‘We’re the smallest big paper you’ll ever come across’
February 26, 2015
A small but mighty newspaper covers agribusiness
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
The Sept. 11, 2014 edition of Farm and Dairy gives a whole new meaning to fat and happy.
Boasting six sections, the tabloid-sized weekly newspaper came in at a whopping 160 pages that week.
A two-section auction guide checking in at 60 pages and a 28-page rural marketplace carry the same abundant display and classified ads that were a hallmark of newspapers before the turn of the 21st century and the advent of digital marketing and publishing.
Not bad for a newspaper that just clicked over to its century mark, celebrating its first 100 years Oct. 11, 2014.
In fact, despite the ever-changing media scene, little has changed on the Farm and Dairy’s landscape. The newspaper still blankets coverage of farming and agriculture in Ohio and Pennsylvania. It is still the go-to resource for area auctions. It reports on the environment and the farming economy. It showcases tractor pull championships and publishes favorite recipes.
Last year, the newspaper won first place for Best Agricultural Story in the National Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper Editorial Contest for its coverage of solar power.
Nestled close to the Pennsylvania state line, Salem, OH, has always been the Farm and Dairy’s home. Salem is located halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, a traditional zone of business and industry, which has declined over the years.
As newspaper historians tell the story, Richard B. Thompson, Farm and Dairy’s founder, was born in southern Illinois with both printers’ ink and farming soil running through his veins. Harboring a lifelong desire to start a newspaper, he realized his dream in 1914 when he founded the Tri-County Farmer.
The Tri-County Farmer would eventually become the Farm and Dairy newspaper. Early on, Thompson forged a business union with a printer named Jim Lyle, founder of Lyle Printing Co. That company still exists as Farm and Dairy’s parent company.
The newspaper eventually found its way into the Darling family by way of J.T. Darling, who joined the staff as ad manager and purchased the Farm and Dairy in 1937. After his death, his son, Wayne Darling, took the reins. He had already been working as president of Lyle Printing and Publishing, and like his father before him, Wayne focused on the advertising and business end of the newspaper. During his tenure, the Farm and Dairy grew from a circulation of 6,500 to more than 33,000, averaging 50 to 140 pages each week.
Today, Scot Darling and Thomas Darling represent the newspaper’s third generation of ownership. They worked alongside their father for several years until he died in 2005.
For Scot Darling, who serves as Farm and Dairy’s publisher, these were some of the best years of his adult life.
“It was a wonderful experience to work with my family,” Scot said. “There is no substitute for that.”
The two brothers continue to work together. Thomas is president of Lyle Printing Co. and Scot is the chief executive officer.
At the College of Wooster in Ohio, Scot majored in geology. Like his father and grandfather before him, he was intrigued with the advertising side of the business and has devoted his career to the financial health of the newspaper.
“Growing up, I always thought I’d give newspaper work a shot,” Scot said.
In recent years, it has not been easy, and he recognizes a changing and shifting environment.
“We’re not blind to it,” he said. “But our print product is pretty darn resilient.”
Editor Susan Crowell grew up on a farm and earned a journalism degree from Kent State University. With stars in her eyes and her back to the rural life, she longed for bright lights and big city journalism.
“I didn’t want to cover cows and pigs,” she said. “I had a giant chip on my shoulder, and I did not want to have to tell my college friends I was a rural reporter.”
Nevertheless, she married a local man, and in a place where there are not many jobs for journalism majors, she joined the staff of the Farm and Dairy in 1985. She quickly learned agriculture reporting is more about covering business than livestock, and now, 30 years later, she would not take anything for her rural journalism job.
“I never knew the depth and breadth of the agriculture industry,” she said. “Successful farmers are amazing entrepreneurs and business people.”
Her little rural weekly newspaper job has taken her to places she might never had visited if she had gone to work for a big city daily—far flung places, such as Russia, Israel, Chile and Mexico, where she covered international agricultural issues for her readers.
“This truly is a cool, hip time to be a part of the local food movement,” Crowell said. “People shake hands with agriculture three times a day—at breakfast, at lunch and at dinner.”
Farm and Dairy truly is a niche newspaper covering rural life and the business of farming—the good, the bad and the ugly.
“It’s not my job to be a cheerleader but rather report the news, objectively and truthfully,” she said.
