Friday, April 02, 2021

Leading advocate of printed weekly newspapers says retailers are no longer their best source of ad revenue

Peter Wagner, still a believer in print
Iowa weekly newspaper publisher Peter Wagner, who has fought a rearguard action against the digital revolution and social-media advertising, knows the facts when he sees them.

"Publishers looking to reboot their markets following the pandemic need to recognize the retail sector is no longer their best revenue source," Wagner starts his latest column for state newspaper associations.

His object example is the late, lamented Warroad Pioneer of northern Minnesota, which died last year and was memorialized in The New York Times, The Rural Blog (including this commentary) and now Reader’s Digest. Wagner consulted publisher Rebecca Golden 21 years ago, and knows the market.

"Golden published a good paper. It was well written and nicely designed. But her dependence on retail advertising was her Achilles’ heel," Wagner writes, noting that many retailers depend on the area's tourist trade, the local grocery uses mass mailing and the car dealer's ads have gone mainly online.

Retailers "thought they didn’t need to advertise to locals they believed were already 'loyal' customers. Most didn’t understand how important a local paper is to holding a community together," Wagner writes. "All across America, newspapers and free-circulation publications are facing the same situation. Most national and regional chain stores, once a lucrative source of revenue, have deserted smaller communities. The small, local boutiques that replaced them are often poorly informed regarding the reach of digital advertising, too tightly financed to afford traditional advertising and are more of a hobby for the owner than a business."

Wagner reports that his rural markets in Northwest Iowa, "We’ve turned to the service providers, local manufacturing firms and once-overlooked professionals as fresh revenue sources. Locally owned banks and credit unions as well as full-service insurance agencies are good examples of service providers that continue to be excellent potential advertisers. Others include locally managed hospitals and medical facilities, home construction and sales organizations, privately owned colleges, universities and regional community colleges.

"The city itself, the local chamber of commerce, community celebrations and annual event organizations as well as the economic development director also are emerging sources for new advertising dollars. These are major-dollar advertisers who understand that the local newspaper is key to creating community and a spirit of consensus. Without a strong, united community those businesses have a limited future with a declining number of clients, students, employees and attendees. It also will lead to a diminishing tax base. These resources have the deep pockets and good reason to underwrite the future of their hometown paper."

Wagner maintains his proven belief in special projects and sections, and gives examples, saying they "have been well received and supported by local-minded businesses that appreciate sections that promote the history, fun and value of living in their town. . . . So, take a big breath and put a smile on your face. There continues to be a strong future for community papers. We simply need to direct our attention to the advertisers that believe in the community and the value of the hometown paper. It will require hard work and fresh thinking, but the survival of the printed paper is well worth the effort."

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