The business of newspapers is no longer competitive. While most towns may still have a local community newspaper, very few have two. Now, the culture is more collaborative, with publishers willing to work together, and share both their challenges and successes with one another.
Bringing them together are national and state press associations. They’ve felt the same struggles as their members, but they are proving to be invaluable allies in the quest to overcome them.
Delivering Insight and Ideas
The Southern Newspaper Publishers Association (SNPA) dates back to 1903 when the membership was made up of newspapers across 14 southeastern states. Today, the word “southern” in SNPA’s name is somewhat of a misnomer, executive director Edward VanHorn said. VanHorn, who has been with the association for 42 years, said SNPA is enjoying “record membership.”
“We have 600—mostly daily—newspapers as members,” he said.
That’s up by 200 members, give or take, over the course of the past decade. That growth is largely due to the way the organization thinks about the breadth of its influence today, which is no longer defined by geography.
SNPA’s membership is “quite engaged,” VanHorn said, and many travel to the Key Executives Mega-Conference each year. The event is hosted by SNPA, Inland Press Association, Local Media Association and News Media Alliance, and was held in Las Vegas last month.
“With the Mega-Conference and most industry meetings, they have evolved from being about how best to produce the newspaper to topics about how to adapt to a rapidly evolving technological and social market,” VanHorn said. “They’re also much more targeted toward new business models—like subscription growth as a revenue source—and a little less about traditional advertising.”
It can be challenging for newspapers to carve out resources devoted to professional development and travel, so the SNPA creates learning and networking opportunities to them. It’s a “P2P” webinar series, freely accessible to anyone who’d like to take part, and free of cost to SNPA members.
“We produce about one every month. They’re often focused on topics related to revenue generation, cost savings, staff organization or sales,” VanHorn said. “To participate, you have to share a success story from your own newspaper, so we get all of these great ideas that come out of the video conferences.”
He noted that these are practical ideas rather than theoretical. For example, a webinar conference held in late 2018 had a wellspring of ideas. If a publisher implemented each of those ideas and successfully rolled them out, they had the combined potential to create as much as $790,000 to $1 million in additional revenue for similar-market newspapers.
“That’s worth your dues,” VanHorn said. “We got a membership request from a newspaper in Guam just this past week, and the reason they wanted to be a SNPA member was not because they’re close by, obviously, but they wanted to participate in our webinars.”
The webinar series, known as the Online Media Campus, is produced in partnership with the Iowa Newspaper Association. The partners also offer custom-branded webinar promotions to other press and publishing association around the country. To date, VanHorn estimates that more than 28,000 people have participated in the webinars since the launch.
He said membership has many other perks, such as learning and networking opportunities, both in person and virtually, but that’s just part of the association’s value proposition.
“The ‘secret sauce’ behind SNPA…is that there is a camaraderie among members that is very special. If you were looking at things from the outside, you might say, ‘Oh, that’s just another one of those professional clubs,’” said VanHorn. “But from inside the association, what you find is that when there’s a hurricane that hits the Gulf Coast, for example, there are newspapers all over the south that rush in to rescue their comrades because they know them from SNPA.”
Selling Knowledge and Hope
The Inland Press Association’s membership is said to mirror the nation’s newspaper industry as a whole. Most of the members hail from newspapers with daily circulations of 50,000 or fewer.
“I’m happy to tell you that our membership is higher today than it was 10 years ago,” said Tom Slaughter, executive director. “Fundamentally, we see our job as helping newspapers, generally—and our members specifically—survive in a really dynamic, fast-changing environment that has a lot of uncertainty. We try to focus all of the programming that we do on practical ways that newspapers can drive revenue, operate more efficiently, better serve their readers. That’s our job, and every day we wake up and try to think of better ways to do a better job of it.”
As with other associations, Inland is open to cooperation with external partners. Like with the SNPA, the Mega-Conference is one of their “most meaningful and most recognizable collaboration,” said Slaughter.
