At a Wyoming paper, praying — and paying — for local news

A 135-year-old weekly called the News Letter Journal is attempting to tap the Christian faith community to help its bottom line. 

A March front page of the News Letter Journal print edition. (Courtesy of NLJ)

(RNS) — As America’s rural weekly newspapers collapse and close at an alarming rate, their owners are desperate to find ways to survive and to keep their communities from becoming “news deserts.”

Innovative lifelines for larger dailies — support from nonprofit foundations, direct governmental support, billionaire sugar daddies — are not available to them. 

One method that hasn’t been tried, until now, is religion. 


In deep red Wyoming, a 135-year-old weekly called the News Letter Journal (circulation 1,500, down from 2,000) is attempting to tap the Christian faith community to help its bottom line. The paper, which serves Weston County from the county seat of Newcastle, about an hour’s drive (in good weather) from Mount Rushmore in neighboring South Dakota, is asking readers to pay $15 a week to become “Faith Partners.”

Faith Partners is the brainchild of Bob Bonnar, the paper’s publisher and part owner, and is at least as much evangelical as financial, he said. 

“Those of us who are Christians are called to share the good news of Jesus Christ, that he is our Savior,” he told Religion News Service in an interview from Durango, Colorado, where he now works remotely.

A recent fundraising email to readers was headlined “Partners Wanted.” The paper proclaimed: “We are committed to representing the Christian values of the community, and we ask that you consider placing the name of your business or family alongside those who help us bring the Word of God to Newcastle, Weston County and beyond.”

In part, readers’ contributions would subsidize the paper’s weekly church guide, the Faith Directory, sometimes known as “the grid,” listing area congregations, clergy and worship times. Like many newspapers, the News Letter Journal does not charge the churches to be listed, depending on local businesses for support. But that business support has declined.

When times were good, newspapers around the country ran this grid on their Saturday religion pages, in hopes of luring paid religious advertising to run adjacent. In addition, this was also where columns and section front feature stories about faith and religion continued, written by staff religion writers.

By contributing as a Faith Partner, the Wyoming paper wrote, “you can help us spread the Message in the newspaper and on our website — and the listing of your business or family name as a sponsor of our Faith Directory every week will serve as your proud Testimony of your own Faith in Jesus Christ!” 


Also on the News Letter Journal’s page are obituaries and birth and wedding announcements.

Still, Bonnar said, “I felt compelled to give readers more than a directory and announcements.” 

Dean Butler. (Courtesy photo)

Dean Butler. (Courtesy photo)

So, in the mailing, the paper also announced that it had added to the faith page a local weekly column, “Bible Bits,” by Dean Butler, analyzing verses from Scripture.

Butler, a self-proclaimed cowboy, is a former ranch hand, welder, oil field roughneck, penitentiary staffer and Vietnam era Marine veteran. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in Christian counseling.

“I never felt comfortable being a preacher,” Butler said in the joint interview with Bonnar. “All my life God was preparing me for what I’m doing now.” 

The prolific, late-in-life writer turned out to be “an answered prayer for me,” Bonnar said. 

In order to assuage any possible feelings of exclusion, there is this italicized, small-type footnote at the bottom of the email appeal: “The News Letter Journal whole-heartedly supports the freedom of all citizens to worship and believe as they choose. We welcome people of all faiths to our community, and encourage open and compassionate dialogue that promotes understanding and peace between neighbors.


But is propagating Christian faith the proper role of a secular news organization, even in a community that is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly Protestant?

Bonnar thinks it is, pointing out that the Newcastle City Council has reinstituted a prayer before each meeting.

 “If our community is a Christian community that takes pride in that, so the newspaper should reflect that as well.”

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