This commentary originally appeared on John Peterson's blog and has since been reprinted by numerous trade associations throughout the United States. Other Peterson comment can be accessed at Communitymediamatters.blogspot.com.
Community publications must distance themselves from the "newspaper crisis"
By John C. Peterson The Peterson Group johncpeterson.com
There are newspapers and there are newspapers in crisis, and the quicker some publishers explain the difference the better off they will be.
It's the big guys and then the local and regional papers, be they weekly or daily, free or paid. The big guys are in big trouble, but community oriented publications can remain healthy and even grow if they're smart about it.
I'll bet I had that conversation a dozen times in February at the New England Press Association annual convention where I was a speaker. I was reassured to find there are publishers out there who are doing just fine. Sure, some are hurting, but many are only down a few percentage points from prior year and that's not alarming in this economy. A handful said they were even up. I believe them because I know they put out good products.
If you're a good local paper doing your job, I'm betting you're going to be stronger when this is over. You just need to keep doing the things that make community papers valuable. Stick to your knitting and mind your Ps and Qs, go the clichés. And dont blink.
The franchise for the local paper is the collection process, news and advertising. Main Street and town hall and the local high school are our domain. Ask me to describe the formula for the successful local newspaper and I'll say the same thing I've said for 30 years. It's the owner's manual for the community. If it's important to them (the reader), then it needs to be important to us, was the drill for my reporters and editors. That means finding room for every reasonable press release and staying until the lights are out at the school board meeting. And yes, we may have to upset the mayor or police chief by asking hard questions.
When people say "The paper," you want them to be talking about you. The community newspaper should be essential for its users. Give that concept some thought. If you're doing your job you've covered all the bases in news and advertising. You've provided an updated slice of life in the communities you cover. My Swedish grandparents would call it a smorgasbord, something for every appetite.
Data collected in 2008 showed a 1.7% decline in advertising for the third quarter, 2.4% in the second quarter and 2.7% in the first quarter (all were measured against the same reporting period from the prior year.) Fourth quarter results will be available in late February. These results compare to industry-wide double-digit declines of 18.1% (third quarter 2008), 15.1% second quarter 2008, and 12.8% (first quarter 2008).as reported by the Newspaper Association of America.
Let's look at what's happened and what some of the big guys have done. They've lost circulation, cut staff and content, some have eliminated early week editions and others have stopped early week home delivery. The new wave is a hybrid e-paper, an early week electronic edition and late week print delivered. They have finally admitted that all days of the week are not created equal, and maybe immediacy was not everything they said it was in the past. Some of their web sites are also a confession acknowledging that people do care about the little news in their lives. Groups like Rotary and Lions and the Chamber of Commerce do contribute to the local quality of life; the big guys are either unwilling or unable to justify the news hole in the paper. Learn from some of these painful lessons, and ask yourself this question: How many people do you know that cut their way to success? Sadly, the problems of the larger papers are opportunities for community oriented publications. Their weakness is the local publication's strength, local news is their strong suit. So, don't just print that community news, showcase it. People aren't likely to get it anywhere else. You own it and you're a bigger piece of their information life because you do.
If you're a weekly, tell advertisers there's no guesswork about which is the best day to advertise. You create the event and people know when to look for it. You offer shelf life and that's the same thing as frequency. You likely have affordable zones with strong or saturation coverage. You sell proximity and that's where the people who find it easiest to do business with them reside.
Don't say circulation, say effective circulation. There can be a huge difference. We know big is not always better. Talk about the circulation that rings the cash register. I'm a newspaper junkie so none of this brings me comfort. But local publications need to pay attention to what has gone on, and step up. Yes, the industry needs to develop multi-media platforms but let those "e-world" buzz words also ring loud for your paper. Content, engagement and community are what local papers are all about, and have been forever. It is what keeps the good papers out of harm's way. Think relevance. The sooner local papers distance themselves from the "newspaper crisis" the better off they'll be. Create a marketing campaign to differentiate yourselves, script your sales reps to talk about it and arm them with pieces quantifying your strength and value. Tell them to "road test" the paper for accounts and point out the constituencies for news content. Count the number of paid ads in the paper (classifieds too) and tell them these people voted with their checkbooks that this is the place to communicate. Use testimonials. No one will tell your story if you don't. And, if you don't, then people will just think you're just another one of those papers in crisis. This is no time to hold back, the stakes are too high.
Creating success for community-oriented publications since 1995