Small Publishers Have Longer Runway to Digital, but They Still Need to Take Off

While some major local news outlets are well along on a dramatic pivot from print to digital, many smaller newsrooms remain bullish on print, and some seem to be in no big hurry to build up their online presence.

Problem is, while these small outlets may well have a longer runway to a digital-first future, they do have to get airborne sooner or later.

There are significant challenges.

There’s the issue of tech support, which is difficult for small publishers to find and afford. Along with that comes a lack of ability to gather and analyze metrics on reader behavior, meaning that they’re missing out on a huge opportunity to know their audience better. And then there’s the problem of spotty internet in some rural markets.

There are basic roadblocks in business structure and culture too. Many small local news organizations, especially weeklies, are mom-and-pop operations that are swamped with work already and may see digital as one more chore. And there’s tradition. As a small Missouri publisher told the Medill Local News Initiative recently, “I still think people are going to cut the pictures of their kids and their grandkids out and put it on their refrigerator.”

All that being said, small publishers interviewed by the Medill Local News Initiative emphasized that it’s not a choice between print and digital. In fact, they say, the logical choice is both.

Leonard Woolsey is President of Southern Newspapers, with 10 newspapers in Texas and one in Oklahoma. He’s also Publisher of the biggest one, the 179-year-old Galveston County Daily News, which is Texas’ oldest newspaper. The Daily News has about 15,000 print subscribers and its website gets 2 million page views a month.

The print piece is always going to be an important part of our business, but the opportunity is … the mobile device.

Leonard Woolsey, President, Southern Newspapers in Texas and Oklahoma

Woolsey is embracing a combined print-digital future.

“I was in a meeting and there were three people sitting in front of me. One was reading the newspaper, a physical newspaper,” Woolsey said. “Another one had her laptop open, and the next one, a guy was looking on his phone. And I said voila – here’s my three customers. Here’s three channels that we deal with every day. I know that the print piece is always going to be an important part of our business, but the opportunity is the one on the right, which is the mobile device.”

This audience division isn’t a bad thing, said Woolsey.

“We had one audience 25 years ago,” he said. “Now we have three audiences. How many businesses get two new audiences open up in front of them? I’m cool with that.”

Print Advertising Still Vital

There are good reasons why print remains so important for small publishers, according to Penny Abernathy, a nationally recognized authority on “news deserts” who is a visiting professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

“Advertising revenue is much more important to small newspapers than subscriber revenue,” Abernathy said. “… So when they aim for ‘engaged subscribers,’ the end game for them is being able to attract more advertisers, since advertising still contributes the majority of revenue.”

And print advertising especially is a moneymaker.

“In contrast to the state and metro papers,” Abernathy said, “print is not necessarily dying in many small and mid-sized markets. In successful markets, it is living in tandem with the digital products. That’s because, for local businesses, having a print option is vitally important for both reach and efficiency.”

“Reach” means getting an advertising message to different audiences; “efficiency” means reinforcing the message and prompting people to act. Abernathy said research has shown that advertising on two or more types of media increased reach by 50% and efficiency by 20%.

Why the Answer Is Both

“I don’t think print is going away as soon as people think,” said Nancy Lane, CEO of the Local Media Association. “I think weekly newspapers can survive in print for a long time, and I think people don’t realize that. But if they talk to a weekly publisher in any market, the print product still brings in the majority of revenue. It still has great readership.”

However …

“They do need to figure out the digital strategy because we live in a digital world,” Lane said. “So some of them … if they’re relying on 100% print for the long term, that’s not a good strategy. The ones that are still doing great print but also making investments into the digital world are probably setting themselves up for the best future.”

Lane thinks “most of the smaller dailies have made great progress,” but with the small weeklies, “it’s a mixed bag.”

Liz White Notarangelo is Publisher of the Record-Journal, the flagship daily of the RJ Media Group in central Connecticut that also publishes one paid weekly and seven free weeklies. She is in the fifth generation of a family business running the 154-year-old R-J. And she’s focused on “meeting people where they are” on a variety of platforms.

“The way we think about it is print, digital, email, social media, video and text messaging,” White Notarangelo said.

RJ Media Group
Liz White Notarangelo, Publisher of the Record-Journal in central Connecticut, is delivering the news on a wide variety of platforms.

“With the combination of our print audience and our digital audiences across all the platforms I mentioned, we have the largest audience that we’ve ever had in our whole history,” she said.

Innovative small news outlets have recognized the potential of email newsletters.

“We have a team called our Facts Aren’t Free Team that’s focused on growing our digital subscriptions that we formed about three years ago,” White Notarangelo said. ”Email newsletters have been a huge part of that strategy.”

Dean Ridings, CEO of the America’s Newspapers industry group, also is upbeat about newsletters.

“We’re seeing that’s a great revenue source,” he said. “You can get those sponsored. That can be a very effective means of communicating with your audience in a digital manner in a way that the audience likes.”

Galveston’s Woolsey said his chain has not “successfully monetized it” yet, but he still views it as “a great tool to stay engaged and stay in conversation with our subscribers.”

