Hope for the Unhappily Disrupted

Penelope Muse Abernathy’s ‘Saving Community Journalism’

David Cohea

Much attention online is being paid to the plight of newspapering. Every day I receive email digests from Editor and Publisher, PBS Media Shift, the American Press Institute, Nieman Lab and others about the challenges faced by the industry. (How full is your inbox?)

And while most of the ink is dedicated to the what the big guys are doing — vast digital infrastructure going into national papers like New York Times, cataclysmic shocks at the big metro papers and vast changes at Hearst (for the positive) and Gannett (well…), far less is devoted to the community papers my outfit — King Features Weekly Service — serves.

Industry leaders may be well ahead of the pack (time will tell), but the tail behind them is long indeed — many thousands of community newspapers . How are these newspapers faring in the rocky new world of digital disruption? If it’s so hard for the big fish, what chance to the little ones have?

Penelope Muse Abernathy’s Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) does a great job of putting those fears to rest. Abernathy is the Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to that, she worked for 30 years as a reporter and editor, and served in executive positions at the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

Community newspapers may actually have an equal and perhaps much better chance to survive and thrive — if they can move quickly to reposition themselves. Owing to the special relationship these newspapers have with their communities, it is quite possible to create a winning value model. Plus, owing to the special relation of community newspapers and the geographical space they serve, it may even be possible to create a lasting value independent of advertising revenue.

Early in the book, Abernathy observes that the traditional definition of a community newspaper — a non-daily with circulation of less than 15,000 circulation — is fast becoming obsolete as more consumers turn to digital for their news. Except for three national papers and some 100 remaining metro and regional daily newspapers — all the rest of the newspapers — small dailies, weeklies and monthlies and ethnic papers — operate under vastly identical conditions. Just about every newspaper in American is now a community paper.

Are newspapers still important to their communities? Abernathy puts the question this way: “If your newspaper ceased publishing tomorrow, who has the most to lose?” Shareholders are only one level of value; to that she adds readers, advertisers and vendors. Indeed, newspapers are the glue that holds a community together: Without strong newspapers, communities too often lose their sense of identity.

So how are community newspapers to survive and thrive in the new media environment? Changes in the industry have been horrific, losing half of its advertising revenue (some $20 billion dollars) between 2003 and 2012 and cutting four billion dollars in newsroom payrolls between 2007 and 2012.

To even begin to be competitive in the new media market, itt is essential that newspapers become able to deliver content across multiple platforms (print and digital), engaging readers and offering advertisers exceptional value.

To achieve this, newspapers must make a hard accounting of their strengths and weaknesses. They must reduce legacy costs, invest in digital infrastructure and find new revenue. The numbers required are steep; she writes,

In order to keep pace with the market around them — and to preclude obsolescence at the hands of competitors — newspapers need to have in place a strategy that aims for an average annual 6 percent decrease in costs, coupled with a matching increase in new revenue.

Over five years, that’s a 30 percent decrease in operating costs paired with a 30 percent increase in revenue.

Some of the cuts are painful, like deciding to cease printing daily or cutting back on distribution. Staffing has to be eyed carefully, ensuring that there are reporters who know how to write for write for both print and online and advertising sales people who know how to sell across platforms.

Abernathy devotes a good amount of the book to case studies at 10 small papers who had already made some of these tough decisions and are moving forward to varied results.

The Whiteville (NC) News Reporter saved on legacy costs by going from two issues a week to one, entering its reporters and sales force in training to help them “think differently,” and investing more in digital content to serve as the “equal sibling” of their print edition.

The 200-year-old Fayetteville (NC) Observer was one of the first newspapers to launch a website, and more recently it is one of the first to establish an online community of readers centered around special interests.

New digital tools are coming available to help newspapers provide readers with a deep analysis of local government information, including arrest reports, school-performance data, new business incorporations, building permits, etc. “In the process,” she writes, “newspapers help readers understand why they should care about this particular trend, what it means to them personally and to others in the community in which they live.”

There’s a real meat-and-potatoes section on advertising — how to continue to draw the loyalty of advertisers, the importance of structuring a rate card to sell across platforms (and have the staff experience to explain it). matching advertising messages to the medium, and becoming a truly consultative function:

Sales representatives who understand the unique audience that community newspapers are delivering, as well as the marketing needs of local merchants, can craft a compelling story as to why newspapers are a very viable twenty-first-century advertising medium. And in doing, so, they will deliver the money to support good journalism in the digital age.

No newspaper can do such broad and transformations on its own. Networking is vital — with press associations, broadcast media, nonprofit institutions, and citizen journalists. “In the twenty-first century, by belonging to a network — either a formal or informal one — a newspaper can more efficiently control costs, but more important, it can tap into resources that allow it to build community among readers across multiple platforms and grow new advertising revenue.”

In the end, Abernathy comes up with “three epiphanies” on the ultimate fate of community newspapers.

EPIPHANY 1: Healthy community newspapers support both our democratic and captialistic way of life at the most basic level — in our villages, towns, city blocks, and counties where we work, play, spend our incomes, and elect our pubic officials.
EPIPHANY 2: Good journalism alone is not sufficient to save newspapers. In a competitive situation, a newspaper must also have a flexible and ‘forward-looking’ business plan that addresses the needs of both its readers and advertisers.
EPIPHANY 3. The expectations of both readers and advertisers have changed dramatically in recent years. This requires that newspaper editors and publishers adopt a new way of thinking about community — and nurturing it.

What is needed is a radical reassessment both of a newspaper’s identity and the community it serves. The “news ecosystem” is a massive information convergence which may one day so absorb the individual providers so completely that community newspapers as such may cease to exist. However, communities aren’t going to evaporate in the same way. To be sustained, communities need identity, and that is something newspapers can provide.

By nurturing many communities across multiple platforms, newspapers build loyalty among readers first, who then attract advertisers who want to reach them. That is why it is critical that community newspapers take an expansive view of community so they can follow their customers and the money.

Now in its third printing, Saving Community Journalism has been beating a steady path through the industry. Ms. Abernathy makes frequent appearances at press association events (I recently met up with her at the Texas Press Association mid-winter conference) and her companion website is rich with resources.

Lots to think about and discuss here for publishers of community publishers. It is a how-to-book that offers hope where so much is increasingly dim.

David Cohea is general manager of King Features Weekly Service, an editorial service for 700 community newspapers.