Leveraging digital technology, the association also produces between 30 to 60 webinars each year—free to members.
“We also conduct an annual member survey because we think that’s a really great way to stay in touch with what our members need,” Slaughter said. “One of the questions we ask is: ‘Have you or anyone from your newspaper participated in an Inland webinar in the past year?’And 60 percent of the people who responded to the survey said they had…Almost invariably, one of the things we hear is that people say the value of the webinars more than pays for the annual dues, and that’s a really great thing to hear if you’re the director of an association.”
Predicting the future of newspaper industry associations is a difficult feat, said Slaughter.
“Whether you’re a state association or national association, the high pace of consolidation has a huge impact for people in the association world,” he said. “When you have a handful of owners buying up all of the available properties, it creates a really good or really bad news story. It can be good news (for the association) if you sign up one of these big chains gobbling up these properties. But if one of those big enterprises decides that whatever you’re selling isn’t something they need to buy anymore? That can create a life-changing event for an association.”
A special challenge that associations also face is that they often don’t produce a tangible product, Slaughter said.
“What we ‘sell’ is knowledge and hope,” he explained. “We try to expose our membership to best practices, so they can take home and implement in their organizations. We think that’s a huge win, and people see great value in that. We just see our role as trying to help our members survive in a really challenging atmosphere, and also have hope that there are things they can do to sustain their role in their communities as the provider of fair and balanced information.”
Adapting to Change
As the “voice of visual journalists,” National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) executive director Akili-Casundria Ramsess said the group is also an “advocate for the rights of visual journalists and photojournalists.”
Though she has only held the executive director role for three years, Ramsess’ relationship with the NPPA dates back to college and has endured for more than 30 years. As a NPPA member, she has seen how the NPPA has played an influential part in her career development.
Then came layoffs, and photographers were often some of the hardest hit. The association felt the brunt too.
“Between the layoffs and the decimation of staff, it really hurt,” Ramsess said. “At our peak in the late 90s/early 2000s, we were in the 20,000 range for membership, and (today) we’re down to and hovering right at the 5,000 mark.”
Sadly, membership decline has plagued the association simultaneous to the loss of revenue from sponsorships. Camera manufacturers were for many years assured sources of financial support, but that industry has seen its own fair share of consolidation and fiscal challenges.
Though these are troubling trends for any association, at the NPPA “the bleeding” has been stopped, and the organization is becoming much more aggressive in its marketing and outreach. Ramsess personally attends as many visual industry events as she can pack into a calendar year, and the association deploys membership drives and incentive campaigns. The NPPA launched a new website last year, and in 2015, relocated its headquarters to the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga. The university now co-sponsors and administers the association’s annual photography competition. The two organizations also partner to produce a touring workshop on how best to leverage UAVs (drones). The NPPA was instrumental in advocating for news organizations to have the FAA’s blessing to use them for newsgathering.
In visual journalism, that’s been a game changer.
“I used to work for the Los Angeles Times, and back then we had two helipads, so we could just jump on a helicopter. Those sorts of luxuries are gone, but now we can put a drone in the air,” Ramsess said.
The association also produces courses on topics like innovation in digital technology, photojournalism, how to leverage both still photography and video, working with audio, and advanced storytelling.
“Photography is more than just a technique,” Ramsess said. “And just because cameras enable even the most inexperienced amateurs to take a picture in focus, it does not make you a photojournalist. It’s one thing to take a photo, but it’s another level to know how to tell a story visually.”
Networking and Building Careers
The good news for the Mississippi Press Association (MPA) is that it has approximately 99 percent of the newspapers across the state as members, said executive director Layne Bruce, who also serves as clerk for the Newspaper Association Managers, Inc. a professional organization of executives of state, regional, national and international newspaper associations.
“I struggle to think of a title out there that’s not a full, active member,” Bruce said. “We’re proud of that, but that also presents its challenges in terms of growing income and revenue.”
To broaden its membership base, the association has opened up membership to digital affiliates (news organizations without a print property). The association also leverages social media to market itself and to share information with members and the general public.
