The Biggest Thing in Journalism Might be Going Small
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.