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Archive for Monday, August 10, 2009

Small, local papers press on successfully despite industry woes

August 10, 2009

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Newspapers are hurting all over the United States, but the pain is less severe at small publications like The Black-shear Times in Georgia.

The weekly newspaper fills an information vacuum in a county of 17,000 people who live about 75 miles from the closest metropolitan market, in Jacksonville, Fla. That has made it easier for The Times to hold on to its 3,500 subscribers and keep its revenue stable in a recession that’s ravaging much of the newspaper industry.

“CNN is not coming to my town to cover the news and there aren’t a whole lot of bloggers here either,” said Robert M. Williams Jr., The Times’ editor and publisher. “Community newspapers are still a great investment because we provide something you can’t get anywhere else.”

Lack of competition

The scarcity of other media in small- and medium-sized cities has helped shield hundreds of newspapers from the upheaval that’s causing dailies in big cities to shrink in size and scope as their print circulations and advertising sales decline.

Less competition means the print editions and Web sites of smaller newspapers remain the focal points for finding out what’s happening in their coverage areas.

In contrast, large newspapers carry more national news, as well as local, and have many competitors, including Web sites and television and radio stations. They report much of the news the day before printed newspapers reach homes and newsstands. Large newspapers’ Web sites also provide the news for free a day ahead of print editions.

An advertising advantage

Perhaps even more important, newspapers in smaller markets still haven’t lost a big chunk of their revenue to Craigslist and other online classified advertising alternatives that have become the bane of large newspapers.

Print ads for everything from jobs to jalopies were a gold mine for newspapers until Craigslist began expanding an online service for free classified ads in 1999. Today, Craigslist blankets most major metropolitan markets while publishing about 40 million classified ads each month.

In 2000, classified advertising accounted for nearly $20 billion, or about 40 percent, of the U.S. newspaper industry’s revenue. In 2008, classified ads in U.S. newspapers had dwindled to less than $10 billion, or about one-quarter of the industry’s revenue. (Subscription and single-copy sales traditionally contribute just 20 to 30 percent of newspapers’ revenue.)

Smaller newspapers have been defying the ominous trend, based on a recent study of the finances at 125 U.S. newspapers of different sizes by the Inland Press Association, a trade group.

The classified ad revenue among daily newspapers with circulations of less than 15,000 actually rose by an average of 23 percent in the five years ending in 2008, the study found.

Overall ad revenue for daily newspapers with less than 15,000 in circulation rose by an average of 2.5 percent in the same time frame. Meanwhile, ad revenue dropped 25 percent at daily newspapers with circulations greater than 80,000, according to Inland Press.

“The bigger they are, the harder they are falling,” said Ray Carlsen, Inland Press’ executive director.

Denver and Seattle each lost a printed daily newspaper this year, while Detroit’s two newspapers cut home delivery to three days a week.

Small-market success

The shakeout could leave more big newspapers adopting the so-called “hyperlocal” approach that publishers of smaller newspapers have always focused on.

Rather than filling their pages with material that is readily available on the Internet, smaller newspapers focus on the politics, business, sports, crime and community affairs occurring in narrowly defined geographic areas — a county, a town or, in some cases, even a few neighborhood blocks.

“If it walks, talks or spits on the concrete in our area, we cover it,” said John D. Montgomery Jr., editor and publisher of The Purcell Register in Oklahoma. The weekly newspaper, based about 40 minutes south of Oklahoma City, had built up a circulation of about 5,000 by focusing on Purcell and four nearby towns with a combined population of about 17,000.

A local focus

With a weekday circulation of about 73,000, The Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee has been setting aside more space for local news and puts all national news through a community lens, said Tom Griscom, the daily newspaper’s publisher and executive editor.

“If you really want to read about the Iraq war every day, you are not going to buy our paper. You will buy The New York Times,” Griscom said.

Being small also makes it easier to stay tuned to readers’ interests, said Jeff Ackerman, publisher of The Union, a daily newspaper with a circulation of about 16,000 in Grass Valley, Calif., not far from the Tahoe National Forest.

“Too many newspapers have been operating in an ivory tower for too long,” said Ackerman. “I answer my own phone. Some newspapers are just now trying to develop relationships with the local communities they cover. Ours has been going on for 144 years.”

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