hen George Smith, publisher of a small-town daily newspaper in Arkansas, saw newspapers retrenching in response to a sluggish economy, he did the unexpected: He switched his publishing cycle from morning to evening and started a weekly newspaper in a town 12 miles away.
Far to the north, The Mankato (Minn.) Free Press, also looking for ways to offset a soft economy, took another route – it offered employees voluntary, unpaid leaves. When the copy desk chief left for six weeks to finish his master’s degree, editor Deb Flemming took his job, both saving money and ultimately scoring big among staffers unaccustomed to seeing the boss in the trenches.
Small-town newspapers throughout the country have been facing tough economic times that have challenged them to find creative solutions to declining revenues without cutting to the heart of good community journalism. In some cases, the challenges began years ago with systemic trends such as the decline of agricultural employment and subsequent out-migration of the rural population, or the transfer of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries overseas. In others, economic slowdown resulted from a constellation of causes, including the crash of the dot-com industry and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
At the same time, some small-town newspapers have experienced growth – in some cases, record growth – in both circulation and advertising revenues. Indeed, economists say the current health of the small-town newspaper is largely dependent on the economic base of the community: Small-town newspapers near metropolitan areas or blessed with lifestyle amenities may be prospering. Small-town newspapers in areas dependent on agriculture, manufacturing or extractive industries such as timber or mining may be declining.
Poor economic times “force you to work smarter,” but even newspapers in good financial condition need creative strategies to ensure a healthy future, Smith said. And working smart means looking at “every single thing we do – all the systems.”
For example, circulation at Smith’s Benton Courier had been declining for four years after the newspaper moved to a morning publishing cycle in an effort to compete with the statewide daily. Benton has an older population in the outlying rural area and a largely commuting population in town. But the commuters didn’t have time to read the morning newspaper before work, Smith said, and they didn’t want 18-hour-old news at the end of the day.
“We were losing our franchise,” he said. “We didn’t have an audience.”
By publishing The Courier at noon, commuters have fresh news at night. Circulation went from about 6,450 to 7,322. Profits increased by double digits in 11 months.
To start the new weekly, Smith took existing staff coverage of nearby Bryant, a growing community just outside of Little Rock, combined it with news from The Courier and repackaged it. The new Bryant Banner exceeded $200,000 in revenues during its first year.
“A lot of it is attitude,” Smith said. “In one of the worst years – last year – the newspaper helped start a big Christmas light festival. We put up half a million Christmas lights on the downtown square. We can be the most positive force in the community or the most negative.”
But it’s more than attitude. Smith reduced the number of pressmen from five to three, then improved press operations and reduced waste from 18 percent to less than 10 percent. On a press run of 7,000 newspapers, the number of newspapers that were too flawed to be useable fell from an average of about 1,300 per day to 600. Smith increased the advertising and circulation budgets. He eliminated feature services that he said were not used. He cut the $1,000 monthly budget for local columnists. (“Well, shoot, I can write ‘em cheaper than that.”) He reduced costs for basic services, such as lawn and janitorial services.
But never, Smith says, would he cut to the core of the journalism.
“As an old editor, I still look at it from an editor’s eye,” Smith said. “If it serves the needs of the community, people will want us. I think about the reader every single moment of every single day.”
And never, journalists in small communities insist, can the advertising dollar or the state of the economy be allowed to compromise the integrity of the news coverage. Poor student achievement scores must be reported, even when declining school enrollments are threatening the future of the community’s only elementary school. Problems at the local hospital
must be exposed, even if the community is struggling to retain its health-care providers.
“You treat the local business like you treat any other story,” said The Mankato Free Press’ Flemming, who headed the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Small Newspapers Committee last year. “You report and write as fairly and completely as you can.”
Like The Benton Courier, the 24,000-circulation Free Press needed to reduce costs in light of a soft economy. But Flemming says her six weeks as copy desk chief did more than reduce salary expenses; it showed her that years of technological advances, such as pagination, caused a substantive amount of stress to copy-desk editors who could no longer do their jobs in the time they once did. As a result, the next job opening in the newsroom went to the copy desk.
Now, while many other small dailies are still retrenching, The Free Press is hiring five newsroom staffers and launching a Sunday edition. Because Mankato has one of the youngest population bases in Minnesota, a college-life page and entertainment listings from the nearby Twin Cities are being added.
The health of small- and mid-sized newspapers clearly is going to be dependent on providing good community journalism, Flemming says.