Each year, the MPA hosts two in-person events.
“Historically, the winter event is focused on revenue and advertising, and the summer convention tends to be geared more toward editorial and general newspaper industry trends,” Bruce said.
Asked how the content of these events may have changed in recent years, Bruce said that the sessions tend to be more interactive in nature, and that the speakers they engage are “sensitive to the fact that the industry still makes the majority of the money the way we always have, but have ideas on what the new sources of revenue are and how to capitalize on the changes in the industry.”
While innovation and the open exchange of ideas is precisely what the association’s members say they need, it’s not the only value proposition.
“I have always said that the biggest advantage to coming to one of our events is not necessarily the programming or the awards show or the great food; it’s the networking between members, and being able to share information about what’s going on in their communities and at their papers,” Bruce said.
In the Midwest, the Illinois Woman’s Press Association (IWPA) has a rich American history. The organization dates back to 1885, preceding even the National Federation of Press Women with which it’s now affiliated. Today, all professional communicators are welcomed to join—men and women—and across different industries.
“We started out as an organization for women journalists, at a time when women were not supposed to be journalists,” IWPA’s president Cora Weisenberger said. “Today, traditional journalists are the smallest portion of our enrollment. We also have business communicators, people in social media and self-published authors.
One way the association reaches out to “the next generation of communicators” is to administer a competition for high school students.
Education is fundamental to the association’s value proposition, and it not only hosts events based around topics like the First Amendment, but also cross-promotes and co-hosts events like the annual networking event with Chicago Women in Publishing.
A running theme in its educational events is a decided focus on professional development.
“One thing that we are trying to combat is how to set our association apart from others,” Weisenberger said. “Chicago, as a major city, has a lot of writers’ groups, and you can’t belong to them all. So what sets us apart? Career building.”
Working as an Advocate
When E&P spoke with Andrew Johnson, the president of the National Newspaper Association (NNA), he was preparing to embark on some outreach travel to industry events in Minneapolis, Des Moines and Boston.
“One of the ways we gain members is to spread the good news of community newspapers,” he said.
As a newspaper association, NNA has narrowed its focus to support print publishers, who may also produce digital companions.
“I think it’s a fantasyland to believe that in rural America you can deliver your product only digitally. It isn’t going to work,” Johnson said.
The NNA’s membership currently sits at 1,823, and as publisher of three titles that serve communities northwest of Milwaukee, Johnson himself is a perfect example of a typical NNA member.
“I’m involved in my community. I’m a member of the Rotary Club. I sell advertising. I write stories. I go to meetings. I am a hands-on publisher,” he said. “I’m not going to kid you. It’s a very stressful job, and it’s hard to be successful. In my opinion, the success that I’ve seen indicates that you have to be engaged in your community.”
To support its members, the NNA offers information in the form of digital communications, a print publication, an annual contest, and in two major in-person events each year (a legislative summit held in Washington, D.C. and an annual convention that combines learning, networking and a trade show component).
The association functions thanks to membership dues. There’s no foundation, or a wellspring of advertising and sponsorship dollars, Johnson said, emphasizing that their main resource is not money, but their people.
Advocacy remains one of the most important parts of the NNA. That was proven last summer, when Johnson (representing the NNA) joined other publishers, associations and a team of roughly 35 lawyers to lobby against the newsprint tariffs and mounted a legal appeal to a judge who would hear the case. The cooperative effort garnered the support of 99 members of Congress, some of whom came to court for oral arguments.
Johnson recounted the trial as an example of how profoundly influential newspaper teamwork can be.
“If we do not fight together, we would not be in business,” he said. “From the economists who helped us with the tariff trial, we got the number: 50 percent of all community newspapers would’ve gone out of business because of the tariff. But if you asked the question, ‘How important is a coalition of community newspapers?’ It’s our very life. We’re not going to make it without it.”
Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and printing for more than two decades. She has contributed to Editor & Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at [email protected] or gretchenapeck.com.