This column is usually about issues that rural newspapers can and should cover, but if you’re a rural editor or publisher, you have an issue of your own: adapting to the digital age.
The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism is exploring how technology is changing journalism and the news business, and recently interviewed more than 50 “experts from across the publishing industry, academia, and foundations” (I was one) to answer the question: How are small-market newspapers responding to digital disruption?
The first step in answering that query should be understanding that the conventional industry definition of “small market” – circulation under 50,000 – is a blunt instrument that avoids the distinctions among dailies, many of which have circulations under 10,000; weeklies, some of which exceed 10,000; and the diversity of rural America. To their credit, that is essentially the first finding listed by researchers Christopher Ali and Damian Radcliffe in their Nov. 15 report.
“We need to talk about the experience of local newspapers in a more nuanced manner,” they write. “There is a plurality of experience across the newspaper industry, not to mention across small-market newspapers operating in different towns across the United States. Overgeneralization about the newspaper sector loses important perspectives from smaller outlets.”
One pitfall of that overgeneralization is the widespread notion that newspapers are dying, and the researchers say “The newspaper industry needs to change the ‘doom and gloom’ narrative that surrounds it. . . . Outlets need to be honest with their audiences about the challenges they face, but they can also do more to highlight their unique successes, continued community impact, and important news value.”
I think community newspapers can reasonably assert that they are essential to local democracy and fostering a sense of community, and are the strongest part of the traditional news business, retaining a much larger share of their audience than metropolitan papers have in the last decade. The researchers don’t go that far, writing, “Local newspapers may be in a stronger position than their metro cousins.” (Emphasis added.)
The distinction may lie in the differences among communities, and between dailies and weeklies. Small dailies seem to have had a tougher time competing lately for several reasons; for example, many are close to larger dailies and serve communities that are covered by television stations, and many are owned by publicly held corporations or venture-capital firms that are more likely to put shareholders ahead of community service than local, independent owners.
Such ownership is less common among weeklies, few of which have TV competition and enjoy a local-news franchise that digital operations have not greatly invaded (though I do cite one example in the article, at http://bit.ly/2jteYSq). As the researchers note, community newspapers “experienced notable resilience thanks in part to exclusive content not offered elsewhere, the dynamics of ultra-local advertising markets, and an ability to leverage a physical closeness to their audience.”
But the health of a newspaper also depends on the health of its community, and almost half of America’s rural counties are losing population, as we reported on The Rural Blog at http://bit.ly/2AZ5KB3. That phenomenon is undermining many rural papers, and even in places where population is holding steady or growing, papers face challenges of change in local advertising markets.
The researchers write: “Although local businesses may be more likely to retain traditional analog advertising habits, the increasing homogeneity of our consumer experience (manifest, for example, in the rise of Amazon and Walmart) is reshaping local advertising markets. As local businesses are replaced by larger national chains with national advertising budgets, this reduces local newspapers’ advertising pools.” Walmart is infamous among newspapers for spending very little of its ad budget with them.
One point Ali and Radcliffe don’t mention is that many rural counties are becoming bedroom communities, which undermines commuters’ local connections. My research has found that the longer the commute, the less likely rural Kentucky residents are to subscribe to the newspaper where they live.
Like their metropolitan counterparts, “Small-market newspapers are experimenting with multiple means for generating revenue, including paywalls, increasing the cost of print subscriptions, the creation of spin-off media service companies, sponsored content, membership programs, and live events,” the researchers write. And they report that more papers are charging for obituaries.
Many such experiments are driven by corporate owners, but “There is no cookie-cutter model for success in local journalism,” the researchers write. “Each outlet needs to define the right financial and content mix for itself. This may seem obvious, but during our interviews some editors whose papers are part of larger groups were critical of corporate attempts to create templates—and standardize approaches—that remove opportunities for local flexibility.”
The report notes my concern that too many rural newspapers depend on single-copy sales rather than subscriptions, which may lead to sensationalizing front pages to generate sales and leave the papers more vulnerable to upstart competition, perhaps making them more editorially timid when it comes to local issues.
The comprehensive report deals with social media and other digital details, the changing nature of journalists’ jobs and their craft, and how small-market newspapers can prepare for the future. It’s a highly valuable report that should be read not only by publishers and editors, but by their staffs.
Any good piece of research recommends further research. Ali and Radcliffe note the lack of “a regular detailed census of local newspapers, split into different sub-markets, to understand and map a more holistic picture of the U.S. newspaper industry. Unfortunately, many existing surveys are being rolled back, meaning that our knowledge of this space will diminish unless others step in.”