When Gene Coleman learned that Beau Rivage had been hit hard during Hurricane Katrina, he was certain that his newspaper building had been destroyed.
Located three blocks from the casino resort, with Mary Mahoney’s restaurant in between the newspaper building and the Gulf of Mexico, chances were slim that The Bay Press in Biloxi had emerged unscathed.
But it did.
“We were surprised to learn that our building was still standing,” recalled Coleman, managing editor of The Bay Press. “We didn’t even get water.”
After taking off two weeks to regroup and take care of personal business, The Bay Press staff went back to work, but with a different focus.
“Before the sale of the paper last year, we published two times a week, and devoted as many as five pages an issue to the arts on Friday,” he said. “With the new ownership, we backed off a little bit. And now, because there’s so much rebuilding activity and city issues to cover, we’ve shifted our focus from being a society/good news newspaper to a community newspaper published once a week. Before, our cover might feature Girl Scouts winning an award. Now our readers have shown us their appreciation of harder local news with compliments and new subscriptions.”
Adapting is critical
Adapting to change is the cornerstone of success publishing community newspapers, said Wyatt Emmerich, president of Emmerich newspapers, which publishes 25 newspapers, including four dailies, two semi-weeklies and 19 weeklies.
“Like all businesses, a gazillion challenges face community newspapers, such as hiring good, skilled employees. That’s the number one challenge,” said Emmerich.
“That’s true,” added Coleman, who has a staff of six. When he lost a reporter to the Associated Press a few months after the storm, he took over reporting duties. “We have very few people knocking on the door wanting work,” he said.
The advent of Wal-Mart and the consolidation of the retail industry have affected advertising, Emmerich pointed out.
“Wal-Mart is probably the biggest symbol of that,” he said. “Super Wal-Marts put at least one grocery store out of business in its market, and Wal-Mart is notorious for not advertising in newspapers. They advertise on network TV.”
Jim Prince, president of Prince Newspaper Holdings Inc., which publishes weeklies in Kemper, Madison and Neshoba counties, said rising fuel and newspaper costs have impacted the bottom line. “Distribution costs have gone up for carriers,” he said. “Postal rate increases are affecting papers that are mailed. Everything’s going up.”
Despite the financial challenges, community weeklies are poised for an upswing, said Emmerich.
“All industries go through cycles, and we’re at the start of a positive cycle,” he said. “Interestingly enough, ad revenues in the newspaper industry track the Dow Jones Industrial Average very precisely. When it goes up, ad growth goes up. When it’s flat, ad sales are flat. That’s been true for 80 years. I think the stock market is about to go up, and the newspaper industry is about to have four or five good years.”
For one reason, weeklies are holding up well against Internet competition for advertising, said Emmerich.
“We are the Internet in our communities,” he said. “We have the best local sites in every market we’re in. We know that consumers are favoring print over Internet because our Internet ad sales have been disappointing. National-level advertisers have begun supporting the Internet, but that hasn’t filtered down to the local level yet. Down the road, it will be a big profit center for it, but until then, we’re investing in color printers to upgrade our print quality.”
Internet ad sales are “definitely not a moneymaker,” said Prince.
“We’ve found that some merchants, particularly in rural markets, are not up to speed on the Internet and it’s a toss-up anyway in the metropolitan markets,” he said. “Yet in the last year, there’s been more interest in Internet advertising. That’s where business is growing, and every business needs an Internet presence. It’s part of the mix.
“We’re talking now about the different forms the paper will take. Some are calling it liquid media, whatever it takes to get the content to the reader. People will always want to cut out a picture of a child or put an obituary from the newspaper in the family bible. Even though breaking news — when a school bus overturns or an arrest is made for a crime — needs to be immediately placed online, people still enjoy cuddling up with the newspaper.”
Overall, ad rates have been raised in line with inflation, and circulation numbers remain level for community weeklies.
“Big newspapers will face structural problems for the next few years and will have to adapt to the loss of a big chunk of classified revenue to the Internet,” said Emmerich. “In the past, big newspapers have gotten about 40% of its revenue from classifieds. By comparison, ours is 2%. Smaller newspapers have done better because they don’t have that huge vulnerability from classified advertising. The Internet is a great mechanism for delivering the specific micro data for classified advertising.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.