‘Little’ Papers Keep Coming Up Big

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By: Roger Plothow

To read about it in our own newspapers and industry periodicals, circulation is in freefall, margins are plummeting, newsrooms are being eviscerated and it’s only a matter of time before the daily newspaper is a bittersweet memory.

Of course, the numbers for metropolitan newspapers tell a discouraging story. In some cases, circulation is falling by high single digits per year. I’m no Pollyanna. This performance demands immediate and revolutionary change — change that the metropolitan papers have sneered at for a decade. They have been among the most stubborn resisters of any change in “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

But telling the “metro” story leaves out a major piece of what’s happening. While large papers account for a majority of the total circulation in the U.S., they account for a fraction of the newspaper titles serving American readers. Said another way, 99% of American newspapers have circulations under 250,000, and 86% have circulations less than 50,000.

Newspaper circulation follows the old 80/20 rule, on steroids. The top 10 newspapers in the country account for 20% of the total circulation. So, in a way, it’s understandable why they get all the attention.

But ignoring the other 1,420 daily newspapers means ignoring successful new models for serious journalism that readers are willing to pay for. Wall Street focuses on large, publicly held companies that operate in mostly metropolitan markets, so business writers tend to verify what the stock analysts say. With a little digging, however, a trade journal reporter would learn American journalism is changing from the bottom up.

For example, Inland Press Association conducts a monthly revenue and margin survey of mostly smaller newspapers that tells a pretty upbeat story:

— Profit margins among these newspapers average above 20%, and many report margins of more than 30%.

— Through October, most are reporting solid revenue increases across all segments, so margins aren’t being produced purely through expense cuts.

— Many of these same newspapers are reporting consecutive years of circulation growth.

Beyond the metrics, it’s easy to find small daily newspapers doing innovative, cutting-edge work in print and online. We’re finding new revenue sources and new ways to attract readers, and we’re experimenting with different business models with our long-term future in mind. Because many of us are owned by smaller companies, we are often more agile and able to try (and, when necessary, quickly discard) new things. And perhaps because we’re staffed by younger folks, we tend not to be overly invested in defending traditions.

Attend a gathering of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association and you’ll hear an exchange of ideas rivaling — dare I say, exceeding — those I hear at Nexpo.

Upbeat publishers, editors, and ad directors talking about ways to combat Craigslist and Monster are inspirational. They expect to develop paid online models and to reach young readers. But our industry’s trade journals obsess over the metros’ devotion to the kind of national and world news readers no longer get from newspapers.

The Bakersfield Californian, with a circulation of about 75,000, is one of America’s most innovative newspapers. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it’s relatively small, serves a comparatively isolated market, and is locally owned. When we redesigned the Post Register more than a year ago, we used the Californian as one of our models and challenged ourselves to go farther still.

The next time you read a grim update of the newspaper industry’s inexorable slide into oblivion, check to see if the reporter talked to anyone in red America. Then, perhaps give Inland Press a call to see what its latest report shows.

Odds are that’ll tell a whole different story.

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