Small Newspapers, Watch out! The Web is Coming

I keep hearing over and over again from some fellow journalism professors and others that we need to remind our students about the lesser-heralded positive news for newspapers. Small newspapers, I’m assured, are doing just fine, aside from some temporary recession pain. Newspaper Research Journal, which is housed here at the University of Memphis, is developing an upcoming issue on the 1400 newspapers that are NOT in financial trouble.

And it’s true that, according to the Associated Press, dailies with circulations of 15,000 or less saw their classified ad revenues rise by an average of 23 percent (!!) in the past five years, their circulations grow, and their staff sizes remain level even as the big metro papers struggle to stay afloat.

Now, I’m a sucker for good news right about now as much as anybody and I can’t quibble with these impressive numbers, but I have to say that I’m worried. Here’s why.

Rural markets (population less than 10,000) have the fastest growing broadband penetration rates in the country, according to MediaPost. And the online classifieds blockbuster Craigslist is expanding to 140 new cities – many of them relatively small.

How are small newspapers preparing to meet this juggernaut? Well, when Brad Stone of the New York Times Bits blog called the advertising director of The Daily Free Press in Elko, Nevada, one of the cities getting this huge new classifieds competitor, his response was: “Boy, that’s news to me. I don’t really see it impacting us.”

Yikes. To me, focusing too much on smaller papers as good news breeds complacency in the industry. And if we aren’t careful, it allows us in journalism schools to tell ourselves that radical changes aren’t necessary since a lot of fresh-out-of-j-schoolers get jobs at smaller papers, just like I did back when.

In interviews with top newspaper leaders in editorial and advertising at a metro daily for my dissertation work, I heard over and over again: If only we’d been more aggressive and more innovative when we had the chance. If only we would have retrained our ad sales staff for an entirely new way of thinking about online ads as more than just an add on, an afterthought.  If only we had experimented with new ad models , perhaps offering a bare-bones free listing to small local businesses but then selling more sophisticated upgrades or help designing their own Web sites or similar. If only.

Well, small papers, your “if only” moment is heading your way. Watch out.

As frequent Editor & Publisher contributor and journalism consultant Steve Outing noted on Twitter the other day in regards to the comment from the Elko, NV ad director, “Had same conversation w/ad director 8 yrs ago.”  Let’s just say that if you don’t start innovating now and looking to hire new grads with new media chops, then you may live to regret it years later, like the big guys do now.

I grew up in an small WI town (unicorporated, no less!), and I’m pretty confident in saying that while community news remains as vitally important as ever, small town folks aren’t somehow so “backwards” that they won’t eventually begin to embrace the same new methods of delivery that have moved into other areas faster. And to my thinking, widespread adoption of Web news habits will only accelerate as the Web becomes more seamlessly integrated into all of our lives, as cell phones get better and better and it becomes part and parcel of how we watch television.

And with this new delivery method will come the huge disruptions in advertising, profits, and the model of bundling all of the news and ads together for a fixed price.

I’ve been on this private bandwagon for awhile now, talking the ear off my husband, so I was gloating to hear none other than Clay Shirky say “I think assuming long-term profitability of smaller papers is whistling past a pretty big graveyard.” He gives a number of reasons here.



Filed under Business of News

4 responses to “Small Newspapers, Watch out! The Web is Coming

  1. JOgle

    I work for a small newspaper (circ about 12,000 in a town of around 20,000) and it has already started. Craigslist hasn’t really come here yet, but right after the beginning of the year, our classifieds took a huge hit, in part from a local tech company’s free listings on their Web site. Display revenue is down, too.

    We have been fairly aggressive in the last year in our Web presence, but it’s probably too late. The interest has followed, but what revenue we do get from it is not enough. In the last two years, we have eliminiated our pre-press department (two full-time, one part-time staff members), ended our youth niche publication (three full-timers), elminated several other positions through attrition and slashed department budgets.

    The biggest blow came this week when it was announced that at the end of next month, we will shut down our press and close our mailroom, and will then be printed by one of our sister papers 90 miles away. That’s five more full-timers and a handful of part-timers. By the end of the year, the parent company will consolidate most circulation and business activities, and we’ll probably lose more people from our office.

    I fully expect that within the next year to year and a half, my job (copy editor/page designer) will see the same fate.

    Smaller papers should definately heed this warning.

  2. changingnewsroom

    Thanks for your comment, and I’m sorry to hear that about the job loss at your paper 😦 It’s just that kind of thing I’m worried about. I think there is still hope, though, but if people are content to just keep doing what they are doing, then eventually decline does seem inevitable.

  3. Pingback: Links worth sharing – 08.29.09 « Jason Kristufek’s We Media blog

  4. Pingback: Why hyperlocal journalism is easier – and harder – in rural areas | Mark Coddington

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