November’s announcement of the merger of Gannett, once considered the apex of all newspaper chains, and Gatehouse rocked our industry. Gannett was once the strongest voice for the newspaper industry, but it was Gatehouse that absorbed Gannett. Gatehouse, however, has since adopted the Gannett name.
Now McClatchy Company, owners of the Sacramento Bee, Kansas City Star and 27 other daily newspapers across 14 states, has filed for bankruptcy protection.
These announcements and others have been reason for concern for small groups and independent publishers across America.
I believe, however, the future is different for community papers than what awaits many daily publications.
The marketing manager at one of our regional banking chains explained it to me this way: “I won’t advertise in a daily newspaper where readers only look for last night’s scores and skim the headlines,” she said. “But I regularly buy ads in weekly papers that are read page by page and remain in the house a week or longer.”
Community newspapers and shoppers are still the most effective way to reach a broad market. They also create consensus, cooperation and “hometown” pride. But community papers, too, also will have to change if they want to remain viable.
FIRST, CHANGES NEEDED: THE PRINTED PUBLICATION
Community newspapers will need to think smaller in their pursuit of advertising dollars and bigger in the variety of services they provide their community.
The average size of print ads will continue to shrink and so will the number of local retailers who are interested in any kind of traditional advertising.
This can be offset, however, with monthly pages of smaller ads sold in annual packages to health professionals, automotive tire, parts and service centers, women’s clothing and decor boutiques, places to eat, drink and party, home construction firms and repair centers and any other common themes a paper’s sales manager can imagine.
A themed page can be built around 12 same size ads, published a specific week of every month, at a contract price, for example. The paper should charge its regular rate for the ad space and add $10 per spot for process color. That charge would cover the printing cost and please the advertiser who is used to paying five to 10 times as much for process color. The lower price and being on the same page with like businesses should guarantee advertiser retention.
An increase in advertising revenue also will come from the creative sales of additional community support pages. These full pages, best produced in full color, cheer on and congratulate everything from the local basketball team’s successful season to the induction of an Eagle Scout or Catholic Education Week to FFA week.
The increased offering of community betterment pages opens an entirely new list of potential advertisers including medical and law offices, manufacturing and processing plants, and public service agencies that don’t normally do display advertising. But remember, these should always be offered as community support pages and never as “signature” pages.
There are also unlimited dollars available in ads solicited for well-written and produced “keepsake” sections. These are special tabloids produced to recognize a special anniversary of a local community organization, business, institution or industry, the founding or expansion or any other memorable occasion such as local citizens involved in World War II or Vietnam.
Additional publishing income ideas include publishing A to Z Guides for surrounding communities that feature a photo and copy about something exceptional in that town that starts with the letter A, then the letter B and so on. The revenue comes from selling advertising to businesses in that town.
Finally, don’t overlook selling strip ads, at a premium, on the bottom of the paper’s school pages, sports pages, farm pages, society pages and even the local opinions page. A local law firm or community college would be a great prospect for the opinions page location.
Remember, advertisers buy the local newspaper for the audience it reaches. Consider publishing as many editorial and advertising pages as possible in process color. Nobody buys a black and white television today so why would they be interested in a black on white newspaper?
Finally, consider restructuring the paper’s subscription price. The paper has to be at a price that will encourage the greatest number of subscribers. There are greater margins in ad dollars than subscription dollars. Don’t sacrifice advertising revenue for circulation dollars.
SECONDLY, THE ONLINE PRESENCE
Community newspapers are never going to completely disappear but there is no denying online publishing is the future.
Here are some of my thoughts on taking control of that future in your local community: Publish a daily blast email newsletter. Have subscribers to this free service acknowledge, when signing up, that the paper also may send them worthwhile commercial messages. Those advertiser emails might include a list of the daily specials at the local restaurants or the advance notice of a business liquidation sale.
Produce a live two-or-three-minute online news broadcast. Schedule two a day, weekdays, at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and repeat that broadcast until a new one is recorded. Consider starting with an audio version and later moving to a videocast when you are able to create a small in-office studio.
Run regular website contests in cooperation with local grocery stores, health centers, local manufacturers and banks. Do an Ugly Sweater contest at Christmas and Mother/Daughter Look-Alike contest for Mother’s Day. Sell the package to a specific sponsor to cover both the prize and use of the website.
Produce an interactive calendar so individuals can list their upcoming events, closings, location changes, all on your website. Our online calendar is tied to the sponsorship of our full-page monthly printed calendar in our N’West Iowa REVIEW.
Offer live video coverage of your community with specially placed cameras. Position one on Main Street so viewers can watch the downtown traffic. Set another where it is possible to see the current weather conditions including rain, blizzard and wind conditions. Snowbirds really appreciate seeing the weather back home as much as knowing at-home temperatures.
The list is endless, but the future is bright. Lots of changes are coming and many are already here. But don’t worry; instead, get involved. The future belongs to the innovative and determined.