Despite decline, midsize papers still viable

The announcement last month that McClatchy was selling the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to a private equity firm for $530 million - less than half of what it paid for it less than decade ago - has triggered a lot of soul searching in the newspaper industry.

The announcement last month that McClatchy was selling the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to a private equity firm for $530 million - less than half of what it paid for it less than decade ago - has triggered a lot of soul searching in the newspaper industry.

Can newspapers, especially in midsize markets, really be on that steep of a decline? The answer, at least right now, is probably not.

John Morton, president of media research firm Morton Research, says while midsize papers face numerous long-term challenges, most of them are still veritable cash cows compared with other industries. "Through the first nine months of 2006, the average operating profit margin of newspaper operations at publicly traded companies was 17%," he says. "A lot of business would love to have 17%, but the problem for Wall Street is that in 2002, it was 22%."

Despite the gloom in Minneapolis - and the fact that many other midsize papers across the country are cutting staff and, in many cases, pages, too - these papers will remain great outlets for PR outreach for the foreseeable future.

"Clients still want clips from midsize market newspapers because they're tangible, proven marketing vehicles," says Greg Ptacek, Bender/Helper Impact media relations specialist. "For one, they're audited, and for all the talk of blogs notwithstanding, [blogs'] influence is more anecdotal than measurable."

Gerri Kelly, VP of media relations with GolinHarris' Chicago office, adds that the turmoil in midsize paper newsrooms may actually be creating more PR opportunities going forward. "These reporters have more on their plates, so it gives us a better chance to help them with their jobs by providing them with material," she says.

Steve Perry, editor of Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, notes that even with a slowly declining circulation and a lot of uncertainty in the newsroom, the Star-Tribune - like most papers in midsize markets - remains by far the biggest fish in that media pond.

"It's still a huge player that effectively has no competition," he says. "The St. Paul Pioneer-Press has declined in the marketplace by leaps and bounds, and its recent staff cuts are unlikely to help that."

"The entire media landscape is a lot more fragmented, but that does not mean traditional outlets, such as midsize papers, are no longer valid," adds Dea Eldorado, senior media specialist with Golin's LA office. "But it does mean you need to be better prepared, including having all your statistics and your experts ready to go, to increase the chance of making something happen at these papers."

PITCHING... Midsize market papers

There's a lot of staff churn going on at midsize papers, so keep your contact lists up to date

Newsroom cutbacks inevitably mean an increased reliance on newswires and syndicates, but that also means stories from these midsize papers get syndicated more often

Even though the average midsize newspaper reader is getting older, these outlets are desperate to court a younger demographic, so they remain very interested in pitches about youth-oriented trends and products

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