Executive Session

Abernathy: Small Papers Must Seize Niche

Lots of people know about the digital strategies of the New York Times, the Washington Post and other major metros, but what does the future hold for the thousands of smaller, community newspapers operating throughout the United States? Meg Heckman explores that question with Penelope Muse Abernathy, author of Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability.  

Lots of people know about the digital strategies of the New York Times, the Washington Post and other major metros, but what does the future hold for the thousands of smaller, community newspapers operating throughout the United States?

Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explores that question in her new book, Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability, and an accompanying website.

Abernathy spent about five years working with community newspaper leaders to devise strategies to turn print-focused organizations into multiplatform publications. In all, she organized workshops at 100 newspapers; many of those papers larger than the 15,000-or-less-circulation publications that are traditionally considered community papers.

Abernathy argues for “a much more expansive and modern definition of community newspapers” based on mission and market as opposed to circulation.  The papers she studied include rural weeklies, dailies in small cities and even a 150,000 circulation Spanish-language weekly in Chicago.

During her meetings with leaders at these publications, Abernathy conducted surveys and discovered that a typical paper brings in less than 10% of its revenue from digital. But, as Abernathy stresses, there’s hope for more robust earnings if community papers can reposition themselves as venues for cross-platform advertising.

Penelope Muse Abernathy
Her book includes plenty of tips about revenue and technology, but there are also important lessons about leadership, the role of the press and the changing definition of community.

An edited transcript.

You've been advising newspapers on digital matters for years. Why write a book now?

Most of the attention has been focused on the large metros. They were the first to really feel it right after the turn of the millennium. They dealt with the loss of classifieds, they dealt with the loss of display ads and, of course, they felt the loss of subscribers. It didn’t really hit community newspapers until 2008-2009. Quite a few [publishers] told me that when it hit in 2008, they said, “oh this is going to be bad but it will bounce back.” By 2010, community newspapers were realizing that things had changed. Not only had they begun to lose the classifieds… their advertisers had been told they had to go digital.

How do the challenges faced by community newspapers differ from their metro counterparts? 

Regardless of whether you’re a metro or a community newspaper, you have got to have a three-pronged strategy addressing your cost side, your customer base and your revenue. It’s going to differ somewhat if you’re in a community that can be defined geographically, ethically or by a shared passion or a niche. Readers are loyal to a community newspaper that is a credible and comprehensive source of information about things they care about. You have to know what makes them loyal.

What surprised me was how quickly customer habits were changing, even in those areas that were not yet wired in the same way as cities like New York. Most people who live in rural areas commute into a wired area for work, and we pick up new technology habits at work. Then we had the advent of the smartphone, which makes it even easier for them to make that transition. You’ve got to find a way to shed your legacy costs without alienating your readers, but you also have to realize how fast their habits are changing.

Really smart papers like the Santa Rosa Press Democrat are realizing that the economics just don’t support publishing seven days a week, [but] they’re training readers, they’re not just saying “hey, we’re going to stop [printing] one day and you’re going to get it three or four days a week.”  Follow the technology, follow the customers and follow the money.

The third thing you need to do is understand what your advertisers need and want. Community newspapers need to reposition themselves as multiplatform by making advertisers understand that if they buy more than one medium, they’re increasing their reach.

Your book talks a lot about the modern definition of community. What does this mean for local newspapers?

The way we have traditionally defined community is through geographic boundaries of some sort. While readers still expect you do that, the Internet and social media has made  it much more easy for them to connect to people around the world. Readers have a much more expansive view of community. Community is where you live, but it’s also passions. That could be sports, parenting, hobbies, neighborhood gossip, politics [or] a whole range of things. Really successful, forward-thinking newspapers know that the best way you  can help people is to begin to create these special interest communities online. [Editor’s note: One example cited in the book is a hub the Fayetteville Observer created for military spouses at Fort Bragg that, during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, received more traffic than the paper’s homepage]. Your readers are taking an expansive view of community.

What are some of the digital challenges faced by community newspapers?

It depends on if you’re an independent newspaper or one owned by a group. Groups can spread risk across many newspapers. You don’t have that if you’re an independent newspaper. You’ve got to get it right; you really have to know your community. You also find that it’s really hard to shed legacy cost. We came across a situation [at a family newspaper] where the son realized there were people on the production side that he couldn’t figure out what they’d been doing for the last 25 years. But the father, who was publisher, didn’t want to lay them off. The father goes to eat at the local diner every day, and he would be known for hurting for someone’s livelihood. You have a connection to the community that helps you, but it also prohibits you from doing some of the things a group would not think about twice.

If you’re in a group, the problem is trying to get the attention of folks in the group about what is potentially going on in your own community. The whole purpose of shedding legacy costs is to turn around and invest in digital. You often have management that says, “Why do I want to invest in digital when it doesn’t pay what the print does? Let me just ride the print as long as I can.”

The findings in this book stem from research UNC students performed in several community newspaper newsrooms over the course of several years. What was the benefit of involving students in the project?

What’s been really interesting is how much the students have contributed to the project. They see the world very differently from somebody even 40 years old. What they brought to the equation is an understanding about why community newspapers need to think about themselves as existing on multiple platforms. This stretched over 10 semesters, and it’s still going strong.

How do you hope editors and publishers will use your findings?

I’m hoping to do two things. I’m hoping to educate the next generation of media folks. That’s why I’ve worked hard on the free, instructional website. It walks you through how you do a strategy and how you measure your progress. It also works if you’re a startup or a nonprofit group. You’ve got to do the three-pronged strategy, but you’re not going to   do it the same [in different communities]. The other thing I’m doing this summer in conjunction with Columbia University is putting out a multimedia case study so journalism professors and media management professors can use these case studies in class to show students how hard it is to implement these strategies. Leadership is implementation and how you get people to follow you into the brave new world.



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