Hold that Obituary! KR sale doesn't bode ill for community newspapers

"Hold that Obituary!" was written by Jock Lauterer for the Chapel Hill Herald on March 29, 2006. This column is not available at the newspaper's Web site.

When the news came down earlier this month that McClatchy Co. will buy newspaper giant Knight Ridder, doom-and-gloom media pundits on the newspaper deathwatch mournfully trumpeted the event as further evidence of the inevitable demise of an antique form of communication.

But the transaction has a different ring to me.

As director of the University’s project for community newspapers and a former co-founding editor/publisher of two community papers, I’m struck by an overlooked fact.

In addition to their 32 dailies, Knight Ridder includes 24 community newspapers (defined as weeklies, twice and tri-weeklies). And McClatchy owns 17 community newspapers.

Why is this important? Because, as you may have read, the newer, bigger McClatchy plans to shed 12 of its newly acquired papers.

But here’s the news that doesn’t surprise me: The dozen papers on the block are all big dailies, while McClatchy plans to keep all of their so-called “little” papers.

And why is that?

In the words of UNC-CH journalism associate professor Frank Fee, “because they’re the ones making money.”

What is it about community papers that make them so viable? Consider the comments of cowboy poet and columnist Baxter Black, who wrote the following in a column titled, “Why I Love My Hometown Paper,” (a weekly in San Pedro, Ariz.): “Small-town papers often thrive because CNN or the New York Times are not going to scoop them for coverage of the ‘VFW Fish Fry’ or ‘Bridge Construction Delay’ or boys and girls playing basketball, receiving scholarships, graduating, getting married or going off to war… I think of local papers as the last refuge of unfiltered America – a running documentary of the warts and triumphs of Real People – unfettered by the Spin and Bias and the Opaque Polish of today’s Homogenized Journalism. It is the difference between Homemade Bread and Pop Tarts.”

Such a difference has not gone unnoticed.

“Thousands of community papers are thriving and gaining in circulation even as the big boys decline,” writes Alabama community newspaper editor John W. Stevenson in the January edition of Publishers Auxiliary, the journal of the National Newspaper Association, a trade group with 2,600 small newspaper members.

“People today, as in previous years, are hungry to know about what is happening locally,” writes Stevenson, who is also the NNA membership chair. “They know their hometown paper is where they’ll find the news they want.”

Stevenson concludes, “There will always be those who say newspapers are on the way out. But from what I’ve seen lately, I’ve never been more optimistic about their future.”

Stevenson isn’t being a Pollyanna here. According to the new 2005 Community Newspaper Readership Survey conducted by the University of Missouri for the NNA, 81 percent polled read a paper at least once a week, and of those readers, 95 percent want to see local news, including school and sports news, in their local paper. And, 95 percent said they paid for the paper.

This is significant because paid circulation is a dependable barometer of a paper’s health.

So what is the state of this state’s community press?

Since I am director of the Carolina Community Media Project, I ought to be able to crunch some numbers that prove my point. In North Carolina, of the 197 total general interest newspapers, 149 are weekly and 48 are daily. Of those 48 dailies, only seven could be called big-city dailies, with circulations in excess of 50,000. Thus, fully 96 percent of N.C. newspapers are defined as “small.”

And where is the growth? In addition to the burgeoning Spanish-language and urban alternative press, the growth is in the weeklies. Of the 79 weeklies reporting circulation figures to the North Carolina Press Association over the last 21 years, 59 percent have shown growth in circulation since 1985.

Of the 59 percent who showed growth, 35 percent have shown solid, consistent growth; and 24 percent have shown peaks-and-valleys growth. (As a former editor-publisher, I can tell you, peaks-and-valleys growth ain’t too shabby).

Then here are two more bits of good news: North Carolina has 13 more weeklies than it did in 2000. Finally, here’s another myth-buster: 52 percent of the state’s weeklies are still independently or locally-owned.

The late Charles Kuralt, with his typical gift for the cogent, was the first journalist I ever heard use the expression “relentlessly local.” And I would argue it’s that local-local-local news emphasis that gives the community papers their vision, identity, franchise and their future.

In the words of Pennsylvania community newspaper editor Jim Sachetti of the Bloomsburg Press-Enterprise, “Local? — It’s the only game in town!”

So, with apologies to Mark Twain, who, upon reading his own obituary mistakenly published when he was abroad, said famously: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” — hold that obit!

Jock Lauterer, the author of “Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local,” 3rd. ed., 2006, the University of North Carolina Press, teaches journalism at UNC-CH. He may be reached at 962-6421 or jock@email.unc.edu


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
School of Journalism and Telecommunications

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

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

Al Cross, director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: March 31, 2006