Marching to the community newspaper tune

by Peter Weinberger

What do you get when there are 150 community newspaper publishers in one room?  Two great ideas.

I attended my first National Newspaper Association (NNA) annual conference last week in Charleston, South Carolina. Being it was kind of a nice city to visit, that’s the excuse I gave to my wife as to why I wanted to attend. I also thought it was time to mingle not only with other leaders in the industry, but with people who publish newspapers just like the COURIER.

The conference started with some larger general meetings, but it was the smaller breakout sessions that covered key topics like news content (especially city and school affairs), increasing advertising revenue, circulation tips, selling to new customers, online marketing and, of course, the biggie, United States Post Office regulations. Vendors from all over the country were on hand, selling printing and graphics software to canned editorial content that looked like it was local news.

Even the post office had a booth. I walked up to the lady there and asked her if the attendees were being nice (just about every community newspaper publisher has issues with USPS.) She said for the most part people were respectful and then happily showed me their updated website with new information on postal regulations.

When I asked whether they had any plans to show the website to local postmasters, who have a nationwide reputation for not knowing postal regulations for newspapers, the smile from her face vanished as she pushed the computer screen away. From then on, questions about the future of Saturday delivery, or price increases, were met with a grouchy “no comment.”

Guess my work was done here.

Even with all the tough business news for the newspaper industry over the past few years, the mood of the participants was very good. Like the COURIER, a large percentage of community newspapers are doing quite well because of their niche content. And many of these papers serve communities smaller than Claremont.

I’ve always said a local newspaper can be the best gauge of how the economy is doing, because advertisers are the small businesses that fuel the economy. Business in small town America has improved. I can say for us, this is clearly the case, even though we had lean times like most businesses during the recession.

But that doesn’t mean community newspapers have not had to change and adapt. All have websites at varying levels, with some using a paywall for subscribers only, or posting only part of the newspaper content online. There’s a clear understanding people want to access information online, and that includes using a tablet or smart phone.

I was surprised at how many small papers have developed apps for smart phones, something the COURIER will do early next year. The world is definitely going digital and portable, but that doesn’t mean the printed page is obsolete. Publishers were stunned at the number of Facebook followers we had…almost 2100 and growing. It’s obvious readers simply want choices on how to access information.

Like larger newspaper companies, community papers have tried to diversify by publishing special sections, books, event marketing and, of course, website advertising. One paper produced a 300-page coffee table book with current and historical photos of Las Cruces, New Mexico. It has generated $125,000 so far. Hmmm.

One breakout session focused on website revenue. You can imagine it was very well-attended. But even with all the new and wonderful approaches people were taking, many of which are part of the COURIER website, it seemed every answer to “Are you making money?” had an asterisk attached because the newspaper was picking up some of the expenses to publish.

I left Charleston charged up and ready to go. I hope the staff doesn’t roll their eyes as they read this. And what about the 2 great ideas from all those publishers?

You all will just have to wait and see.


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