By the editors of Media Life
If you were to ask your big city newspaper reporter to describe the typical American newspaper, he or she might say The Chicago Tribune or perhaps The New York Daily News. Journalists, regardless of their abilities as reporters, tend to see the world that’s in front of them, not much beyond.
But ask a media buyer the same question and you’re likely to get similar answers. That makes sense, since most of their newspaper buys are going to be in top 10 or top 20 markets.
But the reality is far different.
Your typical American newspaper is not in a big city, or even a small city. It’s not a paper with a circulation of even 70,000 or 50,000.
Your typical American newspaper, the real American newspaper, is tiny, with a daily circulation of maybe 8,000, and often smaller. It’s not in Chicago or New York but out there in the small towns of America.
And there are hundreds and hundreds of them, far more than there are Chicago Tribunes and New York Daily Newses.
Examples: The Red Bluff Dailty News in Red Bluff, Calif., circulation of 7,500, according to Wikipedia; The Chickasha Express Star, in Chickasha, Okla., 4,600; The Taunton Daily Gazette in Taunton, Mass., 6,700; The Sentinel in Carlisle, Pa., 8,000.
Small newspapers are interesting in themselves for what they can tell us about life in small-town America, but Media Life’s interest goes beyond that, to what they can contribute to the reinvention of the American newspaper, the subject of this series.
It could be a lot.
Small papers are doing far better than the big dailies. While they took a big financial hit in the recession, they’ve largely come back, as the major dailies did not. They’ve suffered far less from the digital onslaught.
They make money, and they are profitable, if not as profitable as in the past.
The question is this: Why are they succeeding?
What can the big papers learn from them, if anything? Can their success be scaled?
For sure, small papers have some built-in advantages, the biggest being that their nearest competitors are off a safe distance away.
But much of their success is of their own making.
What follows are some of the qualities of the real American newspaper. To be sure, there are exceptions, but as a rule they hold for the majority most of the time and more often than not.
1) They have deep roots in their communities and they keep their communities connected. They cover the local goings-on, from school board meetings to Little League games to the annual town parade and the occasional bake sale for a worthy cause.
People turn to them for information such as lunch menus, honor roll listings and high school basketball scores, the things that keep small towns humming.
They don’t clutter their front pages with national and international news, knowing their readers can find those stories on TV or the internet.
2) They enjoy the support of local businesses, typically small businesses, as advertisers, by offering affordable rates.
3) They remain very print-focused. Digital abilities may run the gamut, from super-sophisticated to non-existent, but their core product is delivered in print. They don’t give away their content without something in return.
4) They are lean operations, and were so before the recession. So when the recession hit, they may have laid people off, but not in huge numbers, as at the bigger papers. That meant a lot less disruption.
5) They have experienced staffs. There’s lots of churn in the newspaper business, with so many reporters staying brief periods before moving on to the next larger paper for more pay and a better beat. They never really get to know the towns they cover on their way up. Staff at smaller papers tend to stay, becoming part of the communities they cover. They are much better tuned into to what their readers want to know and to do those stories.
The one thing that can’t be said about these small papers anymore is that they are family owned.
More and more have been bought up by chains.
Several years ago, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway bought Media General’s 63 papers for $142 million in cash. While the deal included the flagship Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of the papers were small dailies and weeklies, and that was the big draw for Buffett.
“In towns where there is a strong sense of community,” he said at the time, “there is no more important institution than the local paper.”