“We don’t exist to be The New York Times,” she said. “We serve very different audiences, and we need to provide readers with the information they need to make decisions about their lives – everything from chicken-dinner news to analysis of the most serious issues of the community.
“It’s almost as if these economic times have caused us to reflect and to realize that our readers can offer us a wonderful map toward success. There was a time we thought we knew best and readers be damned. Those days are gone. If they’re not, they should be.”
That ability to maintain strong local coverage is one of three fundamental strategies that small newspapers can use to ensure economic health, says Robert Scaife, vice president of Small Market News for the Newspaper Association of America.
“I’m talking about the local town hall stories, what the mayor said, the local Little League scores,” Scaife said. “Utilize pictures of local people. Run a picture of the Teacher of the Week. Have readers submit letters suggesting people, and publish the letters and the pictures. Or do the Neighbor of the Week.”
The key, Scaife says, is that people want local information, “and the more you can provide, the better off you are.”
The second strategy is to both cultivate more advertising from the local, smaller retail stores that tend to think they’re too well-known to need advertising and from existing accounts, especially if the community has lost a “big-box store” such as Kmart, he says.
Third, newspapers can increase classified advertising, an increasingly critical component of revenues, by maintaining a strong private-party classified ad base – the ads for garage sales and used pianos, for example.
“What it all comes down to,” Scaife said, “is keeping it local.”
Keeping it local and maintaining a strong – and vociferously outspoken – presence in the community has helped the 5,856-circulation Parsons (Kan.) Sun survive in an economy that’s been ailing for decades. Like many Midwest agricultural communities, Parsons has long struggled with retaining its population base and attracting new jobs. Then, three years ago, the community of 12,000 was devastated by a tornado that caused $40 million in damage or destruction to 800 homes and 120 businesses.
“The economy was already depressed. We were already slumping,” said Ann Charles, editor and publisher. “I sat here after that tornado, with all of the devastation, and I thought, ‘We aren’t strong enough to come out of this.’ “
Local businesses cut advertising spending so they could rebuild after the tornado. Last fall, the General Motors dealership left. So did the J.C. Penney store. And Kmart.
In six months, the newspaper lost 14 percent of its annualized local ad revenues. Now the community’s largest employer, a state hospital for the mentally disabled, is at risk of falling victim to a catastrophic state budget crisis.
Charles cut many of the news services and started running columns written by readers, including a garden column, a seasonal farmers’ market column and a travel column written by a local travel agent. One of the most difficult cuts to make occurred in October, when she dropped the $300-a-week Associated Press photo service.
“I couldn’t afford it,” she said. “There was no option.”
And with only one staff photographer to fill the void, Charles bought two digital cameras for reporters to take with them. She decreased the amount of process color used, she said, but she refuses to cut newshole and won’t publish fewer than 10 pages when many newspapers the size of the Parsons Sun are printing eight.
And she remains optimistic.
Charles has aggressively advocated, at the state and local level, for improved state highways and, most recently, for a local bypass project that ultimately could be part of a new coast-to-coast Interstate project. Her vision for a 70-acre buffalo park near the bypass is being created to entice tourists and travelers to stop at the businesses that will develop there.
But the bypass project was controversial, Charles admits, because it will route traffic away from the downtown.
“The bypass today might hurt a filling station down on the corner, but my grandchildren will benefit from it,” she said. “We will become part of a new coast-to-coast route. You bet, I would trade a nickel today for a million dollars tomorrow. That filling station guy has to change and adapt. I do that every day in my business.”
Still, she admits, small-town journalism, especially in tough economic times, can be difficult when readers are neighbors who stop by the house and call on the phone.
“Does that influence my coverage? I think about it,” Charles said, “but I don’t go there.”
In fact, the “everybody knows everybody” nature of small towns makes it critical for small newspapers to establish a solid reputation of being both fair and serious in order to stay in business, says Steve Andrist, who owns and publishes the 2,500-circulation weekly Crosby (N.D.) Journal.
Like Ann Charles in Kansas, Andrist has been active in the economic development of an agricultural area that has been among the nation’s leaders in population decline in the past 10 years.
“If I don’t do what is needed to make this community viable, it doesn’t matter what news I produce,” Andrist said. “And that not only hurts me. It hurts the community.”
If the rural agricultural economy is adversely affecting some small-town newspapers in the Midwest, other local market conditions are challenging small newspapers elsewhere in the nation. Newspapers in markets heavily involved with manufacturing, for example, will be disproportionately affected by the current economy given that 2 million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the last 24 months.
