Successful Publisher Shares Secrets of Success

Kevin Slimp

Just before the world turned upside down in early March, I was making preparations to speak at the Kansas Press Association Convention. One of my keynotes had to do with why some papers were experiencing success, while so many papers were decreasing in readership and revenue.

To get ready for the session, I interviewed several successful community newspaper publishers in the U.S. and Canada. My plan was to show snippets of the interviews with the Kansas audience. Little did any of us know that the Kansas convention wouldn’t happen in April (thankfully, it’s been rescheduled for later in the year), but the information I gained will come in quite handy when I begin speaking at conventions again this fall.

As I visit association conventions, there are names that pop up again and again when the discussion turns to successful newspapers. One such name is Jason Sethre, publisher of the Fillmore County Journal in Preston, Minnesota. Jason and his wife, Amanda, purchased the Journal in 2009 after 15 years in the corporate newspaper world. Amanda serves as associate publisher.

Jason and I visited for 30 minutes about the Fillmore County Journal. He and Amanda purchased the paper at a time when newspapers were beginning to struggle from the recession. Since that time, the Journal has grown 80 percent. Most of that comes from the newspaper itself, while another 30 percent or so of the growth comes from other areas like special sections, a website division and tourism guides.

The Fillmore County Journal has a lot in common with other community papers, but it does a lot of things differently. For instance, obituaries are free. Jason told me the paper runs more than 300 obits each year. “People are always amazed when they find out we don’t charge for obituaries.”

One thing that surprised Jason after coming from the corporate world of big dailies, weeklies and shoppers was the lack of sales goals at the Journal. “When we bought the paper, there were no sales goals,” he told me. “I wasn’t used to that. That’s not what it was like where I came from. But sales increased that first year and I decided to run the paper without sales goals after that.”

Having worked with thousands of newspapers as a consultant, I was surprised when Jason showed me a word search special section. Yes, a special section filled with word search puzzles.

“There are 32 advertisers in the section,” he explained, “and all of the ads were designed and placed on pages before a single ad had been sold.”

Apparently, that’s standard practice at the Fillmore County Journal.

“With every special section we do,” Jason continued, “we ask ourselves, who we can get that we don’t already have as an advertiser?”

The sales team goes into action, gives the designers a list of businesses, ads are created and placed on the pages, then taken out and shown to potential advertisers. Those who don’t buy the ad, for whatever reason, get the ad for free. It’s not as risky as you might think. Jason explains that for every 20 advertisers they visit with a completed section, 16 to 18 will buy the ad.

“I’d rather place an ad for a potential advertiser than a house ad,” Jason told me, “because most of them will become regular advertisers after we do that.”

The Journal team consists of 18 staff persons including four full-time designers, “six or seven” reporters, sports and news editors, web designers and publishers.

I asked about having four designers at a small community newspaper. Jason explained that everything is designed in-house. Sure, he is pestered almost daily by vendors trying to get him to outsource work.

“We’re in a rural area with a county population of 20,800. People do business with us because of the people who work for us. It would be foolish for me to outsource design because we would lose business.”

I asked Jason about any other sales hints.

“I feel one of the lost arts in general is going out to talk to people. That’s how we get a lot of our story ideas. I often learn of a story while talking with a potential advertiser. That’s a huge part of our success.”

Jason wasn’t thrilled to hear about newspaper groups in other parts of the country dropping their sports staffs. He said, “That’s a lot of shortsightedness.”

In addition to covering sports for seven school districts, the Journal covers arts, academics and other areas of student life.

I didn’t want the conversation to end. I asked Jason if there was anything more he could share that might be helpful to other newspapers.

“I think another thing that has been very important for us is that we pay very well. We pay 35 percent more than other papers in our region. We give annual raises every year.”

Jason believes keeping good people pays off. “We spend more on staffing than most papers, but if you want to keep good people, you have to take care of them.”

“Our company philosophy,” Jason continued, “is that people are more important than profits. If you take care of the people, the profits will come.”