Could free distribution be an option for community newspapers?

Here is a common scenario, using a fictitious newspaper as an example.

The Belleville Bugle is a high-quality weekly that has served its community for more than 100 years.

The town the Bugle serves is prosperous. Households have more than doubled over the past 30 years. There is new industry. Belleville is also a bedroom community as many residents commute to and from their jobs in a nearby metropolitan area.

In 1987, there were 5,000 homes in Belleville and the Bugle’s local circulation was 3,800, or 76 percent household penetration.

In 2017, there are 12,000 homes in Belleville and the Bugle’s local circulation is 3,000, or 25 precent household penetration.

Why the loss in local circulation and the even more shocking loss in household penetration?

We can cite all kinds of trends but by far the number one reason is the influx of “exurbanites” – very busy people who live in a community but don’t identify with it. And people who don’t care about the town they live in don’t subscribe to their local newspaper.

Intense circulation campaigns can help somewhat – maybe a few hundred additional subscribers. But that’s it.

It’s frustrating for the newspaper owners and staff who know the Bugle needs to reach more local homes to serve its advertisers and for the good of the community itself, which needs the newspaper to retain or even rebuild its identity.

The Bugle can’t do that unless it reaches residents. But it’s obvious that the days of 75 percent or even 50 percent paid household penetration are long gone.

Is there a solution?

One possibility deserving of serious consideration is a conversion from paid circulation to free distribution, effectively going from 25 percent household penetration to 100 percent — or near it — instantaneously.

It’s a huge decision that requires careful study, keeping in mind that once the move from paid circulation to free distribution is implemented, it would be almost impossible to revert back to paid.

The key is to prepare a financial analysis that takes into account the total loss of circulation revenue versus the gain in advertising revenue; as well as the printing and delivery expense for a free product.

Keep in mind there will have to be guesswork when it comes to projecting advertising revenue. Be conservative, but don’t be timid either.

Expense estimates for printing and delivery will be more definite.

Here are a few factors to keep in mind if you decide to take on this analysis.

  • ●Usually, there are no staff changes.
  • ●Ad rates will have to go up, of course. Typical would be around $1 per column inch or more per 1,000 additional distribution. For example, let’s say the Bugle averaged $6 per column inch as a 4,000 circulation paid weekly. As a free weekly, distribution will be 14,000, a 10,000 increase so add an average of $10 per column inch to the advertising rates.
  • ●Per piece insert rates usually stay the same, but the increased volume (i.e. 3,000 to 12,000 local) is a major revenue booster.
  • ●Are legal ads a major source of revenue? Would they be jeopardized if the paper converted from paid circulation to free distribution? Check with the state press association.
  • ●How would the free paper be distributed and how much will it cost?

Rack distribution – inexpensive but unpredictable.

Standard mail –pricy for heavy publications.

Requester mail – inexpensive but complex regulations.

Carrier force – direct control, but complicated.

I wish there were a mathematical formula that would give management an absolute answer as the financial consequences of this dramatic change. Those consequences could be an absolute delight. They could be an absolute disaster.

I won’t kid you – there is an unavoidable gamble-factor, and to better determine the odds the all-critical advertising revenue estimate is the card that really counts.

Research will help the odds, including plenty of input from current advertisers. But it will also require guesstimates that are part educated and part instinctual, made by staff who not only know the market but feel its tendencies and potential, or lack thereof.

Community Journalism

How newspapers can set themselves apart in a crowded information market

Last month’s blogpost was a warning that the attack on journalism by certain actors on the public stage is having an effect on community newspapers, and that social media are driving readers to spend more time with national news than with local news. How can community papers can adapt to this radically changed news landscape?

To survive, newspapers must stop thinking of themselves as being in the newspaper business, or even in the news business; you’re in the information business, competing with all other sources of information for people’s time and attention – even if you are the only newspaper in your market.

Increasingly, rural communities have become bedroom communities, and the longer a commute someone has to work, the less likely they are to read their local newspaper, according to research by Eastern Kentucky University and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. The ubiquity of information through smartphones means you have to be where your readers are, and that means mobile.

The new landscape requires us to operate on multiple platforms. Your newspaper’s website should be attracting most of its traffic from social media. If it’s not, you’re probably not getting enough traffic.

And we need to be on social-media platforms not just to drive traffic, but to help people understand the difference in social media and the news media.

We also need to stop saying “the media” when we mean “the news media,” in order to distinguish ourselves from actors in the media who are more about opinions and an agenda than about facts and public service.

