The Big­gest Thing in Jour­nal­ism Might be Go­ing Small

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As the for­mer go­liaths of the news­pa­per in­dus­try of the past strug­gle for read­er­ship and fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity, ev­ery­one knows a new path needs to emerge for a modern news­pa­per to sur­vive.

Some think the way is dou­bling down on the bets they’ve taken. Mod­ern­ize, stream­line the news­room, cut the fluff from the pages, get more work from the in­di­vid­u­als in­volved. There are vari­ants on that but they all boil down to try­ing to keep what made the pa­pers great, cut­ting costs to im­prove prof­itabil­ity, min­i­mize coverage on small towns and small top­ics, and slowly, care­fully build­ing back a read­er­ship.

Oth­ers imag­ine a fu­ture that is mostly dig­i­tal. With the “long reads” a thing of the past, fo­cus­ing on short con­tent, pack­aged in eas­ily-scanned, searched, saved and shared tid­bits that get the gist of the story across. Be first with the break­ing news, worry less about con­text. Em­brace the Face­book and Twit­ter gen­er­a­tion.

A third is some­where in be­tween, de­fined by tak­ing a par­ti­san stand on most things and em­pha­siz­ing rhetoric and polemic over the once-her­alded com­bi­na­tion of “con­tent and con­text”. It is a strange para­dox, that tak­ing an ex­treme po­si­tion where the de­mo­graph­ics say the to­tal au­di­ence is small could mean the high­est per­cent­age mar­ket share in that seg­ment is avail­able, but for some it works. It just is not for ev­ery­one.

There is now, how­ever, a fourth path, one qui­etly carved out by Joe Smyth, the son of a news­man him­self, who has built his fi­nan­cially-sta­ble modern news­pa­per “em­pire”, In­de­pen­dent Newsme­dia Inc., also known as INI, by do­ing a num­ber of things many would think are crazy.

Thing Num­ber 1: The com­pany’s news­pa­pers are all lo­cally laser-fo­cused. No na­tional or in­ter­na­tional news. No “break­ing news”. No ed­i­to­ri­als or po­lit­i­cal en­dorse­ments. Like the de­tec­tives in the old TV se­ries “Drag­net”, its re­porters are look­ing for “just the facts”.

Thing Num­ber 2: Even though the economies of larger mar­kets might seem a bet­ter choice, the 25 news­pa­pers in Smyth’s com­pany are very much smaller com­mu­nity pa­pers. The com­pany serves small mar­kets in places such as Florida, Ari­zona, Delaware and Mary­land, for ex­am­ple, and stays out of the big city mar­kets.

Thing Num­ber 3: The news­pa­per chain is owned by a non-profit, op­er­at­ing more or less as a pub­lic trust. But are these choices truly crazy? When you an­a­lyze each in turn, they are in fact some of the clear­est wis­est choices one might have made to not just sur­vive but truly thrive in the field.

Thing 1, the “just the facts” ap­proach, makes it eas­ier to in­clude the news that mat­ters to a com­mu­nity, and at a lower cost over­all, than longer more in-depth jour­nal­ism might re­quire.

Thing 2, the fo­cus on the smaller com­mu­ni­ties fills in that very im­por­tant gap the big­ger pa­pers left when they aban­doned lo­cal coverage in fa­vor of more in­volved na­tional and in­ter­na­tional coverage.

The com­bi­na­tion of Thing 1 and Thing 2 also has other ben­e­fits, such as elim­i­nat­ing the need for re­porters trav­el­ing any ma­jor dis­tance from home base and the abil­ity to com­pletely drop sub­scrip­tions to ex­ter­nal na­tional and in­ter­na­tional wire ser­vices. You want that kind of news, you can get it else­where, Joe Smyth and cur­rent INI CEO Ed Dulin fig­ure.

What the news­pa­pers do cover are com­mu­nity sto­ries such as school fundrais­ers, a new busi­ness open­ing lo­cally, in­di­vid­u­als do­ing good for their towns. Things oth­ers might con­sider overly light in their na­ture. But it is not al­ways that way. One of the group’s news­pa­pers, The Sal­is­bury In­de­pen­dent out of Mary­land, last year did de­tailed and thought­ful re­port­ing re­gard­ing the lo­cal opi­ate epi­demic – and right­fully won a pub­lic ser­vice award for that coverage. The Okee­chobee News, an­other of their pa­pers, also won ku­dos for its coverage of lo­cal lake pol­lu­tion, caused through a com­bi­na­tion of agri­cul­tural runoff both from com­mer­cial en­ter­prises and lo­cal home­owner lawn care, and leaky sep­tic tanks. It drew in­ter­est of a kind only a lo­cal com­mu­nity could care about as much.

