Smaller Newspapers Are Doing Just Fine, Thank You, New Report Finds

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Big daily newspapers get most of the attention in the local news industry, but they include only 3% of all newspapers, daily and weekly. The other 97% – 6,851 titles – are “small-market newspapers.” Of these, 1,202 are daily and 5,649 are weekly (in their print form).

They are papers like the Herald and News in Klamath Falls, Ore., the Daily Coloradoan in Fort Collins, Colo., the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va., and the Calhoun County Journal in Bruce, Mich.

Smaller-market papers, with 50,000 or smaller print circulation, are doing quite well overall compared with their larger counterparts, according to the new report “Local News in a Digital World: Small-Market Newspapers in the Digital Age” by journalism professors Damian Radcliffe and Christopher Ali. (A list of the report’s 53 interviewees is here.)

In this Q & A, co-author Ali explains the contrary success of the numerous smaller papers:

We are told by some experts that local newspapers are an industry on the brink — facing “extinction,” according to Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. But your report finds small-market newspapers to be quite resilient. Why is that?
There’s a couple of reasons why small market newspapers have been more resilient than their metro/regional/national counterparts:

1) People still buy them and not only this, but they buy them in the print format. Print remains the key revenue driver for small newspapers, and while this is changing, it is changing very gradually.

2) On that note, small-market newspapers have also been slower and perhaps more deliberate in their transition to digital technologies. They have learned from the successes and failures of the larger newspapers.

3) They are also often the only news voice in the community. This gives them a monopoly of knowledge, so to speak, which means that they have a built-in revenue base in terms of advertisers and readers, and that they don’t have to take as many risks as the major newspapers. This, of course, is changing, and there is now a window of opportunity for these newspapers to experiment with low-risk, high-reward digital tools.

4) Because these newspapers have been around for a while, they are also trusted and respected. This is something that they can capitalize on and have done.

5) Small-market newspapers are often closer to their readers. By this, I mean both physically closer (you tend to see reporters and editors in the grocery store) and figuratively closer. Small-market newspapers recognize that they are part of the communities they serve and have a responsibility to that community.

You say smaller papers avoid “templates” that larger papers often resort to. But can’t templates be best practices that can be applied more broadly?
Of course templates can work and can synchronize best practices, but what we wanted to highlight was the push and pull between autonomy and templates. For instance, some of our interview respondents expressed concern about small newspapers being owned by large chains like Gannett, which may tend to synchronize production practices, copy editing and the “look and feel” of the paper. Some lamented these tactics, while others applauded it because it brought an element of stability to the paper, and gave the paper resources — especially digital resources – that it would not have had access to on its own.

A way that papers have been able to get around this is through associations like the Local Media Consortium, which pools resources and allows independent newspapers to benefit from the experiences of chain-owned newspapers (although both kinds of papers are members of LMC).

Smaller papers emphasize a “positive and intimate reflection of the sense of place” in their communities, you say. Does that strategy require more investment in editorial staffing or are their other ways to achieve it?
Ultimately it involves feet on the ground, and in our nationwide survey we conducted this came to the fore as a major challenge. Specifically, the retention and recruiting of young talent. Believe it or not, there are newspapers out there that are hiring! But they are having trouble recruiting young talent because they are often in small communities in the middle of the country. These papers expressed concern that young reporters are wary about moving to a small town that may be seen as more conservative. Also, of course, the pay isn’t great either.

Smaller papers are not  over-invested in advertising revenue, you say. What alternative sources are they adopting and which show the most promise long term?
It’s been really cool to see all the different revenue generating experiments going on at these papers! Examples include hosting events, paywalls, obituaries (although this one is contentious!), newsletters, website building and digital services and Google surveys, just to name a few.

The importance of metrics is increasingly stressed in how newspapers can succeed digitally. Are smaller papers integrating metrics into their publishing process? Can most of them afford the technological investment that’s required?
In the spring we released the results of a nationwide survey we did of small market newspaper reporters and editors, and what we found was that there was a high take-up of metrics. This ranged from pageviews to Facebook likes, to sophisticated tools like American Press Institute’s “Metrics for News.” Indeed, 70% of the newspapers in our study used some form of metrics.

What is the “new model journalist” you talk about?
Threefold. The first is the continued recognition that journalism at local papers differs from the national/metro newspapers. By this, I mean that more of these papers are invested in what has come to be known as “solutions journalism.” In other words, reporting and even suggesting solutions to community problems, and not just pointing them out.

The second is that, as we know, local journalists need to be “jacks of all trades” equally proficient in writing, video, photography, and social media distribution. Even the writing has changed, with beat reporters being asked to contribute to newsletters, social media posts, love blogs, etc.. All of which require a slightly different style of writing. In our survey we also found that more time is being spent on digital content than two-years ago. This trend is unlikely to abate.

The third factor is that newspapers need to recognize that they can no longer do it all. Based on our interviews, we suggest that newspapers select the “master narratives” that they want to focus on, and then partner to fill in the gaps. This way they can do deep dives on targeted narratives in the community. I love this quote from Jim Brady of Billy Penn in Philadelphia who said to us: “You can do anything, but you cannot do everything.” I think this sums up nicely the new reality for newspapers.

Large papers have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. What’s the relationship of smaller papers to Facebook and other social platforms as well as Google?
The love-hate relationship extends to the small newspapers as well. While we found that many individual journalists use Facebook and newspapers do as well, there is skepticism about devoting much time to it given that the return on investment is unclear.

While smaller papers may be more resilient, do you and your co-author Damian Radcliffe see them facing any risks to their sustainability? If so, how should they revamp their business model?
There are absolutely risks to their sustainability. They face the same pressures of time and resources as the major newspapers do, the only difference is that they’ve been awarded more time to adapt. There is a window of opportunity right now for these papers, and they need to take advantage of it. This include finding time to experiment with digital tools, all the while understanding that there is no cookie cutter model for revenue enhancement.

It’s about what makes the most sense for their communities and their readers. It also means, as we say in the conclusion of our report, that the entire newspaper industry (or industries, as we say) need to commit to stop talking down their industry. It’s become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. While they should not make false claims about the health of the industry, they need to do a better job at showcasing and reiterating the great and important work that they are doing. They should also explain the choices they are making to their readers. We’ll all in this together!

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.