‘I now know the financial sacrifices my customers often make …’
June 5, 2013
Nogales International stays busy covering its newsy town
By Teri Saylor
Special to Publishers’ Auxiliary
If May is a typical month, then over the course of a week, a team of 15 employees publishes two printed issues of the Nogales International on Tuesdays and Fridays, updates the newspaper’s website daily, posts roughly three dozen tweets on Twitter (depending on what is going on in prep sports), and populates the newspaper’s Facebook site with links to articles and community events several times each day.
At 51, Publisher Manuel Coppola is old enough to remember when putting out a newspaper was much easier, and more profitable. Today, with concepts like “audience engagement” in play, the act of attracting and keeping readers and advertisers has become complicated and time consuming.
Newspapers must work harder for the same advertising dollars they were able to earn through their simple print editions 15 years ago.
Coppola loves his job, and he considers the print version of his newspaper his core product, the heartbeat of his entire news operation.
Despite the Nogales International’s fast-growing online element, Coppola loves to have subscribers call to complain about a missed delivery and ask for a replacement newspaper rather than shrug and turn on their computers.
Coppola, who grew up in this border town in southwest Arizona, jumped into journalism at the International as a college intern and later as a young reporter. He worked his way up the ladder to managing editor, but left the business after just two years to open a local restaurant and bakery called Sweets and Subs. He ran his restaurant for 17 years.
“The restaurant was a great place, and the experience was invaluable,” he says. “It made me see the other side of business, through the eyes of the advertiser.”
Coppola sold his restaurant in 2005 and went back to his first love—his hometown newspaper—now owned by Wick Communications.
For Coppola, customer service is ground zero.
“I now know the financial sacrifices my customers often make in order to advertise,” he says. “At the restaurant, I came across so-called ad salespeople who were basically order takers. They would swing by to ‘pick up’ ads and ask me ‘you got anything for me?’”
Today, Coppola maintains a culture of excellent service in his advertising department, requiring his sales staff to get to know their customers on a personal level, and to take a more rounded approach to sales.
“If the sales staff succeeds, we succeed,” he says.
Nogales, the seat of Santa Cruz County shares a border with Mexico. The official border crossing there is massive, the largest land port in Southern Arizona.
But there are other unofficial border crossings.
A Swiss cheese landscape of tunnels provide illegal entry into the U.S. from Mexico. Some news outlets report more than 70 tunnels have been discovered since 2008.
“The majority of the tunnels are just pass-throughs for some people to deliver drugs, or a way for others to head north and east to look for work,” Coppola says. “The border is monitored, but some people still manage to get past the check points and onto I-19, which takes them away.”
Interstate 19 is a short corridor extending from Tucson to Nogales, where it connects to Federal Highway 15 in Mexico. This corridor is part of the CANAMEX Corridor, a trade corridor stretching from Mexico up to Alberta, Canada.
The immigrants who make it across the border illegally head for the hills and deserts. Some of them don’t make it.
“We cover stories on these crossings all the time,” Coppola says.
Nogales is a newsy community.
“Smuggling and immigration are big national issues and local issues too,” Coppola says. “We have exciting opportunities to cover news.”
And Nogales is much more than that.
The community sits at an elevation of 4,000 feet with mild temperatures perfect for growing the grapes that have transformed this scenic region into a mecca for wine lovers and a haven for outdoor enthusiasts.
Produce is the main industry, but crops are seasonal, and the unemployment rate is high. Tourism and retail trade have fallen in recent years. But crime is falling, too.
After Coppola sold his restaurant and returned to the newspaper where he got his old managing editor job back, he brought along the skills of a small-business operator.
“It was great to come back,” he says. “I love the editorial side, but it was a big surprise that after I had been back for six months I became publisher.”
He also serves as advertising director.
“We do it all, and that makes it interesting and fun,” he says. “We get to play all the parts.”
Parent company Wick Communications issues bottom line expectations, but give publishers the leeway to reach their goals.
