Publishing a small town weekly newspaper is sometimes compared to running a dairy. It’s a lot of hard work with few chances of taking time off. Some are beset with a dwindling advertising base as locally owned businesses close. What is the health of the state’s weekly newspapers?
Weekly newspapers are the largest segment of the Mississippi Press Association’s (MPA’s) membership. The membership consists of 86 weekly newspapers and 24 dailies, according to MPA executive director Carolyn Wilson. The circulation of the weeklies ranges from 750 to 12,500 with the bulk of those — 30 newspapers — in the less than 2,500 category. She says there are a few weekly publications that are not members, among them some startup publications that don’t meet the MPA’s criteria. Overall, in her 23 years with the association, less than one dozen weeklies have ceased publication and others have started and gained active membership.
“The membership has remained stable and, from what I hear from members, weekly newspapers are fairly stable,” she said. “The main obstacle are mom-and-pop shops staying in business when big box stores move into communities. When the advertising base starts to dwindle, then there are problems.”
Wilson said some weeklies have been creative and come up with niché publications to supplement basic information that’s in the newspaper. Those nichés include special publications such as real estate guides, chamber of commerce publications and healthcare guides.
More promise for weeklies?
Barry Burleson, editor and publisher of The South Reporter in Holly Springs, is the current president of MPA. He thinks the health of weeklies is great with more promise of a better future than dailies.
“We’ve emerged with so many challenges,” he said. “The future looks better for weeklies than for larger papers because we provide things the larger ones don’t. We live in the communities and report what goes on there.”
But he admits that attracting young college graduates to work for weeklies can be difficult with salaries often smaller than what dailies pay. He speaks to students and advises them to get weekly newspaper experience.
“No two days are alike. They will do everything and can climb the ladder at weeklies,” he said. “For most weeklies, the challenge is to find talent they can grow in the communities.”
The South Reporter is in its 140th year of operation. It has the good fortune of being in a town with close proximity to growing areas and a good transportation system. “Where you’re located and the strength of the economy are key to the health of a weekly newspaper,” Burleson said. “You also have to know, serve and be involved with the community.”
He says taking time off is not easy, but teaching a staff to be versatile is a step in the right direction. “You can’t get sick on production days, but I was able to take off two weeks to go to Germany,” he said. “Then there are those times when someone is out and I have to pitch in and do everything, including running the delivery route. But getting out and doing something like that provides stress relief.”
Importance of technology
Jim Prince, editor and publisher of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, says he’s left instructions with family that his funeral must be on a Thursday or Friday so his weekly newspaper friends can attend. However, he feels that new technology makes taking vacations more practical.
“I’m tethered by the Internet now and practically in the office even when I’m not,” he said. “It has helped to be able to take off.”
Relying on technology also makes it easier to publish three weeklies. In addition to the Democrat, Prince also publishes The Madison County Journal and the Kemper County Messenger. Electronics make it possible for the three newspapers to swap stories and information and handle payroll more efficiently.
“Things couldn’t be better. We’re fortunate that Philadelphia is a good business town,” Prince said. “Our profit margins usually run around 20% above the average, and there are strong indications it will continue.”
The Democrat has a circulation of 8,000 and has been locally owned for 124 years. The three publications have a total of 30 employees with a payroll of more than $500,000.
“I can’t think of a more rewarding career. It’s not all about money,” he said. “We make an impact and feel obligated to our communities.”
Burleson and Prince say there are still a lot of solid, independent weekly newspapers in the state with a trend toward families owning several papers. “Family-owned groups give back to towns and don’t revolve in and out,” Prince said. “There’s something to say for consistency.”
John Carney, editor and publisher of The Lawrence County Press in Monticello, grew up in a newspaper family. His dad, Henry Carney of Crystal Springs, publishes two Copiah County weeklies, The Meteor and the Copiah County Courier.
“Newspapers go as towns go. If it’s a strong market, the publication does well,” he said. “We have held our own pretty well here. It depends on the town, but I think the future is very bright for weeklies.”
With a lot of other media fragmented, he feels that weeklies offer a solid impact. “If you want to blanket a market with established readership, weeklies are still the best way to reach a market,” he said. “People still want to read about people they know, and local newspapers still provide that.”
Down in the southwest corner of Mississippi in Wilkinson County, The Woodville Republican, founded in 1823, is the state’s oldest newspaper and oldest business institution in continuous operation. The Lewis family has operated it for over 100 years. Andy Lewis has been the editor and publisher since 1984, a fourth-generation newspaper man and a third-generation insurance agent.
“If I wasn’t an insurance agent, I couldn’t make it,” he said. “Wilkinson County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state and the paper has very few local advertisers.”
He says the two local banks were bought out by big banks that don’t advertise every week, and there’s only one grocery store that advertises every week. There’s no industry in the county and only small retail operations employing two or three people coming in. A 1,000-bed private prison did open in the area a few years ago to employ a number of local residents but provides no advertising revenue for The Woodville Republican.
Still, Lewis, whose roots run deep in Woodville, remains optimistic about the future of his family’s weekly newspaper.
“We have a circulation of 2,800. That percentage versus the number of people in the county is not bad for a rural area,” he said. “There are only 1,700 people in Woodville and 10,000 in the county.”
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.