COLUM­NISTS MARC WIL­SON

Newspapers & Technology Magazine - - Contents - ▶ BY MARC WIL­SON COLUM­NIST Marc Wil­son is founder and ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of TownNews. He’s also au­thor of the re­cently pub­lished book, Kid­napped by Colum­bus, pub­lished by Flor­i­canto Press.

Will weekly news­pa­pers work in mar­kets long served by now strug­gling daily news­pa­pers? Would lo­cal own­er­ship of a news­pa­per over­come the prob­lems caused by ab­sen­tee own­er­ship?

“(A) new me­dia baron has emerged in the United States,” says a re­port is­sued by the School of Me­dia and Jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Pri­vate eq­uity funds, hedge funds and other newly formed in­vest­ment part­ner­ships have swooped in to buy — and ac­tively man­age — news­pa­pers all over the coun­try. These new own­ers… mis­sion is to make money for their in­vestors, so they op­er­ate with a short-term, earn­ings-first fo­cus and are pre­pared to get rid of any hold­ings — in­clud­ing news­pa­pers — that fail to pro­duce what they judge to be an ad­e­quate profit.”

In many com­mu­ni­ties, the era of the new me­dia baron is fail­ing. News­room staffs have been cut in half or worse. Cost-cut­ting has be­come the main, if not sole, method of gen­er­at­ing prof­its. So, many news­pa­pers have be­come less com­pet­i­tive at a time when me­dia com­pe­ti­tion from dig­i­tal com­pa­nies is in­creas­ing many­fold.

Is this cur­rent time of stress an op­por­tu­nity? An op­por­tu­nity for lo­cal own­ers to start weekly news­pa­pers (with strong dig­i­tal prod­ucts) to fill the ev­er­in­creas­ing void left in the wake of de­clin­ing daily news­pa­pers?

Own­ing, op­er­at­ing and financing your own weekly news­pa­per is a mas­sive chal­lenge.

I know. I ran my own weekly news­pa­per for 14 years in ru­ral Mon­tana. Quite frankly, I’m not sug­gest­ing there’s much hope for week­lies in many ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties any­more. The Age of Ama­zon has de­stroyed many of the busi­nesses that ad­ver­tised in the weekly I owned. My news­pa­per car­ried ads from a hard­ware store, a book store, travel agency, auto parts store, shoe store, depart­ment store and other stores that are long closed be­cause they couldn’t com­pete with prices and ser­vices of­fered by Ama­zon, big box stores and other com­peti­tors.

But I won­der if there isn’t an op­por­tu­nity to run week­lies in smaller and medium-size cities that have long been served by now strug­gling dailies.

The pri­vate eq­uity funds and hedge funds that own many small dailies have of­ten dam­aged the lo­cal long-serv­ing daily. Read­ers no­tice when night sports scores aren’t car­ried in the pa­per be­cause dead­lines have been moved up so early. They know when re­porters aren’t cov­er­ing city coun­cil, plan­ning board, sewer board and other meet­ings. They no­tice that the courts, po­lice and fire de­part­ments aren’t cov­ered ad­e­quately. They know that lo­cal break­ing news of­ten isn’t ad­e­quately cov­ered.

Lo­cal read­ers know when their lo­cal news­pa­per is be­com­ing a shadow of its for­mer self.

And they drop their sub­scrip­tions. And ad­ver­tis­ers lose re­spect for the news­pa­per, and drop or re­duce their ad­ver­tis­ing.

Ab­sen­tee own­ers re­spond to the re­duced sub­scrip­tions and ad­ver­tis­ing by cut­ting costs, which trig­gers more losses of read­ers and ad­ver­tis­ers.

A true vi­cious cy­cle that has dam­aged an en­tire in­dus­try and cost thou­sands of jour­nal­ists their jobs.

So, back to my ear­lier ques­tion: Can lo­cal jour­nal­ists and in­vestors start and suc­cess­fully op­er­ate weekly or twice- or thrice-weekly news­pa­pers in mar­kets once served by dailies?