The newspaper appeals to a broad audience, both on the farm and in the city, with paid subscribers spread across 48 states.
Unlike many community newspapers that cover a specific geographic area, Farm and Dairy’s community is more closely defined by subject matter and readership.
Farm and Dairy doesn’t cover local government, schools or sports, but the paper does have a capitol reporter who covers agricultural issues in state government. The newspaper has recently started covering the shale gas industry with an entire section devoted to that topic each week.
“We are now experts on oil and gas coverage, and we have been recognized even outside the farming community for this coverage,” Crowell said.
The newspaper is also recognized as the greatest source of information about auctions in the region, with ads heralding auctions for farms, construction equipment, trucks, tractors, homes, land, estate sales, coins and antiques.
A thick, dense section devoted to classifieds is billed as Rural Marketplace.
On the newspaper’s opinion page, Crowell writes editorials and runs syndicated columns by a writer with an agricultural perspective.
She employs a handful of reporters and a copy editor. Another employee handles composing. She also relies on a crew of freelance correspondents. There are no photographers. The reporters do it all, from writing stories and taking pictures to shooting and editing videos. They post news items on the newspaper’s popular Facebook page. They tweet regularly and use the Storify app.
Like many newspapers, Farm and Dairy uses social media to drive readers to its website. An e-newsletter keeps readers engaged between issues, and some readers are not even aware that there is a print edition at all, according to Crowell. Farm and Dairy has managed to brand itself as a resource for agriculture news with its format of little consequence.
Today the newspaper has more than 7,700 Facebook followers, and Crowell sends her reporters to social media boot camps to help them stay on the cutting edge.
“The digital publishing model has been the great equalizer among media, allowing us to publish daily or even hourly,” Crowell said. “We would love to have someone to write source code and resources to hire more freelancers, but we make the most of what we have.”
Delivering more than 100 pages each week to 30,000 subscribers proves Farm and Dairy has a lot to offer.
“Readers often ask us, ‘how do you do it all?’” Crowell said. “I just say, ‘we’re the smallest big paper you’ll ever come across.’”
Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Name of Newspaper: Farm and Dairy.
Owners: Scot and Thomas Darling.
Editor: Susan Crowell.
How long has the Darling family owned Farm and Dairy? Since 1937.
What is the newspaper’s circulation? Total paid distribution, 30,088 (taken from 2014 USPS statement of ownership).
Frequency of publication? Weekly; publication day, Thursday.
You recently celebrated Farm and Dairy’s 100th Anniversary. To what do you attribute its long life? Relevant, timely content that educates, informs and entertains, and it is delivered to a defined audience by trustworthy, respected writers. Also, valuable advertising, including the largest weekly listing of public auction advertising in the state of Ohio.
What are your top goals for this year? Continue to grow digital platforms, building our brand as a respected media company, while simultaneously establishing a young-farmer reader initiative for in-print gains.
What are you most proud of? The goodwill that the newspaper has built over 100 years. We also take pride in the fact that people trust and value what we do.
What is your newspaper’s most distinguishing characteristic? Our newspaper is unique primarily in the audience we serve: a multi-state, regional rural community. We don’t cover a local beat, so to speak, with police reports and city council coverage, but rather, we are reporting on the heartbeat of the rural lifestyle community, one that has deep and rich roots in this part of the country. In addition, we have carved out a loyal following among the tri-state area’s auction-goers.
What is your newspaper’s biggest challenge? In the long-term, maintaining and continuing to develop a business plan that is sustainable, considering our print product and the ever-emerging and changing digital platforms we use. In other words, we need to grow our footprints among both audiences to serve the current and emerging interests of the rural community. Our print product is nearly 100 percent delivered through the mail, creating another near-term and ongoing challenge to ensure timely delivery of our print product as the U.S. Postal Service continues to trim and redefine its distribution system.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in the community it covers? Hopefully, we are a benefit to the community, or else we would not exist, but I would like to take it further. I would like to think many of our subscribers depend on us to provide news they need to make informed decisions about their way of life, and we put them in contact with the vendors they need to make their operations more successful.
What do you love to hear from readers? Feedback—positive or negative. Fortunately, we receive a lot of positive feedback and, frankly, it is nice to know that what you do is appreciated.
What is one thing you will never change? Commitment to journalistic standards and ethics, and maintaining integrity in how we handle our business affairs, are a couple things that will never change.