I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I don’t plan these columns in advance. Most months, I receive an email from newspaper industry executive Jack Guza reminding me that my column is due in a day or two. Jack’s messages generally prompt me to take a seat in my upstairs writer’s lair to pen a few words, typically about 800, concerning the current state of newspapers. After 25 years of writing this column, I’ve found that my most popular tend to be columns written just before deadline. And like most writers, I’ll use any excuse to delay the inevitable.
It’s early January, and as I drove home tonight after spending the day with a newspaper staff in Tennessee, it dawned on me that I have a lot to say to my readers as we begin this new year. Possibly inspired by today’s group, as well as several interactions I’ve had with publishers in recent weeks, I’d like to share some thoughts about where I see community newspapers heading as we begin 2023.
I noted a few months back that my schedule has become surprisingly busy. Most everyone in the newspaper consulting work that I know noticed a serious drop in requests for help beginning a few years ago. Several stopped working with newspapers altogether and moved into consulting with other industries. I wasn’t immune. Newspapers requesting my help took a serious dip three or four years ago. I used the opportunity to begin a couple of new businesses – using much of the advice I had been giving others for the past 30 years – which have turned out to be quite successful, figuring my days working with newspapers were near an end.
Then came 2022. I can’t explain why, but the phone – and inbox – began ringing…a lot. I was busier than ever in 2022 – advising papers, redesigning papers, leading webinars, and fulfilling other requests. I hired additional staff to help with my other businesses to free up time to take advantage of the work offered by newspapers. My calendar in 2023 has just a few free days remaining. I’m busier than ever.
Which begs the question: “What is going on?”
I can only make an educated guess, but I’m sensing undeniable correlations as I hear from and visit publishers these days. I’m learning that many locally owned community papers had an excellent year in 2022, prompting them to reinvest in growing their papers. Unlike in prior years, I hear from papers with increasing readership and advertising revenue.
Luck? Maybe a little. But most of what’s happening at these papers can’t be attributed to chance. Here are some of the correlations I’m seeing in growing community papers:
Growing papers invest in their communities. Locally owned papers have an undeniable stake in their communities, causing them to invest more heavily in those areas.
Growing papers invest in their staff. In my experience, it’s rare to see staff cuts at successful papers. We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t cut your way to growth.” I’ve certainly found this true in my businesses and the newspapers I’ve worked with over the years. Growing papers train and reward their staff, creating better newspapers.
Growing newspapers create additional revenue by creating income through related products, not “get rich quick” schemes. Papers I’ve worked with that experience growth tend to generate niche publications, quality special sections, and other products that fit the work they’ve been doing for decades.
Growing papers maintain a quality online presence while understanding most of their income will come from print products for the foreseeable future. Planning for the long term doesn’t mean giving up on the successes of the past.
Growing papers have management and staff that work together as teams. Reporting to “unknown” voices in far-away cities leads to disjointed staff, often competing against each other instead of working together toward a common goal.
Growing newspapers make their customers feel important. While visiting with circulation staff at newspapers, I often suggest writing personal notes on each resubscription notice that goes out. It’s just one of many ways we make readers feel important.
I could go on, but I’m guessing you get the idea. There are a lot of community papers doing well right now. Sometimes I feel a little overwhelmed by the requests but feel very fortunate at the same time. My 2023 calendar includes consultations, redesigns, staff training events, and more. I’ve had to cut back on my convention speaking to keep up with all the requests. Most of the publishers who call me don’t need my help for their papers to be successful. They’re already successful. And that may be the ultimate clue to what is happening at these newspapers. Growing papers tend to invest in their communities and staff to succeed long-term, not just produce quick income in the short term.
My work today is done. 811 words.