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
"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."
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
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.