Friday, June 22, 2018

The Economist: Rural newspapers are 'surprisingly resilient'

Times are tough for newspapers these days, with shrinking profit margins and circulation adding to --or perhaps caused by -- a decline in trust and respect for journalism.  But small-town papers are faring better than their urban counterparts, Leo Mirani reports for The Economist: "Fully 61 percent of weekly papers and 70 percent of dailies that have ceased publication since 2004 are in counties with more than 100,000 people. Just 20 percent of weeklies and 11 percent of dailies disappeared in counties with fewer than 30,000 people, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina." Community papers have 60 percent of all newspaper circulation; it was once 50 percent, before the decline of dailies.

There are two reasons small-town papers are so resilient, Mirani writes: Local businesses are more apt to advertise in their local papers because they know that every reader lives nearby and is a potential customer; urban newspapers don't have that kind of captive audience. The second reason is that small towns feel a sense of ownership in their community papers: reader loyalty rates for small-town papers are twice as high as those for national or regional papers, Mirani reports. We would add that most of them face no strong competition in local news.

But the survival of small-town papers isn't guaranteed, despite those factors, Mirani cautions: "The towns they serve are growing older and thinning out as working-age Americans migrate from small towns to cities, often never to return. Mandatory advertising by local government, a significant source of revenue, is increasingly under attack as state legislatures try to save money. Tariffs on imported Canadian newsprint have raised costs. Another worrying trend is of local owners selling to big media companies as the industry consolidates, robbing local newspapers of the very thing that makes them valuable."

Mirani got to see some of these factors in play when he visited Jay Nolan in April. He owns a majority stake in eight small-town newspapers in southeastern Kentucky, and has expanded the company's printing business to other media. "I can make a lot more money in the sign business,” Nolan told Mirani, but he keeps his small papers alive: "If journalists aren’t here, Kentucky will become as corrupt as Afghanistan."

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