Technology, ‘hyperlocal’ focus helping newspapers survive, thrive

by

Published: May 12,2008

All but two of the country’s top 20 newspapers have posted declines in circulation in April compared with a year ago, with declines averaging from 3% to 10%. There have been concerns about declining newspaper readership since the 1980s as people have had more choices — especially the Internet — about where to get their news.

Some doomsayers are predicting a dire future for newspapers. Those are fighting words for newspaper advocates such as Ricky R. Mathews, president/publisher of The Sun Herald in Biloxi.

“Daily circulation was up at The Sun Herald last year,” Mathews said. “And the number of unique visitors to our website continues to grow. So far this year from January through April, we’ve averaged 557,180 unique visitors per month as measured by Omniture. That’s a 55.1% increase over the same four months last year, which averaged 359,150 monthly unique visitors.

“Our printed and online products reach more adults than all of our competitors combined. Does that sound like an industry that is dying? I don’t think so.”

It is true more people are getting news from online sources.

“But those news Internet sites are ours,” he said. “The truth is more people are turning to us for news and information than ever before. Internet audience growth is relative. The ‘rate’ or percentage of Internet audience growth is quite high, but the size of the audience for any particular site or the size of the news audience (as best as it can be measured or estimated) is still below newspapers.”

Newspapers have the largest news-gathering teams in markets across America. Mathews said, in most cases, newspapers have nearly twice as many news staff as all of the other local competitors combined.

‘Fighting fire with facts’

“We should not let others say otherwise,” he said. “We should come out fighting mad…fighting fire with facts. A former newspaper executive told me yesterday that our industry is playing our hand like we have two deuces when, in fact, we have a full house. He said it was driving him crazy. We need to start managing the assault on our industry like a political campaign. And anything other than winning cannot be acceptable. Our ability to help build strong communities, our ability to practice the First Amendment and all of the other things we stand for are threatened.”

As Mathews sees it, newspapers are still the king of the media hill in most local markets. While the hill may be worn down, mostly by a challenging economy, he doesn’t think the dominance of newspapers has changed.

“And when you combine the power of our printed newspapers with our online products and niche publications, we are powerful — a force to be reckoned with,” Mathews said. “We get results for our advertisers.”

Mississippi newspapers are holding their own better than many of the top urban newspapers in the country. Weekly papers in the state are doing especially well.

“Weekly/non-daily circulation actually grew in our state by 2% to 299,983,” said Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association (MPA). “That is the first gain after two essentially flat years in ‘05 and ‘06. So, community newspapers continue to weather circulation trends very well. Unquestionably, our non-daily members are more resilient right now in terms of reader retention. Also, small daily newspapers continue to show growth in their circulation and readership, though the aggregate number for all dailies has dipped.”

Daily circulation was off 2% in 2007 to 356,873. Total statewide circulation of MPA’s 110-member newspapers dipped 1% to 656,856 year over year. Those numbers reflect circulation as of September 30, 2007.

While daily newspaper circulation is down slightly, daily newspapers continue to reach the most readers most often. Layne said daily statewide circulation was 356,000 in 2007, approximately 56,000 more than aggregate non-daily circulation, which was right at 300,000.

What matters most?

There are actions newspapers can take to compete in an era when more people don’t have the newspaper as a daily habit. Bruce said the new buzzword for the newspaper industry is “hyperlocal,” a term that describes the refocusing of a newspaper’s resources on intensely local issues in their respective communities. By directing their attention to issues that matter most to their core readers, research indicates newspapers can help slow or reverse circulation declines.

“The mission has not changed: We must give readers information they cannot or will not get anywhere else,” Bruce said. “The method of doing so is what is evolving.”

Mississippi ranks as one of the lowest states in the country in Internet penetration of households. Bruce said while low Internet penetration at home is not a plus for Mississippi, it does give newspapers more time to adjust to the changes brought about by the web.

“Many of our state’s newspapers have invested a great deal of time and creative energy in developing websites that are unique to their communities and act as a good companion to the print product,” Bruce said. “Many other newspapers still have a ways to go or are not yet on the Web. It is one of MPA’s new strategic goals to help these smaller members make this transition.”

While there is no doubt that the rules of the game are changing, Bruce said he still has tremendous faith in the service newspapers provide and the thirst the public at large has for information that matters about their communities and hometowns.

“We all hear a great deal about the woes of the newspaper industry,” Bruce said. “That’s because we’re more apt to write about it than our broadcast cousins. I would suggest there is an equal or greater amount of change, and perhaps turmoil, to come for broadcast television and terrestrial radio.”

One weekly that has done particularly well in recent years is The Calhoun County Journal in Bruce, which has grown circulation by 10% over the past five years.

“We are not feeling that trend for declines in circulation,” said editor Joel McNeece. “What has separated our paper, I think, is that we are a family-owned paper that is committed specifically to this community. We don’t go beyond Calhoun County. All of our news coverage is specifically Calhoun County based. That is information our readers can’t get anywhere else. We don’t have a daily close enough to us that really covers the county.”

The Calhoun County Journal covers it all, from weddings and obits to crime and school board meetings. The news is popular with both current and former residents. The newspaper has a website that is accessed frequently by county natives who live in other areas of the country now.

McNeece said the paper also considers it important to reach younger readers, and many of those connect by the web.

“There is just an ongoing fascination with the Internet, so more and more people are logging on,” he said. “We don’t want to be behind the curve. We want to stay out front as best we can.”

The current economic slowdown has had a minimal impact at the Journal. McNeece said while the increase in gas prices is hampering a lot of businesses, most still advertise with the paper in order to keep business strong.

“For whatever reason — long relationships with our businesses and being a more community based small town newspaper — those national trends don’t seem to impact us,” McNeece said. “We don’t get the highs and lows of the national economy. We stay a little more level. Our growth has lessened, but we are still experiencing growth — just not at the same rate due to the economy.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at 4becky@cox.net.

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