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
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
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
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”
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org