Monday, July 10, 2023

Rural Plains publishers seek a path to follow; at least one is bolder, and transparent about costs and raising prices

Joey Young of Kansas Publishing Ventures, left, followed Nick Mathews of the University of Missouri, right, to discuss his weekly rural newspapers' role in the interventional research being done by Mathews and his colleagues. (Photo by Al Cross)
This is the first in a series of articles about the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, held by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Rural newspaper publishers in the Great Plains show "a pronounced lack of urgency as they await a clear, proven path to follow" as their industry undergoes its greatest change, University of Missouri journalism professor Nick Mathews said Friday in what amounted to a keynote address at the third National Summit on Journalism in Rural America in Lexington, Ky., and online.

"Our data reveals a profound grip of fear in rural weekly newsrooms, leaving leaders in a paralyzing state of inaction and risk aversion," Mathews said. "Innovation is undermined as they exhibit a pronounced lack of urgency and passively await the emergence of an industry trailbazer. In other words, some newsroom leaders would rather follow than lead into the future."

Mathews reported on the research he and Teri Finneman of the University of Kansas and Patrick Ferrucci of the University of Coloardo have done with rural publishers and newspaper readers in Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas about the future of the newspapers and alternative sources of revenue for them. He appeared immediately before Joey Young of Kansas Publishing Ventures, which is testing some of those sources in a rare intenventional experiment in rural journalism.

The researchers' surveys found that readers are more willing to support them with non-subscription revenue than publishers think. That has been previously reported, so Mathews' presentation emphasized the focus groups that they held with the publishers, which Mathews said found "an overall hesitancy to embrace contemporary innovations."

That is partly driven by the small size of their staffs, which hinder the capacity to innovate or even contemplate innovation, Mathews said. But in the focus groups, when confronted with the challenges of the future, he said "Newsroom leaders perceive staying the course as the safe and secure decision, instead of exploring potential innovations to bolster their financial futures."

He added, "This inertia persists, despite the unsettling realities within their communities. One publisher acknowledged, 'Our circulation won't hold up with the current population we have over time. They're just aging out. We don't see the young subscribers to replace that. So we're going to have to do something, I would say, in the next decade." Those last words brought chuckles from some in the crowd at the Summit, who clearly believed action will be needed sooner.

Joey Young was already taking action at KPV, which owns three weeklies in south-central Kansas, like throwing concerts and marketing a beer brand. Finneman and Mathews approached him ,about testing alternative revenue sources, and helped him get grants to jump-start more experiments, such as memberships and e-mail newsletters. He said they are seeing growth in circulation primarily through newsletters: "I really think it's an effective way to deliver the news," and it doesn't cannibalize print circulation because it requires a subscription to the newspaper.

Faced with the need for more revenue, Young and his wife Lindsey published a story with graphics called "The cost to print," explaining why they needed to raise their annual subscription price above $50 and the single-copy price above $1.50: "Our costs have gone up largely somewhere between 38 and 42 percent in the last two years."

That cleared the way for a big increase, to $144 a year, and the start of an online paper as an alternative. "Almost all of our readers who contacted me said, 'We want the print product. Just charge us more'," Young said. "We did our first round of renewals this past month, and there was tension in the newsroom. People were worried. Are people going to freak out? Are we going to get a bunch of phone calls? Are people going to be mean to us? We got a ton of really nice notes. We have the exact number of renewals that we normally would. It's a small sample size, but so far everything's been fine."
Mathews, noting that he had been regional editor of three daily papers and three weeklies, concluded, "I'm gonna leave you with one last plea. I beg of you. Newsroom leaders must recognize that remaining stagnant, idle and believing, even if not saying that nothing is wrong, is wrong. The choice of inaction is not a viable choice."

For the Zoom recording of these sessions, and others that morning, click here.

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