Some (different) advice for small-town papers

By Steve Outing

My latest Editor & Publisher Online column has been posted:

Some (Unasked-for) Advice for Smaller, Non-Metro Newspapers

While it’s the metro newspapers, and any paper owned by an over-leveraged parent corporation needing to pay off debt, that are the most challenged by the digital transition, newspapers in small towns away from metro areas also need (different) advice. They have less pressure and a bit longer to come to terms with the Internet and mobile revolution and how they impact their print business and historic business model. But many could do a better job of taking advantage of digital trends.

I focus on two small papers in Idaho and Montana, and I’ve invited the editors to respond here if they’d like. I hope you’ll share your ideas for what small-town newspapers should do, too. (Comment area below.)

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!

10 Responses to "Some (different) advice for small-town papers"

  1. Roger Plothow
    Roger Plothow 8 years ago .Reply

    Steve:

    There’s nothing new or different here. You’re a reasonably good sport, I’ll give you that; I’ve been pretty openly critical of you. The one thing you and I share is a willingness to put ourselves out there and mix it up. Beyond that, our views of the future of journalism couldn’t be more different.

    Rather than responding point by point, here’s my take on the issues you raise, in the form of a blog post I originally wrote several years ago and have been updating ever since: http://gumpole.blogspot.com/2009/07/internet-underpants-and-everything.html

    Roger Plothow
    Editor and Publisher
    Post Register
    Idaho Falls, Idaho

  2. Mark Riffey
    Mark Riffey 8 years ago .Reply

    Steve,

    You’re probably aware of this, but just in case: Tom’s HHN has a local competitor ( http://flatheadbeacon.com ), which is not focused solely on Columbia Falls as the HHN typically is.

    The regional daily is also a competitor, as are the other small town weeklies. However, all of them are owned by the same company – like many across Montana.

    The Beacon is approximately 3 years old, independent, and publishes all content online. A subset of the online content is published in the weekly print edition. Povich is the primary investor.

    The problem with many newspapers is that they believe their product’s value is somehow related to the paper. The phonetic spelling of the word “newspaper” serves as a reminder for those who have lost their way.

    Disclaimer: The Beacon publishes my small business column, Business is Personal. I am not an employee or investor in the business.

  3. Bruce Wood
    Bruce Wood 8 years ago .Reply

    Sorry Steve, but I still think you’ve missed the mark. While you have a few good ideas here, suggestion number 3 is just plain wrong.

    The local news should be put behind a paid wall. The tourists you mention really aren’t interested in news from city hall, school board, etc.

    However, they should have a “visitors center” on their web site that is free and then they can sell ads and promotions locally for their out of town web traffic.

  4. Bill Garber
    Bill Garber 8 years ago .Reply

    If giving the news away on the web causes newspaper circulation to plummet, then readers bought the newspaper for the ‘content,’ to use a bromide.

    To keep harping away, people paid 12 times the price of a community weekly for the original cable television service that merely sharpened up the signal that cable subscribers could get for free over the air. In this case it was all about the experience, not the content. And cable television was off an growing.

    Oh, and the experience in the case of newspapers is all about the community. That is, the community is about the people who are linked in one way or another to a physical place and the people that give it life.

    Is it local? Not really. It is place. And the business is about linking the people who give life to this place, people who are often scattered around the world.

    Optimistically, the internet dramatically expands the opportunity for creating a community experience, and for selling access to this experience literally around the world, and selling access for a good deal more than the price of a typical community newspaper subscription.

    The solution is not about pay walls–can you believe a strategy that claims to see the future by using a metaphor for a defense that dates well before the common era? Walls just don’t work, even if they are designed to keep people in, as France and the USSR proved.

    The solution is about creating new experiences that a great many people will be willing to pay to enjoy.

    Fully acknowledging the pitfalls of generalizing from a sample of one, until about four years ago I had a $3,000 a year newspaper habit.

