The Future of Newspapers Lies in the Small Towns

The once six-day-a-week, 16,000 circulation newspaper to the north of me reduced its publication schedule to three days a week a few years ago and to just one day this summer.

The newspaper, which was once praised all across the Midwest for its innovative editorial coverage and creative revenue ideas, thrived and grew under three generations of family ownership.

Then the paper was sold to an out-of-state group and circulation and advertising income began to drop. Now, following numerous ownership changes, the paper’s subscriber numbers are estimated to be less than a fourth of the once 16,000 number.

Sixty miles south of me, Lee Enterprises’ Sioux City Journal announced last month it would no longer print a Monday or Tuesday edition and would only deliver that issue online.

The problem for smaller, local publications is their potential to continue publishing is too often judged by what is happening in the often overstaffed, financially extended daily market. “As goes Gannett and McClatchy,” the naysayers whisper, “so goes the entire paper publishing business.”

But while many smaller home-owned and owner-managed papers also are struggling — especially during the downturn brought about by the coronavirus — some continue to excel. Over the long haul, it will be the smaller, local newspapers and shoppers that will survive.

There are a number of reasons for this, including closer relationships with local retailers and fewer competing digital news sites than in a bigger metro market.

But the biggest reason is community papers still search out and print a great amount of local information that cannot be found anywhere else. It is not included in the local radio station’s five-minute repeats of the day’s news or on even the area’s most off-the-wall website.

While metro papers have been cutting sections, laying off newsroom, circulation and sales-related employees — choosing to fill their pages with USA Today or other nationally syndicated material — community papers have kept their focus local.

With what has always been an affordable, small but highly dedicated staff, hometown papers have continued, even during the ravages COVID-19, to gather and publish local information important to, and desired by, those who live in the circulation area.

That information runs from what decisions were made at the last city council or transpired at the county supervisors’ meetings to photos and biographies of the school district’s new teachers as well as the county fair queen and her court. Local names, events and the opportunities to save at nearby stores are what continue to be important to readers today. Local is what is missing from too many metro publications.

Community paper publishers have the advantage of personally knowing and interacting with the majority of their advertisers. While metro and local markets will continue to lose retailers during the difficult period we’re experiencing, most small community businesses are managed by owners who actually live in that town. Local publishers and business owners regularly rub elbows with those shopkeepers at the weekly Kiwanis Club meeting, the Main Street coffee shop or the Friday night ballgame. Publishers, staff and local business owners feel comfortable with each other, trust each other and call each other by first names. Contrast that with metro markets when chain store managers can be moved to another location with just a few hours’ notice.

It’s the volume, uniqueness and quality of the local paper’s content that continues to make hometown publications appreciated and essential to the local community.

But that doesn’t mean the future will not bring change. Smaller community publishers need to use this downtime to consider what they might do differently tomorrow — and the months down the road. What new services or publications could be added to the operation’s revenue stream? What new income could come from creating a community magazine, providing local businesses with content or advertising website design or by investing in digital commercial printing?

Or how about adding a greeting card shop or paperback bookstore to the paper’s reception area to increase day-to-day traffic? And here is a wild idea: Why not turn the paper’s front area into a coffee shop? Coffee shops turn a good profit and provide a great listening place for learning what is going on in the community.

Community papers still have a solid future. But continuing to do things the same old way may be holding some back. The traditional way things have always been done may be holding some community papers back.

The best way for hometown papers to fit into the new normal to come is to consider what changes need to be made right now.

Peter W. Wagner is founder and publisher of the award winning N’West Iowa REVIEW and 13 additional publications. Wagner can be contacted by emailing or calling his cell at 712-348-3550.