Community papers buck the trend of the metros

December 2, 2014

By Kevin Slimp
Software Review 

Kelli Bultena, publisher of Tea (SD) Weekly, sent me a link to a column titled, “The Bad News About the News,” in the Oct. 16, 2014, edition of The Brookings Essay. The essay was written by Robert G. Kaiser, former editor of The Washington Post.

Hank Bond, co-publisher of The Greenup Beacon in Russell, KY, wrote recently to ask me a pointed question: “You keep writing about people saying that newspapers are dying. I don’t hear it. Who are they?”

Well, Hank, here’s another one to add to the list of about a dozen or so I sent you, and those were off the top of my head. As Hank would probably attest, he finally said, “Enough,” after I’d rattled off the list in just a few seconds.

Kaiser wrote several things in his essay that caught my attention, but this sentence stood out: “One immediate effect of all these changes and cutbacks is that there’s no paper in America today that can offer the same coverage of its city, suburbs and state that it provided 20 or even 10 years ago, and scores of city halls and state legislatures get virtually no coverage by any substantive news organizations.”

I called Victor Parkins, publisher of the Milan (TN) Mirror-Exchange, and asked if that was true of his paper.

“I think we cover it better. I would like for him to come to Milan and see how we do it. I would love to let him go through my binders from 10 years ago. Using digital technology gives us so many more contacts with our readers, and we use that as another tool in our arsenal.”

I feel quite certain I could have called 100 other publishers and gotten similar quotes, but I’m guessing you get the point. Which leads me to my next question: Why would Mr. Kaiser write this essay in the first place?

If you’ve been reading my columns for very long, you know I don’t take much at face value. I like to dig a little. Because, as a good journalist learns over time, it’s in the digging that the truth comes out. And if you go all the way to the end of the column, which is quite lengthy in its attempt to add another scoop of dirt on print journalism’s grave, you pick up this kernel, which goes a long way toward answering my question. I’ll quote it so I don’t get it wrong: “He is the author or co-author of eight books, including ‘The News About The News, American Journalism in Peril,’ written with Leonard Downie Jr.”

Remember what I wrote in a column last year about believing experts? It went something like this: “I don’t care if you’re watching a politician on TV, listening to your Sunday School teacher, or in the audience listening to an expert speak at a newspaper convention, I want you to ask yourself this question: ‘What will this expert gain if I believe what he or she is saying?’”

Perhaps Kaiser will sell a few more books.

If I might borrow a musical term, that seems a natural segue to my next topic: the survey of 612 publishers completed in October 2014. In my last column, I shared interesting information concerning the use of social media in newspapers and the effect social media has on newspapers’ bottom lines.

Today I’d like to see what publishers have to say about Mr. Kaiser’s topic. Specifically, I’d like to know if there is “no paper in America today” that can offer the same coverage that it did 10 years ago.

Question 15 in the survey of North American publishers asked: “What changes have you made in recent years to keep your product(s) viable?”

Boy howdy, did we get answers. How about this response: 56 percent of respondents answered that there is more emphasis on hyperlocal/local news than a few years ago. 

Hmmm. But Kaiser wrote, “no paper in America today....” I’m sorry. I’m digressing.

A whopping 60 percent report that they’ve invested in increased quality in production and design, 47 percent have invested in improved photography and 36 percent report they have invested in printing improvements.

Finally, drum roll please, 14 percent have increased the size of their staff.

Hmmm. Yes, but. 

One could argue that these are weekly papers. Obviously, Kaiser was writing about daily papers, though he never mentioned that in his column. Well, maybe. Maybe not. Thanks to technology, I can divide the survey responses by newspaper type. Guess what? Eleven percent of daily newspapers reported that they’ve increased their staff size over the past few years.

People really should be more careful when they make broad pronouncements like that. It’s like the time the dean of that world-renowned journalism school told me he believed there would not be one newspaper in business in the U.S. by 2018. In all fairness, he still has a little over three years to prove me wrong about that one.

So there you have it: according to a survey of 612 (we quit accepting responses at 612) newspaper publishers, there seems to be at least one newspaper that isn’t fitting into Kaiser’s scenario. 

And, just so you know, that survey is not for sale. © Kevin Slimp 2014

 

Kevin Slimp is director of the Institute of Newspaper Technology. To read his past columns, go to www.kevinslimp.com. To learn about the institute, go to www.newspaperinstitute.com.

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