Small Town Community Newspapers Strive to Thrive

The Washington Newspaper Publishers Association http://wnpa.com held its 123rd annual convention in Wenatchee last week. WNPA members own or work for weekly newspapers and small dailies all over the state. Their first convention was held in Tacoma in 1887!

Running a small-town community newspaper isn’t easy, especially these days when journalism is in such chaotic transition as print moves online. But these folks are survivors: tough, determined, creative – and remarkably optimistic.

Displaying a gritty mix of change and hope, the WNPA named this gathering “Join the Revolution 2010: Mission Possible.” In many cases, these newspapers are doing better than the large urban dailies. They tend to be closer to their readers than big-city media. After all, they see their subscribers every day at the grocery store, in church, and at high-school football games.

About 140 publishers, editors, reporters, photographers, advertising managers, sales representatives, graphic designers, and technology specialists attended. Some of these folks do virtually all of those jobs by themselves, or with tiny staffs – including their spouses.

Copies of all their papers were on display. Anyone who thinks newspapers are dying should have a look at these lively, colorful, innovative publications – and check out their increasingly active websites.

On Friday night, they gave each other dozens of awards in all kinds of categories (For a list of winners, see http://wnpa.com). The hours-long awards banquet was followed by an open-bar hospitality suite, a swimming-pool party, and karaoke. Hey, these are journalists!

Looking over my notes and quotes from the three-day gathering, I decided to give a few awards of my own….

LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE AWARD

“Our industry has seen some rocky times….But community papers – daily, weekly or otherwise – are the future of our industry. The trend is there. The ship is turning.”
 Paul Archipley, WNPA President and Publisher, Mukilteo Beacon (http://mukilteobeacon.com/) and Edmonds Beacon (http://edmondsbeacon.com/)

WE’RE TRYING TO FIGURE IT OUT AWARD

“We’re not just going to have a print newspaper anymore….The Web is not a huge moneymaker, but it’s not a money loser. We’re building up traffic. Our hits and visits are going up. Our website has only 25-30% of the content that’s in the newspaper, so we’re not giving it away.”
 Patrick Sullivan, Publisher, Port Townsend Leader (http://ptleader.com/)

BUT CAN WE MAKE ANY MONEY AWARD

“How do we pay the bills in that new environment? I hate to use the word ‘monetize,’ it’s a ridiculous word….But how are we going to make this work financially? How are we proceeding in the struggle on how to produce revenue from this electronic delivery? If we don’t do that, we’re in a world of hurt.”
 Bill Will, Executive Director, WNPA (http://wnpa.com/)

LET’S ALL GO MOBILE AWARD

“Mobile is still in a startup phase. We’re just starting to push out the apps….The mobile space is fascinating because there are so many more options. We can really get granular if the customer wants that. A mobile ad can initiate a phone call, an email, or open up a phone showing [the advertiser’s] nearby locations.”
 Seth Long, Director of New Media, Sound Publishing Inc., Kent (http://soundpublishing.com)

CONTENT IS STILL KING AWARD

“Content is power. Anything in your archives is power. When you put up a piece of news, people find that news and make it their own. The more you put up, the more value it has. Some things I don’t put it on our website, because I know our competition is reading our website for their next morning’s paper. They’ll just read it online and put it in their story. How do you save the value for your print edition? You’ve got to buy our paper to get the best stuff.”
 Patrick Sullivan, Publisher, Port Townsend Leader (http://ptleader.com)

FACEBOOK IS A REAL COOL TOOL AWARD

“What can we do to drive and promote engagement? It’s easy to do. All we did was put up a Facebook page. We’re not making any money on Facebook. What we are doing is building a community. We now have more of a network: People are feeding us story information, and commenting on our stories either directly on Facebook or on our comments page. Anything you can do to drive up that level of engagement, so people have a greater sense of ownership over the content and are involved in the content, is good.”
 Jason Cline, Technology Consultant (http://modaira.com) , Sequim Gazette (http://www.sequimgazette.com/)

FACEBOOK FRIENDS HAVE REAL FACES AWARD

“One of the best things that Facebook has done is to make people use their real names. As more people get used to being themselves online, that will improve the quality of comments we get….Every month you see more people using their names thru the Facebook feature….It’s incredibly powerful. Put Facebook friends around your page. I can’t overstate the importance of that. People just click a button saying they like it. People are going there and so are their friends. Your site is alive.”
 Seth Long, Sound Publishing Inc. (http://soundpublishing.com)

FACEBOOK DRIVES OUR WEB TRAFFIC AWARD

“Our Facebook page has 500 fans and 3,100 friends. We get good story ideas. It was a slow start, but now our Website has gone from 21,000 to 35,000 visitors, and that corresponds directly to Facebook.…Our Web traffic is directly related to our Facebook growth and the interaction we have with our community.”
 Roger Harnack, Publisher and Editor, Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle (http://www.omakchronicle.com/)