“As noisy as the world is today,” Woolsey said, “we’ve got to find ways to stay engaged with people, and I think newsletters, even if they’re not a profit generator right off the bat, they’re at least keeping you in the conversation.”

The Roadblocks

There are plenty of reasons why small news outlets might have trouble achieving a robust digital connection with their audiences. They may lack bandwidth both literally and figuratively.

“If I’m operating a small-town weekly newspaper and only have myself and two or three others, sometimes it’s hard to get the paper out each week,” said Ridings. “It’s difficult to stop and think, OK, what skills do we need in order to be more successful on the digital side? … I’m originally from Florida, and you drain the swamp when you’re fighting the alligators, and that’s what they’re facing some days.”

Also, in some rural areas, broadband is lacking.

“In one of our markets in East Texas, internet service is really poor,” Woolsey said, ”so the mobile use is sky high because everybody has a cell phone. … You can’t just say because we’re a rural community we don’t need digital. That’s just not true anymore.”

A big problem is lack of investment in technology.

“If you’ve been an owner-operator who just doesn’t want to make those changes, because maybe it’s expensive or it’s hard or it takes a lot of time, I think that creates a more difficult environment,” Ridings said.

If the publishers don’t have the right technology, it’s impossible for them to transition to a digital future.

Nancy Lane, CEO, Local Media Association

Lane agreed. “If the publishers don’t have the right technology, it’s impossible for them to transition to a digital future. Technology is expensive. There’s a huge learning curve. They don’t often have the expertise on their staff.”

Some small-newspaper chains have developed strong support systems. White Notarangelo’s operation in Connecticut, for example, has an information technology manager, a digital director and “a network of partners, like vendors. … For smaller companies it’s harder because it’s usually reliant on one of two people, so if that person leaves it’s harder.”

Woolsey’s Texas-and-Oklahoma group has “a couple of people positioned in different locations almost in clusters to help with tech support. But for independent newspapers, like some of my friends in the Texas Press Association … that are an independently owned newspaper, it does make it difficult for them because they don’t have the resources or relationships.”

A positive note, Woolsey said, is young, digitally minded people entering the industry. “Millennials are coming into the markets that already do this,” he said. “They already have native intelligence to do that.”

Training and Support

Plenty of news industry organizations are offering training, including the Local Media Association, the Google News Initiative, the Facebook Accelerator Program and America’s Newspapers. And there are a variety of vendors.

“Our solutions partners have so many options,” Ridings said. “They can help not just the large newspapers but can absolutely help small newspapers. They enable the small publishers to be able to access tools. No question, there are a number of opportunities out there.”

Woolsey’s Galveston-based group uses Town News, a Moline, Illinois-based provider that aims to help newsrooms “flourish in the digital age.” Its majority partner is Lee Enterprises.

“You can customize it and make it yourself, but there are entry principles that even the smallest newspaper in West Texas with one stoplight can afford,” Woolsey said. “They’ve been an important player in the business.”

The 129-year-old Afro-American in Baltimore, the longest-running Black-owned newspaper in the country, is moving to new systems after receiving training from Facebook Accelerator and the Google News Initiative.

“We’re transitioning to Google Ad Manager to help with our ad revenue,” said Dana Peck, the Afro’s Director of Digital Solutions. “And we’re transitioning to a new platform called Newspack. I understand that will help us with our SEO and increase our page views.”

Newspack is a joint project of WordPress.com and the Google News Initiative.

Lewis County Press, a group of 13 small newspapers in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky and Virginia, has developed its own system called Workbench that it bills as a “newspaper-in-a-box.”

Company co-founder Phil Calian said Workbench manages print and website publication, social media posts, postal delivery and advertising while driving subscription growth. It “organically builds a paper’s complete database” with mailing addresses, email addresses for opt-in newsletters and phone numbers for opt-in text alerts, he said.

The aim is to make operation of a small news outlet manageable for publishers with no in-house technical expertise.

We’re focused on rural papers [that] haven’t navigated the technology very well because there’s a lot of technology challenges.

Phil Calian, Co-founder, Lewis County Press LLC

“We’re focused on rural papers in which they’re the only paper of record in that county,” Calian said. “. … They haven’t navigated the technology very well because there’s a lot of technology challenges. And typically in these markets the owners do it all. They have to report the news, they have to sell the advertising, they have to sell the subscriptions, they have to put changes of addresses in, they have to collect the advertising receivables, and their plate is very full and they’re very overwhelmed.”

Calian said his 13 papers have served as a sort of “petri dish” to develop Workbench. “We hired a CTO, we had a development team that did that, because we looked around and couldn’t find any entity that did it. So we did it ourselves. We didn’t develop everything, but we plugged in to make it simpler to use so that it’s no more difficult than Facebook,” Calian said.

