Friday, July 8, 2011

Why Small-Town, Local Newspapers Will Outlast Many Web Services ...

I agree with this story. In fact, I'd like very much to live in a small town, out of the way of a covering metro area. I haven't held a printed newspaper in my hands in many years, but I'd love to do it in Clearfield...even write and report for it!

Read it all at OnlineSPIN:

I'm writing this week from my hometown of Clearfield, Pa., a town of about 6,000 in the Alleghany Mountains two and a half hours north of Pittsburgh, in a rural county where the deer outnumber people many times over. Like many small towns across the U.S., Clearfield still has a local daily newspaper, The Progress, that serves the town and about two-thirds of the county, circulating 12,500 copies a day.

As I read The Progress yesterday, it occurred to me that this local newspaper probably won't go away any time soon, unlike many printed newspapers across the U.S., and unlike many of the news Web-based services, which seem to come and go every day. Pretty contrarian view? Maybe. But here's why I think so:

Owns local news market. The Progress isn't the paper that it used to be, but it still has more local news than any other local media. Regional newspapers and regional broadcasters from cities like Altoona, Johnstown and Pittsburgh can never deliver the local context like a small town paper can. They don't carry pictures of the organizing committee for the 60th reunion of the Philipsburg High School Class of 1951 (my late father graduated in the Class of '50). Even as the New Yorker I have become, I still realize that "city folk" in places like Altoona don't understand "small-town folk" in places like Clearfield.

Owns local ads. While it may only publish 18-30 pages a day, it's still a must buy for local advertisers. Not many of the businesses owners here want to use self-service interfaces to buy ads. They like it when a local person -- and friend -- stops by to review and renew their column-inch contracts for the month.

It's still independent. The Progress isn't owned by one of the big newspapers chains. While Wall Street for years has encouraged newspaper holding companies to aggregate lots of local newspapers, savvy newspaper operators long ago realized that there is very little scale advantage to owning lots and lots of disparately located local newspapers. You can't scale reporters, ad sellers and printing presses scattered across the country, or even a state, with hundreds of miles separating each of them.

Broad sheet and big type. The population of Clearfield County is older than most of the U.S. Most of them are not regularly online. The Progress still prints on a full broad sheet with large type -- meaning it is much easier to read than most newspapers, which is a real win when a large portion of your readership is over 65. Unlike big metro areas where kids are rabid for the newest technology, this is a place where the paper is still a family tradition and so will have subscribers for many years to come.

Local location-based services: a long way away. While I have claimed Foursquare Mayorships at my sister's Clearfield Veterinary Hospital and local Denny's Beer Barrel Pub (home of the world's largest hamburger), virtually nobody in town uses smartphone check-in services. They will make it at scale here someday, but not for many, many years -- after they have matured their services in large metro markets, an event also many years away.

Slick coupons. In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, city and regional newspapers basically "bought" circulation to extend their coverage umbrellas into small towns like Clearfield. They used their scale to suck up all of the free-standing inserts and "slick" coupons for the region, at the expense of the local newspapers. Fortunately for the small papers, reality set in for the big newspapers, which have retreated back into their own markets. The coupons and inserts have returned to small-town newspapers like The Progress (which was chockfull of them yesterday). Not only do they bring important revenue, but they are also an enormous circulation driver, particularly in towns like this where the local economies still haven't recovered from the collapse of the steel industry, let alone the last recession.

Afternoon paper. The Progress is one of the last of a breed. It is an afternoon newspaper. While most metro and suburban newspapers switched to morning delivery to match city commuting patterns, The Progress and many other small-town papers did not. They can deliver much more relevant news in the late afternoon and evening, when nobody else has current local news to read, even online.

Local staff. The Progress is staffed and run by people that live in Clearfield, and has been for many generations. That matters.

Web services can launch quickly, grow fast, become robust overnight. They also can become irrelevant and disappear even faster; think about MySpace and Friendster and Microsoft Sidewalk. Not so a strong, small-town newspaper that sticks to its roots and does what it does best. What do you think?