    That is what it cost me to drive a few miles to secure a fresh copy of USA Today and the Chicago Tribune, then head to the coffee shop where I enjoyed 30 minutes turning pages, reading stories of interest, eating a scrambled egg and a piece of rye toast, and sipping that endless cup of coffee. I enjoyed seeing others at the shop, but didn’t usually chat with them as I had my papers. The cover price of the papers was by far the least costly part of the experience.

    Then one day, I secured internet at the house, took up an email-facilitated relationship with a wonderful woman across the country, and gave up my newspaper habit overnight and without a sense of loss whatsoever.

    The other day I was in an airport, picked up a USA Today for old times sake, turned every page, and didn’t feel a single twinge of nostalgia, just a little sadness realizing that I didn’t miss even a little part of it.

    But I still turn every page of ‘my’ local weekly. I find that curious, too. ‘My’ weekly is a far worse journalistic ‘product’ compared with USA Today, but it remains alive in a wonderful sense, even if it isn’t so lively.

    It charges $45 a year for delivery in town, and more out of town. I wonder what it would take for them to create a digital experience I would pay 39 cents a day for ($142.35 annually)?

    At that level of income, they would not need a single advertiser–which would be exactly why advertisers would be lined up to subscribe to business memberships that would give them business access to this community. They would be willing to pay a good deal more than 39 cents a day! I’m guessing that business and other non-individual subscription/membership revenue would equal the individual subscription revenue,turning this little paper into a gold mine the knowledge of which would cause Citizen Kane to do in his grave whatever we imagine notable dead people doing with such information.

    It always was about the experience, I’m thinking.

    The question I suppose may be, does this approach scale?

    I’m imagining that it does.

    One way or another, well all come to know. As I’m told they say in the country where the greatest tourist attraction is a … wall –we are living in ‘interesting’ times.

  5. Roger Plothow
    Roger Plothow 8 years ago .Reply

    Bill, you focus too much on the “wall” aspect of the strategy and too little on the “value” proposition. If asking people to pay for unique local content was all about avoiding he cannibalization of print, it would be a short-sighted and unsuccessful strategy. But it’s not a defensive strategy — it’s a strategy to recognize and defend the proposition that what we provide has value that can be directly translated into revenue.

    I agree with much of what you write. Shift your focus from a “defensive” mode to a “value” mode and you’ll just about have it.

    Roger Plothow
    Post Register.

  6. palmer brown
    palmer brown 7 years ago .Reply

    Little late to this discussion. I sure the Publisher of the Arkansas DG is beating his/her chest over the $200k in subscription revenue, however, they are leaving $5-7 million in digital revenue for that measly $200k. Post-Register? Very different and unique position they have, but I am absolutely confident they are missing out on a ton of revenue as well.

  7. Roger Plothow
    Roger Plothow 7 years ago .Reply

    Fascinating. No one — no one — has actually found this “ton of revenue” yet. May I ask, where is it hiding?

  8. palmer brown
    palmer brown 7 years ago .Reply

    You’re kidding, right? I managed a newspaper group smaller than the ARK DG that was earning that revenue… true revenue, not peeled, assigned, fancy accounting, etc. And know of a number of sub-100k circ papers earning well over $1mil with digital.

    That money is in display advertising, sponsorships, classifieds, and paid services.

  9. Roger Plothow
    Roger Plothow 7 years ago .Reply

    We’ve got all that. I thought you were talking about a “ton of revenue” that we’re not getting.

  10. Roger Plothow
    Roger Plothow 7 years ago .Reply

    We earn around $300,000 in direct digital revenue, which represents roughly 3 percent of our total revenue. Real money, but not “a ton.” We’re a 24,000 circulation paper (not counting online-only and print/online combinations). Nearly all of that revenue exists because of content and traffic created via our “legacy” product, and, like most newspapers, we don’t allocate an overhead expense to digital for the costs associated with generating all that unique local content. Paid content does not require foregoing digital revenue; in fact, it’ll likely enhance it in the long run.

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