OLD-FART DINOSAUR AND PROUD OF IT AWARD

“While we’re playing around with these ideas, our current revenue streams are drying up. We’re going to fall into the canyon….People who care about the community, and care about our democracy, are being drowned out by social networking….We’re being asked to consider things that have nothing to do with journalism. I don’t know when I went from being a young upstart to being an old-fart dinosaur. I am not sold on Facebook and Tweets. ‘Mental masturbation,’ I call it. If somebody can explain it to me, please do!”
 Paul Archipley, President, WNPA

IT’S WORKING IN WAITSBURG AWARD

“I’m a journalist by profession, but the business I’m in is communication. There are a million ways to communicate with people. We get them to our website. It shows that you care about them, as potential readers. You care about what they care about….Eventually, advertisers will see the value of going to these sites….The death of newspapers has been greatly exaggerated for decades. You have to reach out and go to people.”
 Imbert Mathee, Publisher, The Waitsburg Times (http://www.waitsburgtimes.com/)

OLD TOOLS STILL WORK IN LYNDEN AWARD

“I can make more money with a special [advertising] section than in two hours talking about Facebook. I’m a businessman….I try to put out the best community newspaper I can. I can’t sell online advertising.”
 Mike Lewis, Publisher, Lynden Tribune (http://lyndentribune.com)

TWEETING LIKE MAD IN ISSAQUAH AWARD

“We use Twitter as a ‘news flash.’ It goes directly to their phones and that brings them to our website….We have 15,000 circulation, and now 1,500 people have signed up to follow us on Twitter. All our City Council and School Board members are signed up. They want news….But today, the news is now! Do you want the news later or now?”
 Debbie Berto, Publisher, Issaquah Press (http://www.issaquahpress.com/)

PUBLISHER WHO DOESN’T READ A PAPER AWARD

“I get a daily paper delivered daily, but I hardly ever read it. I’m turning 40 this year, so I’m in the bridge generation. I get all my news online. The way people are consuming news is so different from the way they did 10-20 years ago….They want to go to the comments, and see what other people think about the news.”
 Chuck Allen, Publisher, Quincy Valley Post-Register (http://qvpr.com/)

GOING MOBILE IN OMAK AWARD

“This [holding up his smartphone] is tomorrow’s newspaper, and we have to treat it that way….Everything you want you’re gonna find on your phone. That’s where we’re going. Our business model of the future should be talking about applications for mobile phones, or maybe getting papers on Kindle and paying for those subscriptions. The Internet’s 30 years old. We’ve moved way beyond it. But newspapers haven’t caught up.”
 Roger Harnack, Publisher and Editor, Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle (http://www.omakchronicle.com/)

PROFIT IS NOT A BAD THING AWARD

“Newspapers have been a profitable enterprise for years. By going online, will that profitable model continue, or will we find that we’re no longer a profit-making business? All this conversation is about communicating with people, instead of ‘Am I gonna make money on this?’….It’s still all about the money. You still have to have dollars to hire people to write the news.”
 Andy McNab, Publisher, Idaho County Free Press, Grangeville
(http://www.idahocountyfreepress.com)

PROSPECT OF HANGING CONCENTRATES THE MIND AWARD

“A lot of us are in the business not to make money, but because we thought we had a calling….Is there a future here for newspapers? There may be, but it may not be a profit future….If we don’t hang together, we’re going to hang separately.”
 Paul Archipley, WNPA President

Granted, these quotes are just snapshots from many hours of intense discussion, and my “awards” are clearly somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But they help capture the “disruptive innovation” that’s going on in the news industry all over the country these days.

Here’s one more award, to Steve Buttry of TBD.com (http://www.tbd.com/) a new online news source for the Washington, D.C., area that just launched in August. Buttry was the “out-of-town expert” and did three sessions – “Managing Your Changing Workload,” “Multimedia Storytelling” and “Complete Community Connection,” which is his template for managing what some call the new news ecosystem. (For more details, see http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/)

YOU CAN – AND MUST – CHANGE AWARD

“The smaller organizations that are represented here can be more nimble and more innovative….You have the resources to use the tectonic shift that’s taking place as a prod to try new things….What can you do to uphold your standards and matter to your community, and meet your goals of community engagement? Find the people in your community who are passionate about things and see how you can engage with them. Put their blogs on your site, sell ads and share some revenue. You can look at them as competitors or as collaborators….Twitter is the most valuable tool for journalists that I have seen introduced in my career. If you’re plugged into Twitter, then if something happens anywhere, you get news and photos….Social media needs to be part of your newsroom approach. It is connecting with your community.”
– Steve Buttry, Director of Community Engagement, TBD.com (http://www.tbd.com/)

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About John Hamer
JOHN HAMER is President of the Washington News Council, an independent forum for media fairness that he co-founded in 1998. Hamer was formerly Associate Editorial-Page Editor at The Seattle Times and previously Associate Editor with Congressional Quarterly/Editorial Research Reports in Washington, D.C. Read more about John or read John's blog posts.

Comments

  1. Hi John,
    It’s always interesting – and a little startling – to find myself on the other side of the reporter’s notebook, being quoted. I think you did a nice job giving readers a “feel” for the convention.