(KANSAS NEWS SERVICE) LIBERAL, Kansas — Print media is struggling in many areas, but it survives in 15 towns thanks to a printing press still churning out newspapers in Liberal, Kansas.

The light blue machine takes up most of a warehouse, about the size of a school bus, with newspapers flying through different pulleys as ink is applied. At medium speed, it can spit out 500 papers per minute.

Danny Morua, the pressman for almost 20 years, makes a small adjustment, and within seconds is pushing a new roll of paper that weighs 700 pounds back onto the mechanism.

“Me casa is su casa," Morua said while standing next to the behemoth. “Just don’t get too close and get injured.”

Despite his own advice, he climbs up and down the printing press like it’s his own playground.

What used to be a community staple is now almost obsolete. But here in Liberal, Morua and his small crew are printing weekly papers for small towns across four states. It’s helping keep those other community papers alive and slowing the growth of news deserts where people can’t find local news.

“I love turning something that comes out looking basic and adding so much color to it, and knowing that I printed that,” Morua said.

Over half of Kansas counties have either just one newspaper or none at all according to a study by the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.

For these counties, especially in western Kansas, their paper is the only local news source, because they are isolated from major news outlets in major cities.

Earl Watt, owner of Liberal’s Leader and Times, believes newspapers are a staple for a community.

“Every community has to have a grocery store. They have to have schools. There are certain fundamental things that make a town a town,” Watt said. “One of those, in my view, is a newspaper.”

Watt has been in the business for over 30 years. He has established a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding papers desperately trying to stay open. Printing newspapers in the region keeps not only those papers alive, but sustains his own paper and justifies printing locally at a time when many large city papers have closed their presses.

“Having their local newspaper keeps community pride high. It keeps the community engaged and informed,” Watt said.

But it’s difficult to keep a newspaper in print for a small town. Across the country over the past two decades, more than 2,200 weekly newspapers have closed down due to costs, including print, delivery and staffing.

Having a press in Liberal keeps newspapers like the Hugoton Hermes 30 miles down the road in print for a lower cost than sending the paper off for print farther away.

RoGlenda Coulter, co-owner of the Hermes, said not many news outlets would care about some of the stories they run. But the Hermes puts community members on the front page. That ranges from the triumphs of the local middle school sports teams to a couple celebrating 76 years of marriage.

“We read the Hermes when we were little kids,” Coulter said. “I would hate to see it go away.”

Coulter and two other women bought their town’s paper in 2007 after working there for over 10 years. They struggled keeping up with finances, staffing and even sexism.

“We really didn't get the loan from the first place we went to being women. we just didn't seem to get respect,” Coulter said.

But their dedication to local news has paid off, allowing them to finish out their careers being one of the thriving weekly publications in the area.

And smaller papers like the Hermes don’t only focus on feel-good community stories.

Small town Kansas newspapers recently made national headlines after police raided the Marion County Record last year. The paper obtained a local business woman’s driving record, which revealed a DUI. In response, local police raided the newspaper and the publisher’s home.

That incident demonstrates the power local newspapers still wield even in rural Kansas.

Emily Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said local newspapers still play a role in politics.

“They cover the city council meetings,” Brandbury said. “They cover how tax dollars are being spent while also informing the community about how they're being spent.”

A study from the journal Urban Affairs Review showed that in towns without a newspaper, fewer people ran for mayor, and also fewer voters turned out for local and national elections.

But trust in the media is already at a historic low. Bradbury said local media can really be the key to restoring trust in journalism among rural communities.

“They see a huge difference between their local paper and their local journalists versus ‘the mainstream media,’” Bradbury said.

These smaller papers also contain a lot of history. For history buff Lidia Gray in Liberal, these newspapers are not just scrap. They’re a historical treasure that sometimes reveal colorful western stories that aren’t documented anywhere else.

“I have to look through these original bound newspapers, and they have stories about ghost towns in Seward County,” Gray said. “After the towns started fussing, they actually shot a sheriff.”

For this region, newspapers act as a portrait of these early settlements in western Kansas, and even today document their towns in ways no one else cares to.

Back at the printing press in Liberal, retiree Lisa Diaz helps fold the papers by hand a few hours a day for extra money. She and her coworker idly chat and listen to the radio.

Although their jobs are almost never seen, this human touch is what small town papers still rely on.

On Diaz’s right hand, she wears a compression glove, but it’s not for her wrist. It’s to help make creases in the 500 newspapers she is bundling for the Haskell County Monitor Chief.

Part of the success of this printing press can be attributed to Diaz and the pressman Morua, who have been staff staples for years.

Diaz has lived in Liberal most of her life. She said she hopes the smaller newspapers printed in the building enhance the sense of community in the region.

“All the counties around here, I think they need to stick together and kind of put us on the map,” Diaz said.