Then I remembered a group of newspapers based in the small town of Prescott, Ontario. With a decrease in the number of industry-related conferences, I’ve found myself visiting more places like Prescott of late.
You might call Prescott, located about an hour south of Ottawa, the epicenter of a group of community newspapers that serve the towns in that area. That’s where I spent two days with Beth Morris and the staffs of the six newspapers that make up the Morris Group. Three of the papers are paid circulation; three are free.
I had dinner with the staff of the Prescott Journal my first night in Ontario. There was electricity in the air as the group talked about the new equipment waiting in the new building we would occupy for training. New computers, new software and a new press all awaited editors and designers from the six papers the next morning.
When the training was done, I asked Beth Morris if we could discuss her papers. After all, while word on the street is that newspapers are struggling for survival, here’s a group of newspapers that are not only surviving, but adding facilities, staff and soon, two new publications.
Beth shared a very simple vision statement for the Morris newspapers: “A place where people like to work and customers want to support.”
She added that a key to a newspaper’s success is its staff. “It’s important to keep an eye toward staff. They all work hard. They know they have secure jobs. There is definitely a team spirit.”
She wasn’t blowing smoke. The staff I met in Prescott was, in a word, impressive.
We first discussed the three free papers: The Barrhaven Independent, The Packet (serving South Ottawa) and Business News.
I asked about the difference in free and paid newspapers. She noted that both have their place, but she doesn’t see many new paid newspapers in the future. Her two new papers will be free.
Beth emphasized the importance of customer service, which keeps advertisers returning. She noted this was a deciding factor for many advertisers who had several options when it comes to print.
Eventually, I turned the topic to the Manotick Messenger. The Messenger is a paid weekly with a circulation of 1,100. There are two people on staff, with the layout and production done in the Prescott facility.
I asked if it was possible to make a profit with a circulation of 1,100. “At best, it’s break even,” said Beth, “but it’s important to the people.”
When pressed she added, “This paper is important to the thousand people who read it. All you have to do is look in the eyes of a parent when a child is in the paper. Then you’ll know why we do this.”
Playing the devil’s advocate, I pressed even further. I wanted to know why she even cared if there was no profit involved.
“I care,” she said, “because I’m part of a long chain of newspaper people. It’s like a legacy. I’m not going to be the one to end it.”
If you’ve followed my work very long, you know that I was one of the first voices urging newspapers to resist the temptation to ignore online journalism. And you might know that I speak on topics related to online journalism at schools of journalism and industry-related events on a regular basis. However, it’s people like Beth Morris that give me optimism concerning the future of our business.
Following our earlier conversation this afternoon, my friend sent the following email: “Don’t take my statements earlier today as my saying that newspapers will vanish. I don’t think that’s the case at all. However, I do believe that in order to maintain survival, both the printed paper and the online presence have to find a way to complement each other.”
I think we might have found a point of agreement.