Despite ‘Doom and Gloom,’ Community Newspapers are Growing Stronger

By: Sharon Knolle
Illustration by Tony O. Champagne
Illustration by Tony O. Champagne

Small, community newspapers across the country are not just surviving, but—in many cases—actually thriving. Many of them have managed to dodge the layoffs and downsizing that larger papers have had to face.

Chip Hutcheson, president of the National Newspaper Association (which represents more than 2,100 community newspaper companies), said, “You don’t hear about community papers going out of business. It’s not the doom and gloom that major market papers face. At a recent press association meeting, I met several people who say they started a (small) paper two or three years ago. I started one in 2008. Weekly and small dailies are faring better than our major counterparts.”

E&P spoke with several of these successful community papers to find out how they’ve navigated through the storms.

Billy Coleburn, Courier-Record editor
Billy Coleburn, Courier-Record editor

“Print is our lifeblood”

Despite dire predictions that print is dead, it’s still the backbone of many community dailies and weeklies nationwide.

“Print is our lifeblood,” said Billy Coleburn, editor of the weekly Courier-Record in Blackstone, Va. The paper’s circulation is 6,100, more than twice the town’s population of 3,000. “For seven full-time employees, we rock ‘n’ roll down here,” he said.

In Petoskey, Mich., Jeremy McBain, executive editor of thePetoskey News-Review (circulation 9,108), also said print was going well for them. “We haven’t seen erosion in print that other larger papers like the Detroit Free Press and Grand Rapids Press have.” He credits part of that to his paper’s “hyperlocalized” content.

Michael Messerly, publisher of Batavia Newspapers Corp., which puts together The Daily News in Batavia, N.Y. (circulation 10,000) said, “Our ROP revenue was up 30.1 percent over the previous year, without raising rates. Through the first quarter of this year, we’re again outpacing last year by more than 30 percent. So, yeah, print is still doing well for us.”

At the Inter-Mountain in Elkins, W.Va., publisher and general manager Heather Goodwin Henline, shared, “I think if you ask any newspaper, print still remains the lion’s share of revenue.”

Inter-Mountain employees gather together for a meeting. (Photo provided)

Keeping Up with the Times

On the other hand, as for most papers, digital is now just as important. Digital strategy varies among smaller papers: Some publications are embracing the latest technology and offering multiple formats to their readers while others still focus primarily on print.

“Online numbers have climbed to where daily visits compared to circulation boast much higher percentages than our online advertising equates to our total ad revenue percentage,” said Henline. Their latest circulation numbers: Almost 8,000, about a thousand more than the population of Elkin itself.

McBain described the Petoskey News-Review’s website as “cutting-edge.” “We are doing 360 video, we’re doing photo, augmented reality, live broadcast, live concerts.” He explained that about 80 percent of their print articles are rewritten for the Web for a “quick read,” then enhanced with interactive graphics, photo galleries and other Web-only features.

“We’re a media company, no longer just a newspaper,” said Messerly. “We apply the same types of goals and effort into all of our platforms. We’re platform agnostic. Digital as a separate platform has greatly increased our opportunities to succeed.”

Scott Matthew, senior advertising representative of the Courier-Record, told E&P, “We have a digital e-edition of our newspaper, and we’ve dabbled some in small local advertisers purchasing banner ads on our website. Our digital presence has helped us increase our circulation slightly, by several hundred, and it allows a small extra source of marginal advertising revenue.”

The Courier-Record didn’t even have a website until 2014. “We have some ads and we have a paid subscriber site where you pay us $25 a year, you can get the paper sent to you by email. We’ve got about 400 paid subscribers for that. It’s a fraction of our print circulation,” Coleburn said. And he admitted, “Digital strategy, per se, we’re weak there,” but he foresees adding someone to staff with “social media savvy” within the next two years.

