Who'd have thunk it? Optimism creeps back into newspaper industry.

by Kevin Slimp, April 2012


Who'd have thunk it? Optimism creeps back into newspaper industry.
It’s been an interesting few weeks.

In five out of six cities, chairs had to be added to the rooms to accommodate attendees.

In New York, I received spontaneous applause when I told the audience to “quit running their newspapers as if all their business is coming from mobile” when most of their profits are coming from print.

In Texas, I was introduced as “probably the most important voice in the newspaper industry today.”

Geesh. The things people say.

In Pennsylvania, the woman who introduced me instructed the audience to stand so I could tell everyone I had another “standing room only” group in Harrisburg.

Here’s what I’m noticing. People are having fun again in our business. For a few years, conventions were overshadowed with a feeling of gloom and doom. It seems to me that 2012 may be the year that the vale of gloom is lifted and we start enjoying our work again as an industry.

Convention registrations have been up. Audiences have been larger. More people have been out on the dance floor. These are all good signs.

In South Carolina last week, an editor told me his paper had sent more than 20 attendees to their annual state convention. “It’s the first time we’ve done that in recent history,” he said.

Obviously it’s not fun for everyone. I had an enlightening lunch with two executives with a chain of metro papers a few days ago. I told them about the larger crowds this year and profits that seem to be on the way up, instead of down.

“I hear the community papers are doing well,” one of them said. “They really know how to meet the needs of their readers and it’s paying off.”

We discussed the “mistaken idea” - their words, not mine - that consolidation leads to profits. I mentioned that I had recently worked for a client who used to be a big dog with one of the major newspaper groups. She told me she was part of the inner circle that originally made the decision to send their production and customer service to other countries. When I asked how that went, she was very blunt. “It was a disaster.”

Apparently it didn’t take long to move everything back. I’ve heard the same story from publishers with other groups that had similar experiences.

My two lunch friends told me their company had come “perilously close” to moving production overseas. “Thank goodness we didn’t,” said one of them.

He went on to add that he felt it was “a mistake to assume that consolidation increases profits.”

Speaking of their efforts to consolidate properties, using central locations for producing multiple newspapers, he said that he would bet that it ended up “costing more money in the long run” than keeping everything in separate locations.

I certainly don’t know everything, but I will share a little of what I’ve noticed in my travels of late. It seems that papers I’ve visited that are produced locally, rather than at centralized facilities, seem to be having fewer problems with ad sales, reduced circulation and other problems that have made so much news over the past three years.

I could venture my own guesses as to why that seems to be the case, but I’m sure there are locally owned and produced papers that are having plenty of struggles of their own. They just don’t happen to be locations I’ve visited.

Having said that, I’ve probably visited more newspapers that are being produced in centralized locations over the past year than the other way around. And most of them seem to be doing well.

If I were drawing a chart of the entire newspaper industry, I’d probably divide the page into two halves. One one half would be “Profitable newspapers.” On the other, would be “Struggling newspapers.”

It probably wouldn’t surprise too many people in the business to know that community papers seem to be doing better than larger papers. It also wouldn’t surprise most industry professionals to hear that locally owned papers seem to be fairing better than newspapers owned by large groups.

If I might paraphrase my lunch mate, I believe this has a lot to do with understanding your community. Reporters, editors, publishers, ad staffs and others at our papers understand their communities better than someone looking in from the outside. And it seems to me that this results in stronger sales and increased circulation.

Time will tell, I suppose.

The dean of a major school of journalism told me four years ago that he believed there wouldn’t be a single printed newspaper left in the United States by the year 2018. I told him I believed that might be the dumbest idea I’d ever heard.

When he asked why I felt that way, I told him that I knew my community. And if all the other papers closed down, I’d start one and make a fortune.

It looks like I won’t have to do that. It’s been four years and none of the papers in my area have closed. I’m glad 2012 seems to be a better year for our industry. Even some of my metro clients are telling me things are looking up. I hope the journalism dean and I cross paths in 2018. I’d love to compare notes.