Community newspapers find meaning, make money

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By Harold Morgan

Professionally I grew up with newspapers, though not the dominant daily in the large market. (“Large” markets for me mean Oklahoma City and Albuquerque.)
I only worked for the big guy once, a brief stint with the Daily Oklahoman. My experience started with the old Albuquerque News, a weekly shopper with real editorial content. For the publishing company I started as janitor and served in production, sales and administration.
My affection goes to community newspapers, which is fortunate since community newspapers print this column. Fellow columnist Sherry Robinson and I believe that community papers have a valuable role doing things too small scale to interest the big papers.
Community newspapers serve small communities, not big cities. A report in the May-June issue of the Columbia Journalism Review (www.cjr.org/magazine) is good to read. Community papers are buying others now that prices have dropped.
“In small towns, papers have loyal audiences and less competition among advertisers,” the CJR report said. “The demographics are right, which basically means the residents are old — less interested in getting news from Gawker and more interested in getting it off the front porch.
That’s partly why last year more than three-quarters of the newspapers that found buyers had circulations of less than ten thousand. Those types of papers are making money — even now.”
Fear of information overload has been around almost the entire 500 years since Gutenberg invented moveable type. Evolving technologies periodically pose huge challenges. The telegraph was incredibly disruptive, points out James Gleick in his wonderful book, “The Information” (Pantheon Books, 2011). Today’s huge challenge is the Internet.
Extracting meaning from the information overload is the much bigger issue, Gleick says. Coping strategies “boil down to two: filter and search.”
In communities, newspaper editors bear much of the filter-and-search burden — sorting police reports, land-use issues, school-board actions, and all the rest. No one else can comprehensively attack the task.
Starting a publication resembles starting a restaurant — an entrepreneurial fantasy that few think through and fewer still bring enough capital.
My entrepreneurial track record is mixed at best. The New Mexico Business Journal was around for about 30 years after the initial team, which included me, lost it through financial ineptness.
Decades later Capitol Report New Mexico had two short runs as a print entity, both hampered by a flawed business model and no money.
When publications end, it hurts. But things change. Earlier this year El Hispano, a Spanish-language weekly tabloid that I never found useful, closed after 40 years.
The New Mexico Free Press, a weekly tabloid, did “good news” in Santa Fe for a while in the late 2000s. The good news model is based on the wrong notion that people will pay for warm fuzzies.
An Internet publication, the New Mexico Independent, folded in mid-November.
Part of a non-profit chain financed by liberal do-gooders, it appeared with hoopla in early 2008 and comforted liberals.
My guess is that the money ran out. The website’s closure statement said, “This is part of a shift in strategy, towards new forms of journalism...” Sure.
The Roswell-based 575.com, also an Internet publication, called an experiment by founder Jack Swickard, ended due to operational and financial constraints, Swickard said.
Value exists in smaller publications. The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis reviewed the effect of the closing of the Cincinnati Post, at 27,000 circulation large for New Mexico but small nationally.
The Fed said the Post’s absence “appears to have made local elections less competitive along several dimensions.”
I believe there will always be a profitable role for publications serving communities in the “other New Mexico” outside the north-central urban area of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Harold Morgan
© 2011 New Mexico
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