COLUMNISTS MARC WILSON
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 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.