The UNC re­port noted, “With­out sig­nif­i­cant fresh in­vest­ment, the bond be­tween news­pa­pers and their read­ers and ad­ver­tis­ers will erode. Strong news­pa­pers en­hance the qual­ity of life by pro­duc­ing jour­nal­ism that docu- ments a com­mu­nity’s life and iden­ti­fies its is­sues, while pro­vid­ing ad­ver­tis­ing that con­nects con­sumers with lo­cal busi­nesses.”

I agree.

I think there re­mains a de­mand in most com­mu­ni­ties for a good news­pa­per, whether weekly or daily.

But it’s far from easy or with­out great risk.

Too many jour­nal­ist lack busi­ness skills. A news­pa­per is one part jour­nal­ism and one part busi­ness — parts that can con­flict with each other.

I was a fool when I bought a weekly news­pa­per.

I had in­ten­tion­ally skipped the ad­ver­tis­ing cour­ses at my jour­nal­ism school be­cause I thought ad­ver­tis­ing was the “dark side.” My jour­nal­ism ed­u­ca­tion served me well as a re­porter at three daily news­pa­pers and five bu­reaus of The As­so­ci­ated Press.

But I had no clue about how to run a busi­ness or sell ad­ver­tis­ing.

In 1983, when I be­came ed­i­tor-pub­lisher-jan­i­tor of the weekly Big­fork Ea­gle, I also be­came the only ad sales per­son. I had to sell ad­ver­tis­ing or our in­vest­ment would be lost.

So — with the help of the lo­cal mer­chants who wanted an ad­ver­tis­ing medium in town — I learned how to sell and pro­duce ads at the same time that I cov­ered lo­cal gov­ern­ment, sport­ing events and learned how to run a “wet” dark­room, roll film, and run a lit­tle busi­ness.

I be­came a worka­holic and did what­ever I had to do to be suc­cess­ful — or at least to sur­vive.

My wife, also a jour­nal­ist, was a crit­i­cal player. She did most of the edit­ing and lay­out of the con­tent, and did some re­port­ing. We had two other full­time em­ploy­ees, and a part-time sports writer. Our cir­cu­la­tion was 1,900. We four times won the honor as the top weekly in Mon­tana.

I served on the cham­ber board, served two terms as pres­i­dent of the lo­cal eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment board, and be­came a Ma­son (be­cause my big­gest ad­ver­tiser asked me to).

When I first ar­rived in Big­fork, the lo­cal Lions club in­vited me to din­ner on a Mon­day night. At the end of the din­ner they asked me to join. I said I couldn’t be­cause their meet­ings were on Mon­day nights, our main pro­duc­tion night.

“What night would you like us to meet?” they asked.

“I couldn’t ask you to change your meet­ing night just for me.” “We’re all re­tired. We can meet any­time you want,” they said.

So, I be­came a Lion. They changed their meet­ing nights to Wed­nes­day. I did what­ever I had to do to be suc­cess­ful. That meant 80-hour weeks and no va­ca­tions ex­cept the an­nual press as­so­ci­a­tion three-day con­ven­tion.

So I know it’s hard. Prob­a­bly harder to­day even than back in the 1980s and 1990s, although to­day’s tech­nol­ogy makes it far eas­ier to pro­duce both print and dig­i­tal prod­ucts.

The bot­tom line is: There re­mains a need — a de­mand — for lo­cal jour­nal­ism, both for the good of the com­mu­nity and Amer­i­can democ­racy.

I’m con­vinced that lo­cal own­er­ship and man­age­ment make a dif­fer­ence. To start your own weekly, you’d need a strong busi­ness plan, in­clud­ing ad­e­quate financing. You’d need solid com­mit­ments from lo­cal mer­chants that they’d sup­port a strong weekly or twice-weekly. You’d need own­er­ship that is equal parts of jour­nal­ism and ad­ver­tis­ing and busi­ness smarts. There’s cer­tainly plenty of stress these days.

Stress cre­ates op­por­tu­nity.

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