It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: "What do you get when you gather 760 newspaper executives and ask them how things are going at their papers?"
That's just what I did in late January, and a few of their answers came as a surprise to me.
Continuing a practice begun in late 2014, I contacted newspaper publishers, CEOs, owners and other top management throughout the U.S. and Canada to get information about the state of their newspapers. After a week, I've received just shy of 800 responses. I suspect that number will increase even more by the time I finish summarizing all the information.
It's an arduous task, compiling and going through this much data. In the time it took to write those first two paragraphs, three more publishers responded. By the time I finish writing this column, a few more will arrive.
Truth is, after about 300 responses, it is clear what the results are going to be. Answers don't change much after that. So with nearly 800 responses, it's safe to say we have a good idea what is happening in the industry on this day in February 2016.
Interestingly, this particular survey had the best response of any I've conducted. Papers of all sizes and types are represented in statistically reliable numbers. There are plenty of metro dailies, as well as tiny weeklies, and everything in between. Even a few monthly and online-only publications took part.
The most responses came from the Midwest and Southeast United States, in nearly identical numbers, which is usually the case. Very few responses came from Eastern Canada, which is also normal. It's also interesting that newspapers in the Midwest and Southeast U.S. appear to be the healthiest, which may (or may not) be an indication of why there are more papers in those areas.
One of the most interesting aspects of conducting these surveys is the ability to break the numbers up in a variety of ways. For instance, I can tell you how advertising sales at metro papers on the West Coast compare to those at independently owned weekly papers in Texas.
It's fascinating to speak at a newspaper association convention and share how their papers compare to newspapers in other areas. It's even more interesting to see how different types of papers in the same area are doing, based on their size, ownership and other variables.
I knew that newspapers were doing well overall. I just didn't know how well. As with other places I've visited recently, publishers I spoke with at the Michigan Press Association convention this past weekend shared that they were having very good years and their numbers are steady or growing. I visited with owners of paid circulation papers, free papers, community papers, collegiate newspapers, daily papers and weeklies. I spoke with several publishers who had started new papers that are doing quite well. It was inspiring to hear their stories.
I had planned to deliver an overview of this survey, so you could see for yourself how papers are doing in North America. However, I was struck by the results of one question and would like to spend the rest of this column sharing those responses with you.
The question: "Compared to three years ago, how would you describe the overall health of your primary publication(s)?"
My interest was piqued when I took screenshots of responses to that lone question, based on the types of newspapers.
By sheer coincidence, I laid out the various responses by group on my screen. The groups included:
• Independent newspapers, locally owned and operated
• Part of a small group (5 or fewer papers)
• Part of a mid-size group (6 to 20 papers), but act much like an independent paper with most of the work done locally
• Part of a mid-size group, with much of their work directed or done at a central location
• Part of a large regional group (20 or more papers in one geographical region)
• Part of a large national group, covering more than one geographical area of the country
While 26 percent of newspapers affiliated with large national groups and 21 percent of those in large regional groups indicated better health than three years ago, that number, represented by a green bar on my screen, increased as the newspapers indicated more local control:
• 26 percent : Large National Group
• 21 percent: Large Regional Group
• 33 percent: Mid-size Group with Central Control
• 36 percent: Mid-size Group with Local Control
• 40 percent: Independent, Not Part of a Group
With almost 800 responses so far, it seems that newspapers locally owned and operated are almost twice as likely to have experienced improved health over the past three years, compared to large regional groups. It seems, as the control of the newspaper gets closer to home, so do improvements in its health.
These findings are still preliminary and it's almost guaranteed that there will be plenty of surprises awaiting me as I dig through the numbers over the next few weeks.
One thing is clear: Newspapers are doing better than they were a few years ago, and most are reporting they feel good about the future. We seem to have turned a corner and attitudes and numbers indicated a solid future ahead.
So much to report. So little space.