And when a paper shutters, they're usually not replaced by a significant digital-only product. Because life around us continues to spin, regardless of how profitable or flailing a community's newspaper is, the absence of one does not mean there is a lack of news. It means, in the worst way possible, that people lose their lifeline to reliable local information they critically need to live informed, engaged and generally better lives.

In addition to the rate of newspapers closing, we have as a country lost 43,000 - almost two-thirds - of our journalists since 2005. Nearly 80% of staff photographers have been lost.

The changes The Sumter Item announced today that you will see transpire this spring are being made to prevent the paper from becoming one of those statistics. To prevent the slashing of resources and people who produce the news you have read and trusted since 1894.

A lot has changed in those 130 years. And The Sumter Item of today leans into change. To adapting, evolution.

Some of you may remember when The Item published an afternoon paper. There used to be no website. Now, we publish news daily online, getting breaking news to readers before it prints. We send articles, e-papers, digital magazines, videos and promotions from local advertisers to up to 35,000 email inboxes over a dozen times a week.

You may remember when most traditional newspapers hired homogeneously. Told stories most accurately and fairly when they were about people and communities similar to their own. We now think at every turn about how we can include diverse voices and hold the microphone to the mosaic of communities that make up our coverage area.

You may remember when you had to buy a newspaper or watch TV through a paid-for cable network to get your news. Now, we provide several points of access to local news and storytelling that do not require a subscription. Thanks to community partners that support series like Sumter Today, a video news show; The Grind, a high school athlete spotlight in print, digital and video; and Sumter's Next Generation, which spotlights academic excellence and community involvement of Sumter's youth that publishes in print and on social media, we are able to remove the cost barrier that prevents many from accessing news.

Equitable access to vital information and storytelling that makes us feel proud of Sumter is a continuing priority in our coverage and business decisions. The Item Impact that we will publish for the first time on Friday, March 15, and every ensuing third Friday of the month will increase that equity.

Our newspapers will be more pages than they are today, will have a longer shelf-life. Our staff will have more time to focus on the things that can expand our reach, like newsletters and video, like new series and large community events.

Change can be scary, and it's usually hard. We do not take any decision that impacts our readers, our subscribers, our advertisers, our community lightly. But for the last 130 years, there has not been a Sumter County without The Sumter Item. I do not anticipate that to change. And I am grateful to all of you who take this journey with us.

Kayla Green is executive editor of The Sumter Item.