Coppola has learned there is strength and knowledge in numbers.
“Working with other community publishers is great. We help each other,” Coppola says. “And being from this community also helps.”
Still, the work is challenging and he faces the same situations as all other community newspaper publishers, such as fending off folks who want their names left out of the paper for traffic offenses. He leaves most of the writing to his journalism staff but pounds out one editorial a week and occasionally covers the town council, county commissioners or school board.
“We are a mainstream newspaper. We do a lot of government reporting and lots of business reporting,” he says. “We cover the cop shop and drug smuggling too. Smuggling is an old story, but we still cover it.”
The newspaper was founded in 1925. Its circulation is 4,200, sold mostly through news racks, with 18 percent delivered through the U.S. Postal Service, Coppola noted.
His newspaper has embraced the Internet and social media, although he is realizing little revenue.
A paywall protects most of the online content, but viewers can access a few free pages before being subjected to an online subscription rate of $5 a week of online access, $16 for six months or $35 for a year. Online access is value added to print subscriptions.
“Our ad reps use social media to keep up with local businesses,” Coppola says. “We are on board with Facebook and Twitter, and we post stories and send tweets. The Internet helps us reach a larger audience.”
Indeed, readership is increasing, with Google searches driving a wide range of readers to stories on the Nogales International’s website. Coppola doesn’t even know most of these readers. Others are former residents who have moved away and are still interested in their hometown.
Coppola also takes an active role in the fight to maintain newspapers’ hold on public notices.
He is proud of the aggregate public notice site the Arizona Newspaper Association has had in place since 1998.
Coppola and his newspaper have a lot at stake, deriving 25 percent of its budget from public notices. He also relies on public notices for editorial content.
“We run stories on trustee sales and property seizures, which are advertised through public notices,” he says.
The Nogales community is home to a variety of law enforcement agencies: U.S. Customs; border patrol; FBI; state police; local police and the county sheriff’s department.
“They seize a lot of property,” Coppola says.
And that makes for a healthy lineup of public notices.
Every year, the fight to hold onto public notice advertising gets harder; business gets more competitive, and serving the community becomes increasingly complicated.
But Coppola has no intention of backing down.
“I’ve been back at the newspaper for 18 years, and it’s getting rough on this 51-year old body,” he admits. “Transitioning out is a scary thought. What would I do?”
He plans to work for the rest of his life. There’s nothing he’d rather be doing than what he is doing now.
He admits his crystal ball vision is cloudy, but through the fog, he can see that the Internet will continue to play a big role in his business model.
Meanwhile, he will do the best he can to provide hard-hitting coverage of local politics, general news, immigration, and border issues.
And he will continue to deliver the message that Nogales, just like towns everywhere, is a fun, safe, livable community.
Newspaper Name: Nogales International
Publisher: Manuel Coppola
When do you publish and what is your circulation? Tuesdays and Fridays. 4,200 circulation.
How many people are on your staff? 15.
What is the most rewarding aspect of being publisher of a community newspaper? It’s my community. I was born here. It keeps my finger on the pulse of what is going on with my neighbors. It gives me a chance to play up their successes.
What are some of your top goals for the year? Turn up the dial on our hard-hitting coverage of local politics, immigration and border issues, while increasing our advertising base to allow for a larger news hole and better serve the community.
What makes you most proud of your newspaper? We are not afraid to tackle the hard issues no matter how uncomfortable it gets for anyone involved. I like that the regional/metro media comes in and follows our lead on much of our content.
What is your newspaper’s most distinguishing characteristic? We cover news on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border as it pertains to our readership.
What are your newspaper’s biggest challenges? The economy and having to do more with less.
How do you view your newspaper’s role in your community? As a watchdog.
What do you love to hear from readers? “I didn’t receive my newspaper this morning. Can you send one out?”
What do you hate to hear from readers? “Cancel my subscription.”
What is one thing you’d never change? The focus of the newspaper—to provide local news, sports and information, good and bad versus becoming a “newsletter” or toady for the power structure.