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.


Why community papers should be reporting on deaths from drug overdoses

This blog, used by permission of Ken Blum, originally appeared in Blum’s email newsletter, Black Inklings. You can join the Black Inklings mailing list by emailing your name, job title, newspaper and email address to [email protected].

A question.

If a person in your community passed away for any of the following reasons, would you report how it happened, including the name of the deceased?

  1. 1. Auto accident
  2. 2. Shooting
  3. 3. Drunk driving
  4. 4. Assault
  5. 5. Domestic violence
  6. 6. Drowning
  7. 7. Farm accident
  8. 8. Fire
  9. 9. Flood
  10. 10. Drug overdose

Likely, the answers are easy, until we get to number 10. Too many hometown newspapers hesitate to report deaths involving illegal opioids, unless those deaths occurred in unusual circumstances. Too often, the only report of an OD death is a submitted obit that avoids the cause of death.

“Died unexpectedly” is the most common statement, usually for deceased in the 16-35 age range. You see a lot of “died unexpectedlies” in community newspapers these days.

It’s not that the problem hasn’t been reported. It is that the quantity and quality of the reporting in no way matches the scope of the crisis in this country – not drug use, mind you, but overdose deaths from lethal and illegal drugs, particularly the most demonic and deadly of all, heroin and its monstrous new cousin, unimaginably 50 times more potent than pure heroin – fentanyl.

OD deaths are rampant and everywhere and anywhere.

Take my county – Wayne County, Ohio. It’s a progressive county with a nice mix of agriculture and industry. Population 114,520. Fine schools and colleges. Solid middle to upper middle class.

In 2015, there were 20 overdose deaths linked to heroin and/or fentanyl in my county. 20! There were eight deaths in the county that year from traffic accidents.

And there would have been many more if law enforcement agencies and fire departments did not have access to Narcan, a nasally administered drug that reverses the effects of opiates. In Wooster, the county seat, the fire department administered Narcan 40 times in 2015.

There’s a story behind every one of these deaths.

For example, a few miles away from my home a woman died of a heroin overdose supplied by the man who had reported her as unresponsive. Later, it was learned she gave birth to a baby at the home only hours before she was rushed to the hospital. The dead child had been placed in a cardboard box found in a bathtub.

Hard to write or read, but too important and tragic to ignore.

Again the OD epidemic is everywhere and anywhere in the U.S., from the ghettos of Detroit to the villages of Connecticut to the farm towns of Nebraska.

The most recent totals available are from 2014, when 47,055 drug overdose deaths occurred in the Unites States, 28,647 from opioid overdoses. That’s 14.7 per 100,000 persons in the country.

Let’s put that figure into perspective:

  • ●Let’s say your paper covers a very small rural county, 20,000 population. Expect three to four overdose deaths this year.
  • ●America’s total involvement in the Vietnam War lasted from 1965 to 1975, 10 years. During the longest war in our history, there were approximately 58,000 Americans killed in action and 2,000 missing in action, for a 60,000 total. Again, compare to American OD deaths for just one year – 47,055.
  • ●U.S. traffic deaths in 2014 – 32,675. Drug overdose deaths – 47,055.
  • ●Breast Cancer claimed about 40,000 victims in 2015. Most areas in the country – rightly so – host events supporting the fight against the disease, mainly the Relay for Life campaigns. Again, these efforts are worthy and needed.

Still, where are the relays for the 47,000 dead from drug overdoses?

It’s not like the days when heroin overdose deaths were the plight of desperate people living in desperate circumstances.

Today, no economic or social class, race, creed or age group is immune.

It’s so easy to get hooked. Take a dose as an experiment. Experience a high like you never imagined. Take another dose in a search for a repeat of that state of euphoria. And another. You’re hooked.

You may get off of it after a few hellish weeks. But the longing is still there. You give in. Buy the same dose from a dealer, although there’s no way to be sure what dose you’re buying, or maybe it’s fentanyl. Oops – the same dose you had been taking before now constitutes an overdose because you’ve been off the stuff for a while.

You’re dead.

Why don’t these people – people who may well be your friends, your neighbors, your parents, your children – just go to rehab and get off the stuff?

Try this – don’t drink anything for a few hot days. Then try to stay away from a glass of water.

It’s even worse for an opioid addict who without a fix goes through nausea, sweating, shaking, muscle spasms.

So let’s get back to the questions at the beginning of this piece.

Why do so many community newspapers fail to report overdose deaths from illegal drugs?

My guess is the stigma associated with drug like heroin, and the newspaper’s sensitivity to the feelings of the family of a person who died from overdosing on the most stigmatized drug of all.