A digital edition is definitely paying off for The Inter-Mountain. “We offer our website as well as an e-edition online daily,” Henline said. “Nearly all of our content is behind a paywall for subscribers, though mobile alerts and other breaking-news features are not. Having a digital option, which includes digital-only, has helped to retain subscribers we otherwise likely would have lost.”

When it comes to competing with social media, Matthew said, “It has become nearly impossible as a weekly newspaper to cover breaking news in the social media age, so we now concentrate on bringing our readers the most accurate story with lesser-known details we as a media source are able to obtain.”

Coleburn agreed. “My biggest competitor is Facebook. We have to grab people by the shoulders and shake them and say, ‘Stop! Listen to some facts and some well-researched truth.’ And that’s harder and harder to do.”

But Facebook is also a valuable tool for any reporter. “It’s easier to contact the wreck victim, the newsmaker,” Coleburn said. “In fact, I’m using Facebook right now. We had a fugitive that went on the run for 90 days after she allegedly stole a lot of money. She’s free on bond, and I’m gonna Facebook her this afternoon and see if I can get an interview.”

The Built-In Advantages of Community Newspapers

Residents are eager for news about their own communities, which, increasingly, only local news organizations can provide. According to a 2013 study conducted by The Reynolds Journalism Institute on behalf of the NNA, about 67 percent of residents in small U.S. communities read local newspapers ranging from one to seven days a week.

“Perhaps our greatest advantage is we have content no one else does,” said Henline. “We are out at local sporting events. Little League coverage is vital content. Bigger competitors rarely have placed a significant value on such a hyper-local approach.”

Coleburn, whose father also worked at the Courier-Record, is a proud third-generation resident of Blackstone. “Our paper’s staffed with local people, so we’ve got strong knowledge of the community and the pecking order. Anybody can come here and learn that pretty quick. But when you write a story about a building that burns down, we can tell you what it originally was, what family owned it, the whole history of the building.”

He added that once upon a time, he was intimidated by the nearest big paper, theRichmond Times-Dispatch. “It used to be, ‘Oh gosh, the daily paper scooped us, so there’s no point in doing the story.’ But a lot of my readers here in Blackstone don’t even look at a daily paper. Or they might miss it because it’s on page B17.”

Doug Caldwell, Petoskey News-Review publisher
Doug Caldwell, Petoskey News-Review publisher

Doug Caldwell, Petoskey News-Review publisher, said local was his company’s franchise. “Our readership recognizes the value of the local newspaper. We are the cheerleader, guardian and watchdog all rolled up in one. We monitor the pulse of the community and focus on local news stories of interest—not what we (newspaper) want but what our readers want in their community newspapers.”

The Benefits of Being Small

The people who run smaller newspapers point out there are several advantages over their larger colleagues, including lower overhead and greater adaptability.

The Daily News’s Messerly said, “I’ve worked at newspapers of all sizes. The advantage we have in Batavia versus our much larger competitors is we’re smaller and more nimble. We can get to market faster with new ideas and adjust faster to market conditions.”

At the Petoskey News-Review, McBain said, “We’re faster…and we understand the communities more and we understand the readers a lot more.” He also says that being small also means more independence and freedom from a “cookie cutter” approach to news that might exist at a national chain. “Not every community is alike and what works with one may not work in yours.”

And as the larger metro papers operate with shrinking newsrooms, many of the community newspapers are stepping up to fill in the missing local coverage readers want.

Heather Goodwin Henline, Inter-Mountain publisher and general manager
Heather Goodwin Henline, Inter-Mountain publisher and general manager

“The Associated Press doesn’t have as much content anymore, (and) as bigger publications wane and stories don’t proliferate news services, such as AP and Reuters,” said Henline. “This has been particularly difficult with regard to our state coverage. Our smaller community newspapers have had to pick up the slack. We, along with other smaller papers throughout the state and our state press association, have helped to bridge the coverage and content gaps.”

