The autumn of 2015 brought another wave of deep job cuts at newspapers across the country.
Poynter’s Rick Edmonds looked at the cuts and recalled that more than a decade ago Phil Meyer predicted that newspapers would enter what he called a “death spiral,” with rounds of cuts leading to declines in circulation and ad revenue, which would lead to more cuts.
Justin Fox, writing for Bloomberg, said, “I’m guessing that the next thing we’ll see is the collapse of midsize newspaper after midsize newspaper as the cost-cutting reaches its logical conclusion.”
So, will newspapers survive? I think the answer is a qualified yes, but only newspapers meeting certain criteria will survive.
Broadly, I think former Globe and Mail editor-in-chief John Stackhouse has it right in observing that the huge and the small will survive (bit.ly/1QFws5J). However, I think huge doesn’t mean huge groups but rather a few huge national papers focused on national news without the high overhead of a supporting a network of local newspapers.
Much of the analysis in the industry is focused on big papers, leaving smaller local newspaper ecosystems in the U.S. out of the discussion. Despite my position disappearing, I actually think that smaller, locally-focused newspapers in economically stable or growing communities in the U.S. have a good chance of surviving.
The “moat around local news”
I have reason to be optimistic about small papers. Two of my newspapers in Wisconsin—The Sheboygan Press and the Herald Times Reporter—saw both top-line revenue growth and increase in audience reach during my first year. While I’d love to take all of the credit for the success of those two newspapers, I think there were some unique characteristics that explain their success beyond solid management.
Key is the fact that neither paper had local TV competition that provided meaningful local coverage. Local TV competition is one reason why big city and mid-size metros are under a lot of market pressure.
Many debates about the future of journalism focus on the dramatic increase in choice that people have in terms of news and information sources, but it’s not the case as in small communities like mine. Apps, such as events calendars, default to the nearest mid-size or large city, and while there are local pages on Facebook that provided some information, they are fragmented.
In many ways, I would have to agree with Mike Jenner, the Houston Harte chair in journalism at the University of Missouri, who told Al Jazeera last year, “There’s almost a moat around local news.” The internet hasn’t completely rendered geography irrelevant in these smaller communities.
Communities like Manitowoc, Wisc. where the Herald Times Reporter, which I edited, saw reach grow from 84 percent to 87 percent. Moreover, HTR had triple digit digital revenue growth in the second quarter of 2014, and 23 percent of its revenue already came from digital before that stellar quarter.
Successful communities support successful papers
Of course, there is another criteria. Successful communities support successful newspapers. Sheboygan County, where the Sheboygan Press is located, had the third lowest unemployment of any county in the state of Wisconsin in September, and unemployment hasn’t been this low since December 2000 before the dot.com crash recession. With that kind of stellar economic growth, it was much easier to grow the business.
As Doug Crews, executive director of the Missouri Press Association told the Gateway Journalism Review, “The smaller newspapers simply have learned to operate in a smaller universe, so their highs are not as high, their lows are not as low, as larger newspapers.”
It is not the kind of sexy business that attracts media moguls, but many families with local connections are finding success with a sustainable model for local, community journalism that will last as long as there are thriving small communities to support them.
Kevin Anderson is a consultant with extensive global experience on-staff with the BBC, The Guardian and as a local media executive with Gannett. This article was first published on TheMediaBriefing and can be found at bit.ly/1PzZX9K.