Sat, Aug 15, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Small is becoming beautiful for many newspapers in US

While big national newspapers have shrunk in size and seen ad revenues drop, smaller publications survive with a ‘hyperlocal’ focus

By Michael Liedtke  /  AP , SAN FRANCISCO

Newspapers are hurting all over the US, but the pain is less severe at small publications.

Take the Blackshear Times. The weekly paper in Georgia fills an information vacuum in a county of 17,000 people who live about 120km from the closest metropolitan market, in Jacksonville, Florida. That has made it easier for the Blackshear Times to hold on to its 3,500 subscribers and keep its revenue stable in a recession that’s ravaging much of the industry.

“CNN is not coming to my town to cover the news and there aren’t a whole lot of bloggers here either,” said Robert Williams Jr, the paper’s editor and publisher. “Community newspapers are still a great investment because we provide something you can’t get anywhere else.”

The scarcity of other media in small and medium-sized US cities has helped shield hundreds of papers from the upheaval that is causing big city dailies to shrink in size and scope as their print circulations and advertising sales decline.

Less competition means the print editions and Web sites of smaller newspapers remain the focal points for finding out what’s happening in their coverage areas.

In contrast, large papers carry more national news, as well as local, and have many competitors, including Web sites and TV and radio stations. They report much of the news the day before printed newspapers reach homes and newsstands. Large papers’ Web sites also provide the news for free a day ahead of print editions.

Perhaps even more important, newspapers in smaller markets have not lost a big chunk of their revenue to Craigslist and other online classified advertising alternatives that have become the bane of large newspapers.

Print ads for everything from jobs to jalopies were a gold mine for newspapers until Craigslist began expanding an online service for free classified ads in 1999. Today, Craigslist blankets most major metropolitan markets while publishing about 40 million classified ads each month.

In 2000, classified ads accounted for nearly US$20 billion, or about 40 percent, of the US newspaper industry’s revenue. Last year, classified ads had dwindled to less than US$10 billion, or about one-quarter of the industry’s revenue. (Subscription and single-copy sales traditionally contribute just between 20 percent and 30 percent of newspapers’ revenue.)

Now it appears the highly profitable classified ads in large newspapers could dwindle to virtually nothing within the next few years, media analyst Mike Simonton of Fitch Ratings said, adding: “There is still more pain.”

Smaller papers have been defying the ominous trend, based on a recent study of the finances at 125 US newspapers of different sizes by the Inland Press Association, a trade group. The classified ad revenue among daily newspapers with circulations of less than 15,000 actually rose by an average of 23 percent in the five years ending last year, the study found.

Overall ad revenue for daily newspapers with less than 15,000 in circulation rose by an average of 2.5 percent in the same time frame. Meanwhile, ad revenue dropped 25 percent at daily papers with circulations greater than 80,000, Inland Press said.

“The bigger they are, the harder they are falling,” said Ray Carlsen, Inland Press’ executive director.

Smaller newspapers have also largely avoided the deep staff cuts made by the rest of the newspaper industry, which has eliminated more than 100,000 jobs since 2005.

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