Along with the 13 papers, Workbench is used by about 20 other small news outlets, Calian said. To attract new partners, the company launched a Community News Grant Initiative in June that offers a $400 grant and a six-month free trial period using Workbench. “If grantees find Workbench valuable/helpful, then we will work with them to make sure they can continue to use it – whether for free or for a fee,” Calian explained in an email.

“I’m a capitalist, but I want these communities to survive and to thrive,” he said.

A key business asset for Lewis County Press is the growing database.

“The real potential benefit from my perspective is access to the data,” Calian said, adding that “there’s the potential to find advertisers” who want to reach these rural customers.

Two non-Lewis news outlets that joined Workbench before the grant initiative and are paying small fees told Medill the system has helped them handle the many chores that small publishers face.

Sheila Plagens, owner of the Colorado City (Texas) Record, said she was able to restart her website with Workbench’s help.

“About 3 years ago, our website was hacked … and I never had the money to get it back going,” Plagens said. “We just didn’t even have an online presence except for Facebook until Workbench. … It is just as easy as Facebook. I find it easier sometimes.”

Since starting with Workbench in January, “I can tell you without a doubt that I have increased my subscription base,” she said.

Thad Requet, Editor and Publisher of the Shelbina (Mo.) Weekly, said he’s been on Workbench for about a year and a half. “I love the fact that it’s user-friendly and simple,” he said, adding that he finds it especially helpful in handling credit card payments for subscriptions and reminding subscribers to renew.

Requet said printing costs, rising postal rates and spotty mail delivery make him eager to see customers transition from print to digital. “It can’t get there quick enough for me,” he said.

The Local Media Association’s Lane expressed skepticism about the idea of “newspaper-in-a-box,” but emphasized that she is unfamiliar with Workbench. Lane said small local outlets may be better off finding more customized solutions involving consultants or vendors.

“You’re trying to find something that’s within your budget, that gets you to the next level, that doesn’t require too much technical expertise because you don’t have that person on your staff,” Lane said. “So a lot of these smaller [outlets] are using consultants to help them, and you know you’re at the mercy of the consultant and when they can respond to your request. That’s not a great situation but it’s better than not having any expertise. And I think more and more, small and medium [outlets] are investing in resources for technology in terms of making hires and making sure there’s someone on the team that can do the basics.”

The Need for Metrics

The Afro’s Peck said a key benefit of its recent digital training and new systems will be improved use of metrics.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure, or don’t measure,” Peck said. “What we’ve learned is having a better handle on our analytics so we can … determine what’s working for our audience.”

This goal is the prime mover behind a new tool developed by Northwestern’s Medill Spiegel Research Center.

The Subscriber Engagement Index, launching this fall, will help local news outlets of all sizes understand their customers better. The index will allow participating news outlets to better understand which aspects of their online content are boosting the acquisition and retention of subscribers and which are leading to dropped subscriptions. The index, a key part of the Medill Local News Initiative, is an outgrowth of Spiegel’s finding in 2019 that the frequency of a subscriber’s visits to a website were the best indicator that the reader would remain a paying customer.

Ed Malthouse, Spiegel’s Research Director, sees the index as a potential game-changer for newsrooms with little or no capacity for data analysis.

“Our index levels the playing field,” Malthouse said. “It enables small papers to make better decisions, knowing that they don’t have a team of data scientists in-house.”

The index will allow newsrooms to measure their performance against other participating news outlets. It will also highlight unique characteristics of individual news markets.

“You see different things driving retention and regularity in different markets,” Malthouse said. “I looked at two smaller papers and they were like night and day. One of them is in a college town that has a very popular college basketball team. Stories about that are golden. Whereas another small town I’m looking at doesn’t have a college in the area, and very different content areas drive retention and regularity. Also, you see some surprises on what types of stories drive people away. It’s actionable intelligence.”

Constant Learning

It’s vital for smaller news organizations to maintain an ethos of discovery and innovation.

“We built a culture based on the motto ‘Succeed or fail fast,’” said Connecticut publisher White Notarangelo. “And for us that means taking risks, not being afraid to try new things, and when we succeed, we stop and celebrate those successes. That’s really important. But when we fail, we fail fast. And actually, other people have started to say ‘fail forward,’ and I like that even better than ‘fail fast.’ Adjust the idea and try again or move on to the next idea. That’s really been a powerful way to operate by us.”

Galveston’s Woolsey said just because a news outlet is small doesn’t mean it can’t think big. Sometimes that means learning from major publishers.

“Those of us on the smaller end of the spectrum need to be paying attention to what’s working with the bigger properties on the spectrum,” Woolsey said. “… I think the wave is going to work its way down. And as it comes down, consumers become more comfortable with it, and the cost of entry into that becomes easier and you have more vendors offering the services.

“I think it’s very important for anyone in the newspaper industry to watch what WaPo does, what Wall Street Journal is doing, what the Times is doing and say, ‘What lessons can I take from that and individually scale?’ That’s where the textbook is being written right now. Sure, we can’t do it right now. I can’t write a check and have my own CMS like WaPo, but I can sure borrow a lot in tactics and strategy.”

About the author

Mark Jacob

Editor

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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