But what good does hiding the cause do?

Does it inform readers about the human tragedy of an epidemic that’s right under their noses, happening to people they know and respect?

Does it alert readers to the danger in their midst – not only the danger of taking opioids, but also the danger of the crimes associated with the culture of drug abuse, such as break-ins, robberies and any one of a hundred crimes to obtain the money to make a buy.

Does it help raise the community’s awareness of drug dealers in its midst, and encourage citizens to report suspicious persons to law enforcement?

And is it a violation of the fundamental ethics of journalism? A crime has been committed in that someone sold the illegal drug to the victim and possession in itself is a crime; there has been an investigation by law enforcement and an autopsy, and the most ominous result of all for that crime has occurred – a death in your town.

How can you not report it, including the name of the victim?

How does your newspaper handle deaths from drug overdoses? Has your newspaper made an effort to inform and educate readers about the impact of this epidemic on your town?  If so, please pass along your strategy to


Too much Charmin, not enough sandpaper: Bad news has a place in community journalism

Reposted with permission of the author.

It's the most common reader complaint, heard throughout the history of hometown newspapers. Benjamin Franklin got an earful as publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette. You probably heard it yesterday.
"There's nothing but bad news in the paper. Why don't you write about some of the good things happening in this town?"

Of course, you scratch your noggin' when you take another look at the latest edition stuffed full of positive news — weddings, engagements, sports coverage, people features, club meeting reports, church news, etc., seemingly none of it noticed by the complainer. 

But I'm here to share a revelation. Here's the fact of the matter. When readers say they don't want to read "bad news,” they aren't telling the truth.

I won't use the term "lie" because Mr. Iwannamoregoodnews isn't being intentionally deceptive. He just blocks out the fact he devours "bad news" much like a lion feasts on antelope. The good news he sips as a proper Englishman consumes a cup of tea.

A building burns to the ground vs. the high school band's trip to New York City? Believe me, the fire story will win the readership contest, 10-1. 

City council ponders a stiff increase in the city income tax vs. city council accepts a $300,000 Federal grant for street improvements? The potential tax increase wins, 10-1.

Murder on Elm Street vs. United Way campaign reaches goal? Murder wins like Secretariat blazing down the home stretch at the Belmont.

This is why, given my experience going over hundreds of circulation reports,  it's no surprise that newspapers with a heavier emphasis on hard/straight – often "bad" — news invariably enjoy far better circulation penetration of their community than papers that load up (especially on their front pages) with soft fluffy — "good"  — news.

It's not that I'm recommending you yank the peewee league results or class reunion pictures. It is that I think too many community newspapers run too much Charmin, not enough sandpaper.

Somehow, the powers that be at many papers feel the mission is to be the positive paper – unlike the nearby metro daily that runs the bad stuff. Be positive/be loved, so the theory goes.

Unfortunately, the theory is like sugar in a cup of coffee. A couple teaspoons may be just right. Ten teaspoons are enough to make you gag.

So I'm here to defend bad news. Bad news gets a bad rap. There isn't enough bad news in perhaps 50 percent of the community papers I read.

Bad news is good news for newspapers for a number of reasons:

  • Like it or not, we humans are programmed to pay more attention to an emergency (a snowstorm), or a major problem brewing (the city is broke and needs more tax revenue) than stories about two straight weeks of 75 degrees and sunshine, or the mayor gloating over a balanced budget. There's good reason we're programmed this way. The bad news must be dealt with, and our instincts and emotions correctly tell us so. We may not always like it, but bad news harpoons our interest, demands action.
  • Bad news is important news and a newspaper that fails to report it is akin to a bad parent ignoring a teen's drug abuse. If confronted, the kid won't like it just as many readers won't like a story about teen drug abuse in your paper. But it needs to be exposed, dealt with.
  • Bad news builds readership because it attracts attention and deep down readers want it, although they may not like it. Again, I've perused the circulation trends at hundreds of hometown newspapers. The papers that do the best job covering hard news and that dig deep into important issues and comment on those issues are papers that sell. Yes, they're also the papers that catch the most flak in their role as the messenger some in the community would love to kill. But invariably they're the best-read, most relevant newspapers, and deservedly so.


So back again to the gist of my argument.

Certainly, I’m not suggesting any newspaper cut good news, or the personal news that’s a tradition in hometown journalism. However, I do run into too many community papers that allow themselves to enter a zone of almost complete ethereal comfy content that only serves to diminish readership and credibility.

So take a good look at your latest edition.

Here's hoping there's a healthy dose of bad news in its pages.