And we need to stop using “the media” as a singular noun. It’s more plural than ever, and it’s important for readers to understand that. The media are. And they are many different things.

If we don’t distinguish ourselves from our competitors in the information market, we are lost. The fundamental difference in social media and news media are a discipline of verification, as defined in The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.

Those elements have shifted a bit, but not substantially, in the new landscape of journalism. They are a guide not only for journalists as we do our work, but for citizens to understand how we work and why we do what we do.

Here are the elements, which would make a good standing box or filler on your editorial page, with a brief explanation of each:

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth – not to some absolute or philosophical truth, but practical truth “by which we can operate on a day-to-day basis.” And that includes being transparent about sources and methods, so readers can make fully informed judgments.

Its first loyalty is to citizens – not to the bottom line of whoever is publishing the journalism. In the current environment, this test may be the most difficult for some publishers.

Its essence is a discipline of verification – not objectivity, which is rarely achievable because we are human beings, but objectivity of method: testing the truth of information so our biases don’t get in the way.

Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover – not pure neutrality, but an arm’s-length relationship that keeps our essential independence from being compromised.

It must serve as an independent monitor of power – not just keeping an eye on government, but on all facets of society, including business and nonprofit organizations.

It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise – not just offering an outlet for discussion, but improving the quality of the debate with verified information.

It must strive to keep significant things interesting and relevant – in other words, making readers want to read the news that they need to read. This is more important than ever in the new age.

It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional – an even more challenging task when competing for time and attention, but all the more important to build and maintain confidence and trust.

Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience – speak out against poor journalism, and allow others to do so.

Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities – to be responsible on social media. That may be too much to hope for, but if we ask them to be, that’s reminder that information needs to be more about facts than opinion.

While we need to do a better job explaining ourselves, ultimately we will not be judged on the arguments we make, but by the work that we do: reporting news that’s important and relevant, and more.

Even if you successfully compete in the information business, that’s not really enough to be a complete community newspaper.

You also have to be in the deliberation business. Deliberation is how democratic societies make decisions, and one of the best forums for deliberation is the newspaper – an editorial page with lots of letters.

And, ultimately, you also need to be in the leadership business, because there are times when a newspaper must take a stand and lead its community in what it thinks is the right direction it needs to go.

Nothing else in a community can do these three things as well as a newspaper, and now is the time to do it better than ever. Make yourself essential.

In your quest for people’s time and attention, you are also competing with other media for readers’ confidence and trust, which drive time and attention. Be worthy of that trust.

Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

Questions about reporting on nonprofits

Question: Nederland, Texas, is not unlike many small towns in Texas in that they have an annual heritage festival. That festival is operated via a nonprofit group. Late last year, the head of that group stepped aside after years of service amid speculation that she had stolen funds (somewhere around $300,000 or so). In the last month, two members of the nonprofit board said, on background, this did in fact happen, and there was no criminal complaint made and no outside investigation or arrest.

A week ago, a lawyer for the Nederland Heritage Festival admitted in a public letter that those funds were, indeed, “misused.” He also admitted there was only an internal investigation and there were no criminal proceedings. My questions are: If a nonprofit admits that funds were misused, does it have an obligation to report that to the IRS? Would a nonprofit pay taxes on funds that went missing through misuse? Could such an admission trigger any sort of penalty or investigation on the part of the IRS? Could this threaten their nonprofit status? Could there be any legal or federal or state sanctions for failing to disclose a misuse of funds by a nonprofit? In other words, can a nonprofit sweep something like this under the proverbial rug without any repercussion?

Answer: [Provided by Mark Horvit, former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors] Because they got reimbursed for the money, it’s less likely any criminal case would be pursued. I say that not from legal expertise, but past experience. That’s not because it¹s a nonprofit, just because the victim would have been made whole and a lot of law enforcement agencies don’t pursue those cases.

However, I would check with the state attorney general’s office, because the AG has a unit that investigates nonprofits and keeps information on their standing. I would think they would want to look into this, if they aren¹t already doing so. We did a project on that state AG unit about 12 years ago at the Star-Telegram, and one of our findings was that they don’t investigate anything unless the public or media brings it to their attention. So if the paper wants to do that, it could trigger an investigation if there isn’t already something underway. Here’s a link to the page with more info.

Similarly, it would be worth checking with the IRS, as this could have implications to the 501(c)(3) status. The statement they put out is an admission that there was wrongdoing.

