A new study published in the Columbia Journalism Review offers a comprehensive look at small-market newspapers in the digital age, along with a side project survey of more than 400 small-market journalists.
Small-market newspapers, which have a circulation below 50,000, represent a large part of the nation's news mix, but are often overlooked in both research and in the popular narrative about newspapers. The authors, Christopher Ali and Damian Radcliffe, sought to correct this oversight by researching how small-market newspapers are responding to the encroaching Digital Age, and how they can best prepare for the future. Both authors are Fellows of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Ali is an an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, and Radcliffe is a journalism professor at the University of Oregon.
The researchers interviewed 53 experts, from journalists to academics and representatives of relevant organizations, including Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. Seven key findings emerged from their interviews:
1. We need more nuance when talking about local newspapers. There's a huge variety of publications within the category of small-market papers, from online-only publications to alt-weeklies. We can't make broad generalizations about small-market newspapers without losing important perspectives.
2. Local papers face the same challenges as larger papers, but they may be more resilient than metro papers because of their exclusive content, captive advertising markets and physical proximity to their readers.
3. Small newspapers are changing to more digital content, but more slowly than larger papers.
4. More national chains in rural areas are reducing the number of local newspapers' potential advertising clients.
5. Small papers must diversify income to survive.
6. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to success in local journalism. Raising revenue is the main concern, and many small-market newspapers rely on advertising revenue, single-copy sales and paywalls. Smaller publications, especially weeklies, tend to heavily depend on single-copy sales. "People are making the buying decision every single week, plunking down fifty cents, or seventy-five cents, or even a dollar for that paper," Cross said. He argued that many small papers are "vulnerable" because they don't have the security of subscription income, which makes them understandably ware of rocking the readership boat. An unpopular editorial decision can have a much more profound effect on a small paper's bottom line.
7. Small-market papers have cause for optimism and must change the "doom and gloom" narrative prevalent in the industry. "The kinds of things people get from a local newspaper are the kinds of things that people will continue to want one hundred years from now," Cross said. He continued, "What’s going on within my locality? What’s happening with my school system? What’s happening with my taxes? What’s happening with planning and zoning? What kind of businesses or jobs might we get? It’s only the local newspaper that is likely to be the consistently reliable source of that information."