As Large Newspapers Struggle, Small Ones Survive

By Brian Mann, North Country Radio; aired on National Public Radio April 30, 2007

(Anchors’ intro) A new report confirms something we have heard over and over. It is a tough time to be in the newspaper business. Figures out today show that circulation declined last year, down by more than 3 percent at some big-city papers, but many small-town papers are actually holding on to their audience. Some are even growing. North Country Radio’s Brian Mann reports.

(Mann) The newspaper business is sort of like King Kong perched on top of the Empire State Building. And those little airplanes buzzing around Kong’s head are the Internet, cable TV, blogs and podcasts. For 20 years, says John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, they’ve been chipping away at the circulation and the cultural influence of the big, urban daily.

(Sturm) There’s no secret that the paid circulation of print newspapers has been declining. It’s been declining for many, many years.

(Mann) But newspapers aren’t one, big gorilla. The industry is made up of thousands of papers, from big media brands like The Wall Street Journal all the way down to tiny papers like the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in northern New York.

(Catherine Moore) Compared to the whole newspaper industry, we showed growth in circulation and on line last year.

(Mann) Midmorning, Publisher Catherine Moore watches as the Daily Enterprise rolls off an old-fashioned printing press. She says her paper founds its niche years ago as a personal and intimate mirror of this rural community, two hours’ drive north of Albany.

( Moore) The pictures of the kids, their names; the parents are going to pick up the paper and send it to the grandparents; everybody has their five minutes of fame.

(Mann) The focus on local means baby pictures and school-budget votes sometimes trump big, national stories like the war in Iraq or the Virginia Tech shooting. That may sound sort of hokey, but it’s big business. A study release this month by the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky found that 20 million Americans still get at least some of their news from these small daily and weekly papers. (Actually, the number of people is closer to 50 million, because the 20 million figure is copies circulated by the 4,195 rural newspapers, including 740 dailies, defined as those publishing at least four days a week) One in three small-town papers actually gained circulation last year. And the papers that lost circulation saw much smaller declines than urban dailies. That success has inspired the big media conglomerates to buy in. Landmark Communications runs The Weather Channel, and through a subsidiary already owns more than a hundred small newspapers in 16 states. (Landmark owned many rural newspapers before The Weather Channel even existed.) Editorial Director Benjamin Ray Hamm says the company hopes to buy as many as four small newspapers every year.

(Hamm) We do see it as a good business model. We see community newspapers, in many ways, defying the trends that you see at the larger metros.

(Mann) This kind of success has brought its own challenges. As more mom-and-pop papers are snatched up, local flavor and local control are sometimes lost.

(Jenay Tate) My grandfather bought the paper in 1924. We sold the newspaper roughly 15 months ago.

(Mann) Jenay Tate is editor and publisher of The Coalfield Progress, a paper in Norton, Va. Tate decided to stay on after her family’s paper was sold to a chain. (American Hometown Publishing)

(Tate) It was like cutting off a limb. Not like cutting off a limb – it was like losing my heart.

(Mann) Many small-town papers face spiraling debt as they struggle to modernize and upgrade their printing presses. As the value of rural papers skyrockets, Tate says more families are tempted to sell out, sometimes triggering nasty ownership disputes. Growth pains aside, small papers face some big challenges. In the past, these rural towns had less access to the Internet, which meant less media competition. That’s changing fast, and more mom-and-pop papers are rolling our their own online editions in a bid to keep pace. For NPR News, I’m Brian Mann.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues helps non-metropolitan media define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary on local issues and on broader issues that have local impact. Its initial focus area is Central Appalachia, but as an arm of the University of Kentucky it has a statewide mission, and it has national scope. It has academic collaborators at Appalachian State University, East Tennessee State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Georgia College and State University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Marshall University, Middle Tennessee State University, Ohio University, Southeast Missouri State University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Washington and Lee University, West Virginia University and the Knight Community Journalism Fellows program of the University of Alabama. It is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the University of Kentucky, with additional financial support from the Ford Foundation. To get notices of daily Rural Blog postings and other Institute news, click here.




Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
School of Journalism and Telecommunications

122 Grehan Journalism Building, Lexington KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879

Questions about the Web site? Contact Al Cross, director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 4/26/07, 10:30 a.m.