The key to all is fo­cus­ing on what mat­ters to the com­mu­ni­ties in­volved, and not shy­ing away from ei­ther the tough or what some might call the “fluff” lo­cal sto­ries that mat­ter to its read­er­ship.

Thing 3, the move to be­ing owned by a non-profit (that Smyth him­self set up), does mean it not only can but must op­er­ate very dif­fer­ently from other kinds of news en­ti­ties. In such an en­ter­prise, and es­pe­cially in this one in how it is ac­tively struc­tured, there is no “big money” to drive mas­sive strate­gic de­ci­sions to change di­rec­tion or per­haps sell out down the line with a ma­jor ac­qui­si­tion of­fer. It also min­i­mizes the dis­tor­tion of man­age­ment em­pha­sis that con­stantly fo­cus­ing on more profit for share­hold­ers, ei­ther pub­lic or pri­vate, can cre­ate. As a non-profit, for ex­am­ple, the com­pany isn’t likely go­ing to cre­ate the ma­jor suc­ces­sion havoc when the pri­vate own­er­ship passes on to a next gen­er­a­tion.

Be­ing a non-profit does not mean the com­pany doesn’t make any money. Many for­get that. Just as in any go­ing en­ter­prise, the in­com­ing funds from sub­scrip­tions and ad­ver­tise­ments still need to be larger than the out­go­ing costs for fa­cil­i­ties, re­porters, print­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion of the pub­li­ca­tion.

It also does not guar­an­tee tough de­ci­sions will not need to be made, ei­ther. When the 2008 eco­nomic cri­sis hit the U.S. and small towns very hard, pa­pers like The Okee­chobee News had to cut dis­tri­bu­tion to three times a week and ev­ery­one at the com­pany took a 10 per­cent pay cut.

Be­ing a non-profit also doesn’t mean stay­ing stag­nant ei­ther. The very news­pa­per they own that won that pub­lic ser­vice award for its sto­ries about the opi­ate cri­sis, The Sal­is­bury In­de­pen­dent, was founded only two and a half years ago. And last year the com­pany bought four news­pa­pers serv­ing smaller mar­kets in Ari­zona.

Through it all, with a non-profit struc­ture it does mean the com­pany is able to avoid the knee-jerk re­ac­tions that can hap­pen when the ma­jor fi­nan­cial swings more com­mon at larger, higher-mar­gin pa­pers have to hap­pen.

The news­pa­per chain has also built on its pub­lic trust as­pect and worked hard to cre­ate a tight con­nec­tion be­tween its pub­li­ca­tions and those who read it. Each pa­per is care­fully tracked to en­sure what it cov­ers mat­ters to its au­di­ence and serves it well. What does not work gets dropped and what does work gets more at­ten­tion.

Ul­ti­mately, what mat­ters for In­de­pen­dent Newsme­dia Inc. is not just a busi­ness but, in a sur­pris­ing way, the whole idea of what a news­pa­per is. As CEO Ed Dulin pointed out in a re­cent in­ter­view on the topic, “Our mis­sion is to­tally dif­fer­ent from a Gate­house or a Gan­nett. Our mis­sion is jour­nal­ism. Their mis­sion is all about the bot­tom line.”

Many years ago a ma­jor man­age­ment guru made the point that when one cre­ates a busi­ness the one thing that a busi­ness should never be about is making a profit. Para­phras­ing many pages of the­ory, what he said in­stead was that if your busi­ness had a good idea, was com­pet­i­tive, was struc­tured prop­erly and mat­tered to your cus­tomers, prof­its would fol­low. He fur­ther said that be­ing fo­cused so much on the money side of things of profit could cre­ate havoc with the true higher call­ing of the en­ter­prise.

That – about as suc­cinctly put as can be – is why “ex­per­i­ments” like INI’S truly mat­ter. Be­cause jour­nal­ism is not al­ways about the big splash that wins the Pulitzers or be­comes the topic of the day on all the na­tional tele­vi­sion news. Whether the topic is about the fun new school play open to the pub­lic on Fri­day or lo­cal haz­ardous lake pol­lu­tion, the best jour­nal­ism is about con­nect­ing with and gen­uinely serv­ing the pub­lic that reads it.

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