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

Sat, Aug 15, 2009 - Page 9

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.

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.”

Most community papers are privately held — often owned by the same family for several generations. In addition, smaller newspapers generally have little debt. Huge debts drove the owners of newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer and Star Tribune of Minneapolis into bankruptcy court to reorganize their finances.