Small-town newspaper folks have frank discussions with Wal-Mart executives

By Al Cross, Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Caryl Dierksen sat right up front last week, notebook at the ready, when Wal-Mart executives came to the 119th annual convention of the National Newspaper Association in Milwaukee.

"Wal-Mart is breaking ground in my town next month" for a SuperCenter, said Dierksen, a reporter for The Woodstock Independent, a weekly paper in Woodstock, Ill., 30 miles east of Rockford. "This is huge, because we're small and very traditional," she said of her town of 20,000.

Wal-Mart has been huge for small-town newspaper folks for years -- and not, most of them say, in a good way. The company buys relatively little newspaper advertising, and local newspapers and other businesses say it puts out of business the local firms that formed the retail and advertising bases in their areas. However, some research has indicated that new businesses spring up around SuperCenters.

"Probably the biggest impact in many of your communities is the changing retail landscape," outgoing NNA President Mike Buffington of Georgia said as he introduced Mona Williams, Wal-Mart's vice president for corporate communications. For, NNA, Wal-Mart is such a concern that new President Jerry Reppert of The Gazette-Democrat in Anna, Ill., has created a Wal-Mart Task Force and named Buffington to head it. "He's gonna lead the charge on Wal-Mart," Reppert told the convention.

Williams, who had an earlier, private meeting with NNA leaders, said she couldn't promise them more ads, but she suggested that new marketing strategies and tactics are in the offing as the company re-examines itself and tries to get over "an awful lot of bumps" that have hurt its reputation, revenue and stock price.

"You guys are really a big bump right now, because you're angry with us and you feel we're not good citizens in your community," Williams said, indicating that the meetings with NNA were part of the company's effort to build bridges with "all sorts of groups outside the Wal-Mart bubble."

When Williams came to the floor with a lavalier mike to take questions, the first one was typical, from a Texas woman: If our paper was good enough for Wal-Mart to advertise its grand opening, why isn't it good enough to get regular ads from the company? Williams had no answer other than "Don't blame our store managers," who have no ad budgets. "The fault is ours, it's not the store managers'."

Jerry Bellune of the Lexington County Chronicle in Lexington, S,C., told Williams that the store in his town replaced retailers who supported youth, educational, civic and church programs, and "We don't see that coming back from Wal-Mart to our communities." Williams said company officials "recognize the need to be more involved in the community," are training store managers to do that, and hiring managers with that in mind. She said Wal-Mart once only "looked for people who were heads-down" and focused on sales, but now wants managers who can reach out, speak in public and be upwardly mobile. "It's a disservice to them," she said, that the company asks them to reach out and doesn't give them money for ads.

Jeff Fishman, publisher of the Tullahoma (Tenn.) News, seized on Williams' statement that her company needs to make whole-store shoppers of people who come to Wal-Marts to buy the basics but don't "shop the store." Fishman said local newspaper readers are "literate, decision-making-type people with disposable income. ... The groups you're looking to grow in are exactly our customers." Williams agreed.

Peter Wagner, publisher of the always-award-winning Northwest Iowa Review and winner of a major award this year from NNA, said Wal-Mart and stores that followed it revived "a dying town. ... You destroyed it first, but you are the honey that attracts the flies and dies just the opposite in the long term. ... In many cases, you are saving some of our communities as much as you are taking away those advertisers.".

Wagner said the biggest problem newspaper publishers have is the arrogance of executives at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. He suggested a meeting with such executives and a small group of publishers. Williams said she had already been thinking about that.

More common ground may have been found when John Fearing, executive director of the Arizona Newspapers Association, said Wal-Mart should take advantage of state press associations' ad-placement services. Williams said Buffington had already made that argument, which could have some appeal to the company because it has a relatively small marketing and ad team in Bentonville.

NNA is a group of about 2,500 newspapers, mostly weeklies. Buffington, publisher of the Jackson Herald in Jefferson, Ga., said a survey of member papers last spring found that 87 percent had a Wal-Mart in their coverage area, and 67 percent said the presence of the company had a negative impact on their paper.

For a summary of sessions on economic issues at a national rural-journalism conference, including one on Wal-Mart and other big-box stores, click here. For a report on two television documentaries last fall on Wal-Mart, click here. For past Rural Blog items on Wal-Mart, search our monthly archives below.

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 at 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 Rural Blog postings and other Institute news, click here.



Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
College of Communications and Information Studies

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

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

Questions about the web site: Contact Al Cross, interim director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: Feb. 6, 2006