I would also want to see evidence that they’ve put accounting practices in place that will help guard against whatever happened. There are two reasons I would want to see those: to see if they organization really has taken steps, and also because those steps could give a good indication of what happened in the first place. And I would argue that that information does not violate any agreement they have with the person or people who embezzled (if that’s what it was), because this is about policies and procedures, not the specific case.

I looked at the organization’s most recently posted Form 990 (these IRS forms are required of all non-profits). It doesn’t show evidence of theft (and it wouldn’t), but it does show financial scope. I would request the most recent one from the organization itself, as this one is at least a year old (They always run a year behind).

Note: IRS Form 990s are filed by all non-profits. You can ask any non-profit to show you its latest 990, or you can access any non-profit’s 990 from Guidestar.

News coverage

For community newspapers, getting it right outweighs getting it first

Randy Mankin is a friend of mine. He is the owner and publisher of the The Eldorado Success  and Big Lake Wildcat, both award-winning weekly newspapers in West Texas. Eldorado, you may remember, was the site of the YFZ ranch, a religious compound headed by a man named Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs is a self-appointed prophet in a very extreme group on the far fringe of Fundamental Mormonism. His compound in Eldorado housed hundreds of people who were members of polygamist families. Randy’s work at the Success was instrumental in aiding the FBI investigation that ended in a raid on the FFZ Ranch.

Randy was featured in the recent Showtime documentary “Prophet’s Prey,” which recounts the story of the experience in Eldorado.

When the raid initially occurred, the national media descended on Eldorado. At first, he said, he was inviting to the national correspondents. He opened the back of his office to them and offered internet connections. He felt like he had entered the big leagues of national journalism.

Soon, though, Randy became disenchanted. He said the visiting correspondents were stealing his sources and, even worse, getting the story wrong.

He said what they offered as news nowhere near reflected the true facts in the case. Randy said a reporter from CNN was sitting in his office — he won’t say what his name was, but he assured me it is a household name.

The correspondent told him: “Randy, you’ve got it good. You are a weekly newspaper. You have the luxury of getting the story right. We have to get it first.”

Sadly, the internet (and now social media) has turned the 24-hour news cycle into a 10-minute news cycle.

As a result, the race to get the story first has negated the need to get it correct. A senior editor and writing coach at the a major-market daily in Texas admitted to me that they are posting breaking news to their website written by rookie reporters – stories that have not been read by an editor beforehand.

“But the flip side,” he said, “is you can always correct the story in real time once it’s been posted online.”

This is where social media has taken journalism.

The news has become entertainment and the facts have suffered. I am amazed every time I hear someone complain about “fake news” — it exists because there is a market for it.

Social media has conditioned folks to require news immediately, but they then complain when it is not accurate.

It seems as if people don’t care to be informed. They want to be entertained. If folks really wanted to be informed, donations to public radio and daily newspaper subscriptions would both be increasing. Sadly, they are not — but I digress.

I had to make a judgment call concerning rushing a story to digital media once as the publisher of a county seat weekly in Northeast Texas.

Early one evening, in late summer, a boy was accidentally shot and killed near downtown. It was an accidental shooting where three high school boys were driving a local man’s truck, with permission. The man who owned the truck was well known and served on some local boards.

One of the boys discovered a pistol in the man’s console and started waving it around.

He fired it accidentally and killed his friend.

The young man who died was African-American. The two others were white. They were all three members of the high school football team who, according to all the polls, were destined for great success that upcoming fall.

The season was to open in two weeks and the dead boy was one of their stars.

Those are the facts of the case, but we didn’t know all of the facts when our editor called me that night. I did not live in the community, but he did and he was on the ground.

Out-of-town television trucks were arriving and gossip was swirling.

Our editor was out of breath on the phone. In about 30 seconds he explained a kid was dead and one of his teammates did it. The scene was roped off and the gun that killed him belonged to an upstanding citizen.

“I just wanted to let you know before I break it on the website,” he said. 

“Have you talked to the chief of police?” I asked. 

“No, he is busy right now with the investigation,” he said.

“Then how do you know what you just told me?”

“It’s just what folks are saying, you know? On the street.”

“So you have not verified any of what you just told me with credible sources?”


“Have you seen a dead body? Did you hear a gunshot? Have you seen the J.P. on the scene?”


“Then what are you going to post on the website?” 

“Everything I’ve heard.” 

“From whom?” 

“Around town.” 

“OK. Slow down,” I said. “What do we know? Really know? What do we know that we can verify with 100 percent accuracy?” 

