Though readership of daily papers is declining, community outlets are thriving - and providing a great variety of opportunities for regional marketing
There's been a lot of public soul-searching in recent weeks as media pundits wonder why newspapers seem to be slowly losing their audiences to the internet, talk radio, and cable news.
But somewhat obscured by the slowly declining circulation numbers at many dailies is the fact that the humble community weekly and biweekly seem to be flourishing across the US.
Brian Steffens, executive director of the National Newspaper Association, which represents more than 3,200 community weeklies, admits that community papers are often overlooked in many markets.
But he points out that all those niche outlets add up to more than 70 million readers on a weekly basis, all of them looking for the latest on local government, schools, and community sports.
"The weeklies cover stories nobody else touches, and they are the only source of local information for a lot of communities," says Matt Friedman, partner at Marx Layne & Co. in Farmington Hills, MI. "The dailies see a lot of this as too narrow, and broadcasters view it as too boring. But if you live near a vacant plot of land, you want to know what's going to happen to it."
Community papers are thriving not just in rural areas, but also in major metropolitan regions.
"Many cities, such as New York, are surrounded by bedroom communities, and the people there read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, but they also read the Westport [CT] News," says Wayne Travers, account supervisor with Stratford, CT-based Cubitt Jacobs & Prosek Communications. "So if you want to reach them with a local story, you're better off trying the community paper than The Wall Street Journal."
"There's an incredible PR opportunity in community newspapers," adds Sam Waltz, president of Wilmington, DE-based Sam Waltz & Associates. "But you need to take a building block approach and put in the extra effort to localize the pitch for each market."
While community papers remain a valuable media target, they can be surprisingly difficult to pitch.
"In many cases, it's easier to get a reporter at, say, The Wall Street Journal on the phone than it is to get an editor at one of these weekly papers," notes Bob Zeitlinger, MD of Dumont, NJ-based B to Z Communications. "They don't have a large staff, and they always seem to be harried, but they also have this attitude of 'I get a lot of press releases everyday, and I don't have time to speak to a PR person.'"
Loring Barnes, managing partner with Millis, MA-based Clarity Communications, suggests that part of the problem might be that many community newsrooms don't understand the role of PR.
"They view PR as a one-way barrage of callers when in fact we're professional, responsible connectors between local businesses and the paper," she says. "Not all community papers are created equal, but many of them are really missing out on great stories that are relevant to their readership and have local roots."
Another grumble is that because many community papers are individually owned - with the publisher doing double duty as the editor - the line between ads and editorial often get blurred.
Steffens concedes that community papers are very dependent on local advertising and, therefore, some might be reluctant to criticize local businesses in print. But he adds, "There are also a lot of very good community-paper editors who will take on their advertiser if they feel the community needs to know."
Travers, who worked as a managing editor at a community weekly before moving into PR, insists that most are pitchable; they just require a different approach.
"There's a lot of churn at these papers, and you have to be conscious of their workload," he says. "So if you're sending them a pitch, it has to be something they can get to easily and covers all the bases so if they want to use it, they can just cut and paste it in."
Andrea Martone, media services VP with New York-based CooperKatz & Co., adds that the most important thing to a pitch is to have a strong local angle.
"If you do their homework, however, it's not difficult to find a way to tie your story into the community," she adds. "For instance, obtaining a simple quote from an organization in that community - or a local politician or expert - can suffice for that hook that is needed."
Martone also recommends calling editors to find out what they're looking for. "Editors are often overlooked as invaluable sources for their in-depth knowledge of the communities," she says. "And they like to feel part of the process."
Pitching... community papers