Larry Banman: A niche still exists for community newspapers
December 16, 2008
The Rocky Mountain News was put on the sales block during the first week of December. The owners of the oldest newspaper in Colorado had been debating their options for several months after losing millions of dollars in ad revenues. The newspaper is owned by Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps, which purchased the paper in
Rich Boehn, president and chief operating officer for Scripps, said the best case scenario is that there might be somebody who has always wanted to own the Rocky.
The worst case scenario, he said, is that paper officials will be meeting in a few months and talking about, “severance.”
That is not a very encouraging picture for the Rocky Mountain News, and it reflects a trend for big-city newspapers across the country. There are several major papers across the nation that are for sale and one newspaper consultant called this a “terrible time to sell a newspaper.”
Denver is one of the last major cities with two major daily newspapers, a distinction, it would appear, that it may not have for much longer. The Rocky is not a small paper. There are currently over 210,000 daily subscribers with nearly 460,000 copies of the Saturday edition sold each week. A common misconception is that newspapers make money on subscriptions. Truthfully, the subscription money barely pays for the distribution costs. The real money in the newspaper industry is in advertising, and the Rocky reported losing over $1 million in classified advertising alone.
Many analysts point to the Internet as one of the main reasons for the decline of newspaper advertising revenue. People will take the path of least resistance and it is far easier to get information from radio, television and the Internet than it is to read a newspaper. It doesn’t matter that many of us still like the idea of reading a newspaper under a cup of coffee. Our culture is changing. When my generation wants to go to a movie, we look for a newspaper. Today’s generation pulls out a portable information device and has the answer within seconds.
Ironically, community newspapers continue to be strong. A recent survey showed that, in cities and towns served by a community newspaper with a circulation of 25,000 copies or less, 86 percent of the population read a community newspaper each week. There is no other media that has that kind of reach into those communities.
It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know why large papers are failing and small papers are holding their own. You can go almost anywhere to find the previous day’s sports scores, the news about the war in Iraq or the latest Wall Street trends. In fact, if you are near a computer, you can probably keep track of all of those in real time. A newspaper is printed once a day. By the time an edition hits the newsstand, it is probably already dated.
I can remember when I skipped the sports columns and human-interest pieces because I wanted to get the details about the previous day’s game. Now, I have probably already heard the score on the radio and seen the highlights on ESPN before I get to the coffee shop at 7 a.m. The only thing that interests me now is an opinion piece. I would read the Denver papers to look for the scores of high school games throughout the state but, frankly, they do an inadequate job of reporting the scores from the games in which I am interested.
Community papers have the opportunity to thrive because they do what no other media outlet has shown the ability to do ” report on community happenings. People want to know what their friends, neighbors and their children are doing and I don’t think they mind waiting a day or two to read about those things. They want to know what the town trustees decided at their last meeting. They want to know what their children may be having for lunch at school next Tuesday, and they want to know what time the local football starts on Friday night. Those are things you can’t get on a Blackberry.
A long time ago, a friend of mine told me the best way to earn a small fortune in the newspaper business was to start with a large fortune. We may never again describe somebody as a newspaper baron, but I think there is still a niche for community newspapers. The key, as it always has been in a competitive free-market system, is to find a niche and provide a service to fill that niche. In my opinion, that niche is to use community newspapers to provide local people with news about their own communities. They are going to go to other places to find the other stuff.
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