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

The Inland Press study found daily newspapers with circulations of less than 50,000 were spending more on their newsrooms last year than they were in 2004.

But if they have largely avoided the Internet’s impact on ads and circulation, smaller papers have not been immune to the misery of the longest recession since World War II. Nearly one-fifth of their collective revenue evaporated in the first quarter compared with the same time last year, an industry study showed.

“It would be wrong to assume there is some sort of bubble over our market,” said Chris Doyle, president and publisher of the Naples Daily News, a daily newspaper in southwestern Florida with a circulation averaging about 64,000 during the six months ending in March. “We are becoming leaner, more scrappy and more aggressive than ever before.”

To cope with the recession, which has hit Florida especially hard, the Naples Daily News and four neighboring community newspapers — all owned by E.W. Scripps Co — have reduced their staffing nearly 30 percent.

For the most part, though, big newspapers are under more pressure. Denver and Seattle each lost a printed daily newspaper this year, while Detroit’s two newspapers cut home delivery to three days a week.

The shakeout could leave more big papers adopting the so-called “hyperlocal” approach that publishers of smaller papers have always focused on. Rather than filling their pages with material that is readily available on the Internet, smaller newspapers focus on the politics, business, sports, crime and community affairs occurring in narrowly defined geographic areas — a county, a town or, in some cases, even a few neighborhood blocks.

“If it walks, talks or spits on the concrete in our area, we cover it,” said John Montgomery Jr, editor and publisher of the Purcell Register in Oklahoma.

The weekly paper, based about 40 minutes south of Oklahoma City, had built up a circulation of about 5,000 by focusing on Purcell and four nearby towns with a combined population of about 17,000.

With a weekday circulation of about 73,000, the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee has been setting aside more space for local news and puts all national news through a community lens, said Tom Griscom, the daily’s publisher and executive editor.

“If you really want to read about the Iraq war every day, you are not going to buy our paper. You will buy the New York Times,” Griscom said.

Larger papers also may take a page from smaller ones by reducing the number of days that they print their editions. Many small papers are weeklies or don’t come out every day — another factor that has helped them stay out of major trouble.

Production and delivery costs are among newspapers’ biggest expenses, so more publishers are assessing whether it makes sense to drop their print editions on days that traditionally do not attract a lot of advertising — typically Mondays through Wednesdays.

Being small also makes it easier to stay tuned to readers’ interests, said Jeff Ackerman, publisher of the Union, a daily newspaper with a circulation of about 16,000 in Grass Valley, California, not far from the Tahoe National Forest.

“Too many newspapers have been operating in an ivory tower for too long,” said Ackerman, whose paper is based in a county with a population of about 100,000. “I answer my own phone. Some newspapers are just now trying to develop relationships with the local communities they cover. Ours has been going on for 144 years.”

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