Messerly added that providing unique coverage alone is far from the only consideration. “We can see opportunities left open by larger publications as they pull back in some areas, but if there is truly an opportunity to be had, it will most likely be filled by an even smaller competitor with much lower margins needed to survive. Our focus needs to be on constantly maximizing the potential in the footprint we occupy and react quickly and effectively to any new opportunities within those boundaries.”

Making Big Changes

Even in a small town like Blackstone, where, as Coleburn admitted, “things move slower,” newspapers of all sizes have had to adapt. For example, the Courier-Record just added a second ad sales person to their staff. “That was a big deal for us,” he said. That person started with a six-month trial period because of their “cautious hiring,” Coleburn said, and that’s why he’s never yet had to let anyone go.

Courier-Record’s Matthew named a few more big changes: “Within the last several years, we’ve switched to a new printer, launched a digital e-edition, closely analyzed and made positive changes to our company’s accounting, more closely analyzed expenses and sought ways to cut them, and reinvented our special publications. All have paid off very well.”

Meanwhile, Messerly reported at the Daily News their biggest change was in reducing the size of their sales staff. “The theory was if we gave our reps more accounts through attrition, they would find themselves busier, yet making more money. More sales calls, more money, it’s Sales 101. Since that change, our advertising revenues are up in all direct sales categories and still growing.”

He added, “We had a lot of turnover in the last year, but it was necessary turnover to have a team that now buys in to the new process and strategies we have going forward. We lost some quality people, but they just weren’t the right people for the media company we are today.” He boasts that the Batavia Newspaper Corp. is now enjoying a three-year growth curve.

Jeremy McBain, Petoskey News-Review executive editor
Jeremy McBain, Petoskey News-Review executive editor

Over at the Petoskey News-Review, McBain restructured the editorial stuff. “Last July, I split the newsroom in half, with half on print and the other half on digital. It helped us out immensely. On the print side, it’s allowed us to do more investigative and watchdog stories. Before, we had reporters trying to do everything, trying to tweet while trying to write a story. Now we’re doing at least one enterprise story a week and it used to be one a quarter. It’s a monumental change in the way we’re doing things that’s resulted in upticks in numbers in print and upticks in numbers online.” McBain also took design duties off his editor’s desks and turned it over to a dedicated design department.

McBain said that his paper has been fine-tuning its news approach. “We found out that national news and world news, like AP, does not work for our paper at all. We also found that in our print side, the short stories don’t really work for our readership. They want more in-depth reading.”

And with the split in his newsroom team into print and digital teams, some of the old news beats had to go away. “We went through analytics and reader focus groups and data to make that decision. We pulled back a lot on outlying areas that only have populations in the hundreds. We condensed our core coverage area.”

McBain admitted there was some blowback, but that having those smaller communities send in press releases and photos “smoothed things over.” Cutting back on some of the sports coverage was less popular, however. “We got severe blowback on that and there’s no really good answer to appease readers of those areas. It’s a business decision that we made and we just had to suck it up and go forward, and the numbers are supporting our decision.”

A Bright Future

Not surprisingly, most of the editors, publishers and ad people E&P spoke with are convinced that the future for newspapers remains bright especially at their smaller publications.

A front page of the Inter-Mountain
A front page of the Inter-Mountain

“Newspapers are alive and well,” said Henline. “We are relevant and vital to the communities we serve. Our future is paved with a path of services that continue to lift and enhance the communities we serve and to provide the stories no one else can tell. These are our stories, our people, our communities, our commitment. Ultimately, we have not abandoned them, and I don’t believe our readership will abandon us.”

Coleburn also was optimistic about the journalism industry. “I know the product that we put out and the manner in which we do it is going to change. I’m buying movie tickets on my phone and I’m like, ‘My god, what is the future of our business?’ But they said the same after radio, they said the same thing with television. As long as you have a story and information to provide people and they trust you and you do well, I’m naïve enough to believe that you will stay in business because your product will remain. The form of that may change. It may look different. But the stories are still the same. They’re stories about people, about events, controversies—that has not changed.