Small-town papers have big potential

In the newspaper world, small is the new big. Or soon will be. As newspaper executives bemoan declining revenues, editors slash reporting staffs and foreign bureaus, and investors flee from the industry, small, local papers may be in a far better position than major metropolitan dailies to ride out the shockwaves of the changing media landscape.

In the newspaper world, small is the new big. Or soon will be. As newspaper executives bemoan declining revenues, editors slash reporting staffs and foreign bureaus, and investors flee from the industry, small, local papers may be in a far better position than major metropolitan dailies to ride out the shockwaves of the changing media landscape.

Long derided as fish wrappers, small papers were the original "micromedia," and have persisted in America ever since ornery colonists started cranking out broadsheets.

While the big boys win the Pulitzers and attract the top journalistic talent, the little guys do the everyday grunt work of covering City Council meetings, reporting high school football scores, and interviewing the local Elks Lodge members about what these darned kids today need to do to shape up.

Small papers still enjoy a much tighter grip on that asset which is rapidly slipping away from larger ones: a virtual monopoly on local news and information, especially in towns too small to have much of a radio and TV presence aimed specifically at them.

Instead of being eaten alive

by the superior options on the Internet, these papers are finding that building their Web presence can only help them strengthen their position as the only game in town. Readers of the Tinyville Herald Eagle Bugle Gazette still have to turn to it as the only source of wall-to-wall coverage of last night's zoning board meeting; but once the Web site is up and running, they're less concerned about the fact that the paperboy tossed today's issue in the sinkhole out front.

Recent research by the National Newspaper Association (NNA), which represents more than 2,500 small, community papers, shows these outlets live a far less besieged existence than the ailing big city papers.

The NNA's most recent survey of markets with less than 100,000 people, published in January, finds a host of good news. Newspapers are listed as the primary source of local news by 50% of residents, more than triple the amount of television, the closest competitor.

People who get the paper are reading it closely; three quarters or more say they read local education, sports, and other news. And those who read it actually like it: 78% of readers say their "local news coverage is good to excellent," a clear indication of the lack of media critics and bloggers in small-town America.

The survey also shows that a vast majority of those readers do read the ads, and rely on them more heavily than other sources of advertising. And a full 87% said they had visited their local paper's Web site in the past week.

Most community papers are privately owned, so financial information is hard to come by. But the NNA points out that in the past 40 years, the number of large-market dailies and their circulation have both declined, while the readership of non-dailies - a hallmark of many small markets - has doubled in the same time period.

Brian Steffens, the NNA's executive director, says that while small town and suburban papers are probably growing, those serving rural areas are having a harder time, as they rise and fall with the fortunes of those areas' local business base. But the overall strength as a category is indisputable.

Steffens speaks of resurrecting a past attempt by the NNA to establish a national mechanism to sell ads to community papers in bulk. "It was ahead of its time, I guess, because it lost money every year," he laughs.

Advertisers would not be the only beneficiaries of such a tool. PR agencies that could tap into a vast network of tiny, local papers would find themselves out front in reaching the last significant bastion of media isolation in America. Get it while it lasts.

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