Weeklies: Surviving if not thriving in digital age
They've weathered the transition to digital by putting up paywalls
March 28, 2017
Over the past year, three new weekly newspapers have opened in Alaska.
Two are in Anchorage, the largest city in the state with a population of 300,000, and they focus on communities within the city.
Another popped up in the resort town of Girdwood, where there are just a few thousand residents but a steady stream of tourists.
It’s early to predict whether any of them will make it, but despite the generally poor outlook for newspapers, they could have a chance.
With their hyper-local focus and news that can’t be found anywhere else, many weeklies have held up better over the past decade than dailies.
“Weeklies in towns of, say, 20,000 people and under are doing fine, and they’re actually thriving because people can’t get that news anywhere else,” says Judy Muller, professor of journalism at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She’s also the author of the book “Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns,” about weekly papers.
“They don’t get rich, but they can get by.”
The typical weekly community newspaper, according to the National Newspaper Association, has a circulation of just over 8,000. Each copy of the paper is passed along to 2.3 people, and 73 percent read the full issue of the paper.
While there’s a general cynicism attached to national media right now – a recent Gallup poll said trust of the media is at an all-time low – it’s quite the opposite with smaller papers. A full 75 percent of readers of weeklies say their paper’s coverage of news is good or excellent.
Some have been a part of the community fabric for years. Others, like the Alaskan papers, have just recently started.
Whatever their own story, they give voice to the news and events that readers can’t find elsewhere, because no one else covers it, whether it’s a food drive for the poor or scores from the weekend’s Little League games. Readers see pictures of their daughters playing basketball or their son in the school play, which makes the connection to the paper personal.
The move online
But Muller says weeklies have also been smart about the shift to digital that KO’d so many bigger papers.
Weeklies recognized an opportunity to pull in those who live far away and wouldn’t otherwise read a print edition.
“What they’re doing is putting some of their content, or sometimes all of it, online with a paywall, and it’s smart,” she says.
“Most of the people who subscribe to that aren’t people who live in town. Most are people who have moved away and want to know what’s going on in their hometown.”
Advertising vs. journalism
Still, weeklies aren’t entirely without problems.
Even before the digital boom began, they operated on what Muller calls the slimmest of financial margins. No one will get rich running a weekly paper.
And they sometimes find themselves deciding between a good story and a good advertiser, which can result in some sticky situations.
“Weeklies have it hard because they depend on local advertisers, but they also have to write about their neighbors. If you write hard news that mentions people in trouble and they pull ads, that can hurt,” she says.
“It takes a lot of courage to be a small-town editor.”
Moving into a new era
Another issue, a biggie, is whether weeklies will at some point begin to face many of the same problems as big papers, which have seen circulation and advertising dwindle.
Warren Buffett is a huge proponent of small papers and he owns a slew of them, but even he has become doubtful about their long-term prospects, noting that they too are beginning to see a slide in revenues.
Another worrisome factor is the dramatic increase in large chains swooping in to pick up small papers. A good part of the success of small papers has been independent ownership, typically by a family with deep ties to the community and a willingness to invest back into that community. Chains typically take the revenues out without reinvesting and in bad times slash budgets to keep the revenue flowing.
That’s a lot of what crippled so many large papers over the past decade. The worry is that it will now do a number on small papers.
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