“Well,” he said slowly, “we know the local police are investigating an incident in downtown. We know that traffic is being diverted around the area and emergency vehicles from multiple agencies have been dispatched to the incident to assist.”

“Then post that on Facebook and wait until we know more,” I said. 

“What? Just that?” he said. “There is more to it.”

“How do you know?” 

“I heard.”

“From whom?” 

“OK, I get your point. But there is a story here and it is in our town and the TV trucks are setting up and we need to beat them to the punch.”

“I know,” I responded. “It sounds like you do have a story there, and I am sure everything you’ve heard so far is close to accurate. If it is, we have a boy dead, right?” 


“And we have a family in shambles, right?” 


“And a community that is going to grieving for a long time, right?” 


“And all we know is what you told me? What we have heard has not been verified?” 


“Well,” I said, “after the TV trucks leave and the scene is cleaned up, we are still going to be here. The newspaper has been serving this town a whole lot longer than the out-of-state TV station. The TV station is not going to run this kid’s obituary. The TV station is not going to make its lead story next week the candlelight vigil in this kid’s memory. And the TV station is not going to brave the elements with the football team for the next 10 to 15 Friday nights as they dedicate game after game to this kid’s memory, are they?” 

“Well, no.” 

“Then do our community the service of telling them what we know and follow up later. We will tell the story, in its entirety, just not right now. Not this minute. Go on Facebook and tell them what we know and tell them we are not going to speculate further until we know more.” 

He accepted my advice and posted something like the following on Facebook:

“Local police are currently working an emergency situation in the downtown area. Little has been confirmed about the nature of the incident at this moment, but traffic is slow in the area. Out of respect to those involved, and their families, we will refrain from any speculative reports about the incident until we can verify the entirety of the story. Please see next week’s edition for more information.”

We gained much respect in the community for handling the post in that manner. The accolades were many and the criticism was almost non-existent.

The boy was still dead and the community took time to grieve. We were there the entire way.

We could have aired out what we thought we knew. But we couldn’t verify any of it. And as it turns out, we would have had to issue some painful corrections if we had.

The point is this: Media is people serving people by telling stories about people and being funded to so do by a whole other group of people. Media is a business, and business is relational. Relationships involve people and people are humans.

People are served best, and relationships are nurtured, when they are told the truth and not lied to — no matter whether the lie was intentional or not. Fake news produced due to ignorance is still fake news.

Ethicist Mark Putnam said: “In many cases ignorance can land you in just as much trouble as if you intentionally did something wrong. Sure, you can’t know everything, but the fact that you can know something puts the ball in your court.”

Knowing when to hold a story is just as great a skill as knowing how to effectively get the scoop. Becoming familiar with each is at the core of the responsibilities we bear to our communities.

Disaster Coverage

When tornadoes strike: Newspapers need a coverage plan

The tornadoes in Van Zandt County last weekend are a reminder of a sobering fact of life for Texas newspapers: When it comes to covering tornadoes, it’s more a matter of when than if.

An average of 1,224 tornadoes touch down every year in the United States, according to a tornado tracking study that reflects the years 1991 through 2015. Texas leads the nation with an average of 146.7. Kansas is next with 92.4, and our Tornado Alley neighbor Oklahoma has 65.4.

May is the peak month for Texas tornadoes – we average 44 during this month alone.

And obviously, when a tornado has just stuck your community or county, it’s too late to figure out how best to mobilize your coverage.

So here’s a guide for your newsroom, to help you plan for when tornadoes strike:

The first thing to do is to talk out the coverage. Everyone should sit down and talk about what you would do and who would do it. And if this is all you do, you’re already ahead of the game. Make a list of what you want to do, and who will do it.

Your tornado coverage team should include everyone. When a tornado hits, there should be no division between advertising and editorial – it’s all hands on deck.

Staff members should also talk with their families to explain that they will have to leave and cover the aftermath, assuming everyone in the family is safe. All staff members should think through what their families will do following a tornado — and make sure they know that this is a major news story that has to be covered.

Maybe you already have a plan – but this is the time to dust it off and go through it with everyone. If you didn’t do the plan within the past three months, it probably needs updating, and every individual staff member needs to know what everyone else is doing.

Next, you have to decide what your coverage philosophy will be. During a tornado, everyone is desperate for information, and your newspaper can become the go-to source for that information.

The first thing you have to do is to decide that you may be a weekly in print, but during this crisis you must go where the people are – and never ask them to wait for information. If you got it, share it.