Bob Stiff, executive editor of The Dispatch in Lexington, N.C., and member of the North Carolina Press Association Board of Directors, is seeing that first-hand. The state’s textile industry is all but gone, he says, and Lexington’s once-booming furniture industry is declining as companies move operations to countries with low-wage scales.
“There have been a lot of layoffs in the community,” said Stiff, whose newspaper has a circulation of 13,000. “The first thing retailers cut back on is advertising. That means we’re not making budget. A lot of papers aren’t making budget, but I’m not worried about them. I’m worried about us.”
The newsroom is cutting costs through measures such as hiring freelance journalists to cover out-of-town sports championships. What’s worse, Stiff said, is that one of the 14 newsroom staffers left when The New York Times Co., which owns the paper, instituted a companywide hiring freeze.
“The difference between large and small papers is this: lack of flexibility,” said Stiff, who has worked at the Tallahassee Democrat and the St. Petersburg Times’ then-sister publication, the Evening Independent. “You have more resources at a larger paper. If you have a hiring freeze and you lose a reporter, it’s maybe one out of 65 or one out of 200. Here, it’s one out of 14. It impacts absolutely everybody in the newsroom.”
What’s worse, Stiff said, is that the future looks like more of the same. Although the area is well-situated with its small-town amenities, proximity to large cities and good transportation system, “for the short haul, it’s going to be tough,” Stiff said.
Mark Derry, managing editor of The Dispatch in Gilroy, Calif., also lost a newsroom position, going from four reporters to three in his 5,600-circulation market. Like Stiff, Derry has relied on freelancers when he can.
“When we lost that position, we started giving shorter shrift to county issues and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Our business coverage has suffered. These are not things that you can pluck a freelancer out for and have the quality and depth of reporting that our readers expect.”
More than 200,000 jobs were lost in Silicon Valley in the past year and a half. But new efforts, new management and an improved product have caused an increase in circulation and increasing ad revenues at The Dispatch, leading to a “strange juxtaposition between a paper that’s doing well and growing and a sense that the economy is not right so the brakes are on,” Derry said.
“But we’re close to the bottom of the slump, if not at it,” Derry said, “and while I don’t think we’ll have the dot-com boom in our lifetime again, we can expect sane growth over an extended period. It’s up to us to be smart.”
One competitive strategy, from an economic standpoint, may be for small newspapers to become part of a cluster – commonly owned newspapers in contiguous circulation areas. Those newspapers are probably in good overall economic health, says Hugh J. Martin, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Georgia who has done research on newspaper clusters and media economics.
Definitions of clusters vary, but true clusters cooperate in areas such as advertising, marketing, content and production, with clusters enjoying economies of scale, efficiencies in operations and advantages in the ad rates they can charge.
According to the Newspaper Association of America, the total number of daily newspapers participating in clusters increased 13 percent to 578 just since 2000, and the circulation per cluster increased 18 percent to 61,716.
Community Newspapers Inc., based in Athens, Ga., owns 39 newspapers, most of them weeklies and all with individual circulations under 15,000. Twenty of those newspapers are in 17 contiguous counties in Northeast Georgia and Western North Carolina. The penetration rate in those 17 counties exceeds 75 percent, which represents 90 percent of the disposable income.
Advertising sales representatives offer customers as few as one or as many as 39 newspapers in one buy. Customers are offered ad discounts. They get one bill, and they write one check.
“If they need to reach out, we want to be able to help them, said W.H. “Dink” NeSmith Jr., CNI president. “In those 17 counties, advertisers don’t need matchbook covers, radios or billboards. It’s all about market penetration and readership.”
Acknowledging the difficult economic times, NeSmith said 2002 was CNI’s best year, with record growth in revenue, circulation and profits.
But newspaper clustering typically involves newspapers buying nearby print publications such as small dailies, weeklies and shoppers, essentially eliminating competition and leading some media observers to question the effect on small-town journalism. Competition among newspapers, they point out, historically has been healthy.
The bottom line, says the University of Georgia’s Martin, is that newspapers that meet short-term economic challenges by cutting back on their journalism weaken their positions in the long-term, especially when local newspapers can best explain how complex national and international issues affect readers locally. And previous economic downturns have shown that, while staff cuts and other reductions are slow to be reinstated, readers are quick to discover alternative sources of information.
“Reading the newspaper is a habit, and you don’t want people to break that habit,” Martin said. “If you lose them, you may never get them back. Cable companies and radio compete for ad dollars, but they can’t compete with local news. You never surrender the strength of your product.”
Bonnie Bressers is an assistant professor of journalism at the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University.