Top four reasons some newspapers aren't having a good year
"It's a quarter to three," sang Frank Sinatra, "no one in the place 'cept you and me."
I'm not sure why that song comes to mind. It might have something to do with the fact that it's a quarter till three and I'm experiencing my normal Saturday/Sunday routine of sitting in an airport, this time in Sioux Falls, waiting to board my first flight of the day.
My week has been pretty much the same as every week since January. Sunday through Wednesday, I was home in Knoxville, Tennessee. On Wednesday, I caught a flight to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which would be my base for the next three days. The towns change, but the schedule remains pretty much the same.
I've spoken at a dozen or so conventions so far this year and visited more than 100 newspapers. Yes, I know. That's a lot of newspapers.
On Thursday, in Iowa, I spent the day with a small paper near the South Dakota border. The staff was obviously excited about spending the day together. The publisher showed me the wall of fame, covered with pictures of celebrities reading their paper. Included were pics of Barack Obama, Chuck Norris and Regis Philbin, among dozens of others, reading their copies of The Akron Hometowner.
The next day, I headed two hours north, where I worked with the staff of several free and paid papers in Southwest Minnesota. What a great day. A young, excited staff didn't want to leave as each session ended.
At lunch, the publisher, who I had met at several MFCP conventions over the years, walked me to a historic restaurant two blocks away, where we had a conversation I have with a lot of publishers. I asked how his papers were doing. "We're doing really well," he told me. "That seems to be the case here in Minnesota. It's a really good year for community newspapers."
Replace Minnesota with another state or province and I've heard these same words from publishers from California to New York this year.
With so many newspapers reporting a really good year, why are there still newspapers who aren't? I thought about this as I drove to the airport this morning (the roads are pretty clear at 2 a.m. in Sioux Falls, making it safe to think while driving) and came up with what I'm calling:
My top four reasons some newspapers aren't having a great year
Reason 4: Economic stresses in communities. Some of you follow my travel blog, kenandkevinroadtrip.com, and know that, in my spare time, I've taken backroads all over North America to meet the folks who live in "out of the way places." On a recent trip through the Desert Southwest, I was surprised at how abandoned many small towns seemed. In more than one town I visited, the newspaper was the only business open on Main Street. Let's face it, it's hard to keep newspapers flourishing in places where there are no businesses to support the products.
Reason 3: Family businesses just aren't what they used to be. Newspapers have traditionally been family businesses. I work with several newspapers who have been family business for three or four generations. Like any business, newspapers suffer when there's no generation to continue the tradition. It's hard to imagine that little Johnny wants to be a rocket scientist instead of a reporter, but it happens. Sure the papers can be sold, but papers tend to lose the advantages of community journalism when they become part of a larger group and lose that local connection.
Reason 2: Short term profit over long term sustenance. Sure, cutting staff, pages and quality can be a boon for next month's bottom line. But what about next year? If your answer is, "We'll find something else to cut next year," you're likely to find out too late that you've cut yourself out of business. That's one reason I enjoy working with El Clasificado, in Los Angelos. They invite me to California every couple of years to train their staff. I love their business attitude which puts a premium on planning for future growth. Reason 1: Large corporations that just don't get it. In the past 24 hours I've had interesting conversations with two former managers of papers that were part of a large primarily metro newspaper group. Both had left on their own accord, after seeing their parent companies cut their papers to the point that they were "cookie cut" mirrors of their former selves.
The first moved one state over and became editor of a great community paper, where she is very happy and has no regrets about leaving the corporate world. The other was a publisher in the same group, but on the East Coast. After watching his newspaper being cut to the point where he couldn't stand it any longer, he began a successful competing newspaper in the same city. He is currently making plans to deal with the significant growth of his product, now five years old. I'll be driving north to meet with the staff of his free paper tomorrow.
It's not just metro newspapers that make this mistake. I see groups of smaller papers making this same mistake frequently. At conventions, it's easy to tell which type of paper people work for. Managers at locally focused papers, no matter the size, are the ones who obviously enjoy their work and find meaning in community journalism. Those who work with papers that are managed by someone in a place far away, usually look stressed and often share their war stories with me privately.
Fortunately, these four reasons don't apply to most newspapers. That's why it's such a good year at most community papers. If your paper isn't having a great year, perhaps it's time to come to terms with the real reasons.