If you’re going where people are, you’re going be on social media, probably Facebook. Remember: Absolutely nobody – not one single individual in your community – is saying “I can’t wait till the paper comes out on Thursday so I can find out what really happened.”

When the tornado is bearing down on your town, people are on radio and TV. Once it hits, they will be looking to social media to find out what happened. As soon as it’s safe, your staff should be out taking pictures and filing social media updates.

It won’t take long for your photos and information to be shared, and you should see your Facebook Likes spike immediately. If the local Methodist church has opened its fellowship hall for people who are out of their houses, share that on Facebook, along with a picture. If the police chief has announced a curfew, video that announcement and share it. You might even want to use the Facebook Live feature to interview local businesses who are cleaning up.

Some publishers will balk at “giving away” all those photos and information on the tornado. But remember, people don’t care about this stuff several days later, when your paper comes out. What can happen is that readers come to see your newspaper as the one indispensable local information source, and that should carry over to print circulation. If all you do is to collect information and photos for your publication day, people see your entire paper as irrelevant because there’s no new information and no photos they haven’t seen many times on Facebook.

But you also have to be thinking about what you’ll put in that print edition. You may run a roundup story where you summarize the news of the tornado, but your print edition should be mainly follow stories that give additional information that hasn’t been shared on social media.

These follow stories should tell about rebuilding efforts and especially tell the human stories of victims and the first-responder heroes who helped them. Your staff covering the storm should always have, in the back of their minds, the need for these follow stories – so have a board in the office or a place online where ideas for these stories can be shared. And not just reporters – your ad reps may have a great idea on a business that’s rebuilding.

And as these follow stories start coming together, of course, tell your social media audience what’s coming. You can build anticipation for the depth information, the photo stories and the features that your regular print edition will include.

Also following a tornado, keep on the lookout for investigative angles that involve emergency preparedness or even building codes. Here’s a story about construction flaws in Moore, Oklahoma, schools that ran after the Moore tornadoes in 2013.

During times of emergency like this, people see the reality of what we’ve been telling them for years – that our newspaper, in print, online and in social media, is the best source of local news. One reporter who covered a tornado for a community newspaper in Alabama put it this way: “In a crisis like this, people did learn that we were the first place to go for news. We were told that by members of the National Guard that they were following our tweets to figure out where they needed to deploy.”

Unfortunately, much of your coverage will involve people who have experienced significant loss. The managing editor of The Oklahoman, which has had a lot of unfortunate experience in covering tornadoes, offers this advice about interviewing disaster victims:

*Teach your reporters and editors about how to approach and interview victims. Remind them during the coverage.\Emphasize that victims must be treated with dignity and respect.

*Victims should be approached but allowed to say no. If the answer is no, the reporter should leave a card or number so victims can call back later. Oftentimes, the best stories come this way.

*Each victim is an individual and must be treated that way, not just as part of an overall number.

*Little things count. Call victims back to verify facts and quotes. Return photos (if possible, hire runners to get and return photos). Emphasize writing “Profiles of Life” about the victims, instead of the usual stories about how they died.

*Try calling funeral homes or representatives first to connect with a family member. In most cases, victims’ relatives wanted to talk when they realized that the reporter was writing a “Profile of Life.” Some of these led to bigger stories, too. Establish policies that affect your coverage.

*The Oklahoman reporters covered public memorial services for the victims of the bombing and tornado, but not private funerals.

*Don’t re-run the bloody images on anniversaries and key dates. However, consider showing comparison pictures of destruction with current ones on the recovery’s success.

There are a lot of resources to which you can turn to beef up your coverage. Of course, after the disaster hits, it’s too late to familiarize yourself with these. So look them over now, and discuss them when you have your staff meeting to plan for coverage.

After the initial safety concerns, people’s next questions are typically about insurance. The Insurance Information Institute can answer your questions and provide subject matter experts and resources to explain the insurance and economic implications the tornado.

Phone numbers may well be dispersed among reporters. Be sure there is a master list available on your computer system, a list that includes police, fire department, county law enforcement, hospitals, power companies, water office, animal control, towing companies, funeral homes and the county coroner, churches and other relief centers, and the like.

The Journalist’s Toolbox weather page offers lots of links and resources to storms, assistance programs and even apps that can help in your coverage.

One more thing: If a major storm hits your city, you will be getting requests from outside media for interviews with your reporters, for photos, and for information on what’s happening. Decide in advance what your policy will be, and designate someone to field these requests.

Much of the preparation you do for tornadoes can also come in handy for major fires, floods and other disasters. Plan now, and hope you never have to put those plans into motion.