If you live in a big city, you’re no doubt aware that metropolitan newspapers are declining in readership, advertising, and influence. Why then do we include small-town newspaper publishing as a sustainable livelihood? The answer is that contrary to what’s happening in cities, newspapers in small communities without a local television station are growing in number—and this provides opportunity! While smartphones and the web is overtaking print, the current statistics from the National Newspaper Association show that 30% of the adults have no Internet access at home. Another important factor is that communication is necessary for community sustainability.
Community newspapers serve people moving to small towns, metro adjacent communities, edge cities, and nearby faraway places that are either in the shadows of or away from metropolitan media that do not cover their local news.
People want to know the happenings, events, crimes, fires, birth, deaths, and opinions on both sides of issues confronting the community and 94% of them pay for their local newspaper. While there may be a community Web site, it won’t contain the breadth or depth a newspaper can provide. So the number of small-town newspapers has grown from 5,500 weeklies in the 1960s to over 8,000 today.
Sometimes people moving from a city purchase an existing small town enterprise. This is what Gary Meyer and Patric Hedlund did when moving from Los Angeles to the Frazier Park area to acquire the Mountain Enterprise. Or sometimes communities will take up the initiative themselves and create a community-owned newspaper, paying their staff from advertising sales, subscription fees, and donations in order to get the paper off the ground.
When Gary Meyer goes to newspaper conferences, city editors and publishers constantly tell him, “I’d give anything to own a small-town paper now.” Meyers attributes this to the fact that small-town papers are highly profitable in relation to circulation numbers.
Obviously, not every paper succeeds. Arguably, the major difference between papers that make it and those that do not is having an objective publisher with an awesome sense of community responsibility and an ethical backbone of steel. Equally as important, the community must perceive the publisher that way, because people look to their local newspaper for accurate information, but even more for fairness.
The limited number of staff a small newspaper can support brings with it the need to be a jack-of-all-trades, including newsgathering, writing, layout, and printing or arranging for printing. You may be called upon to demonstrate a reasonable understanding of subject areas as diverse as gardening, building construction and destruction, and local politics. And working under deadline pressure can’t be an anathema to you. So if getting out the news is a personal joy for you, this can be your future. In fact, it could be the most fun you’ve ever had.
Newspapers, like any other business, require funds to operate. Sources of funds include subscriptions, over-the-counter sales, advertising, and donations. The small-town newspaper is often circulated for free to all community members, making advertising revenue critical. Additional sources of revenue may come from printing directories and shoppers guides. Printing services can actually be a side business that provides significant support to the bottom line. The kinds of print jobs you can take depends on your equipment, your staff, and available press time.
Can small-town newspapers avoid the electronic age? No. In fact, the Mountain Enterprise started its online edition for which it charges for separately from the print subscription. Meyers says, “Online is the future. You need to put one foot in it firmly now.” After only the seventh issue since the launch of the Web site, it has improved advertising revenue. “It will pay for itself in the first couple of months.” He advises colleagues to “think of yourself as a news publisher, not as a newspaper publisher.”
Small town news publishing does not necessarily require print, especially where members of the community have access to the web. Local news can be delivered as a community blog. An example, the West Seattle Blog.
Newspaper publishing is a venerable profession at the heart of the founding fathers’ American dream and the First Amendment right of freedom of the press. Being part of continuing this tradition can be personally and professionally fulfilling.
National Newspaper Association of America
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