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Community Newspapers: Learn How Main Street America Responds to Local News and Advertising

Posted by mcszr3 on September 11, 2008

In today’s new media age, many Americans have begun to question the relevance of newspapers. There has been concern about newspaper journalists being laid off and companies being forced to downsize because of decreased interest in the newspaper media. However, while a hundred or so large newspapers may be experiencing some issues keeping their readership constant, today’s forum assured the audience that the more than 22,000 community newspapers across America still have a very important role in this rapidly changing world.

The forum on community newspapers was led by Brian Steffens from the National Newspaper Association, the very same association which our own Walter Williams presided over about ten years before he founded the J-School here at Mizzou. Steffens began by admitting the current media “sounds pretty grim for newspaper,” but then introduced the Associate Director of Research in the Reynolds Institute, Kenneth Fleming, to present a careful study done by our Reynolds Institute.

The presentation looked at the current status and future of community newspapers in today’s Internet age, and “examined the values of community newspapers in serving local democracy in today’s new media environment and explore opportunities.” The studies were conducted in 2005, 2007 and 2008, with the sample population growing more rural each year. The first study concentrated on areas with a population around 100,000, then under 50,000 people in 2007, and finally, the 2008 study only surveyed readers of newspapers with a circulation of less than 25,000. Fortunately for our local journalists, results were strongly in favor of community newspapers.

Statistics from the study showed that in 2005, about 82% of people read a local newspaper at least once a week. Now, in 2008, that proportion is up to 86%. The average time spent reading the newspaper also increased, by about seven minutes in the past three years. Even when compared to other news mediums, community newspapers fared surprisingly well. Newspapers have a two-to-one margin over television as the preferred source for local news, followed by friends and relatives, the radio, and lastly, the Internet.

This startling disuse of the Internet as a local news medium shocked many of the journalists on the forum panel. But in fact, 59% of the population surveyed in 2008 claimed they never use the Internet to check local news. The qualitative studies were also interestingly in the favor of newspapers: While 96% of readers rate the coverage of news in their local newspapers as fair to excellent, only 79% of readers are as pleased with the online news coverage. This trend is continued in other aspects of journalism, such as the accuracy, quality of writing, and fairness of reporting in both mediums. In each category, newspapers beat out Internet sources by about ten percent. Steffens points out, “You might get news online [but] the accuracy and coverage is valued in local newspaper.”

Aside from local news, community newspapers also prove to be an effective method of advertising. Local papers are the primary source for grocery shopping information by a two-to-one margin over in-store advertising. This overwhelming preference for newspapers as a source of shopping information is continued in products such as building, home improvement, home furniture, and major appliances. The only shopping category which is threatened by the Internet is building and home improvement products, but even then the web is 15% behind newspapers.

The main points driven across by the study in the end is that newspapers have not lost their role in our American communities. They continue to be an effective and leading way to advertise and sell products and services, and also the primary source for sports results, local news, and obituaries. The study did find that newspaper readership was strongly correlated to age (older people read more), income (those with higher incomes read more), and gender (females read more).

At the conclusion of the detailed presentation, the panel was invited to the front to answer questions. The all-star cast included:

  • Michael Abernathy, Landmark Community Newspapers, Inc. Abernathy oversees more than fifty newspapers in community markets, headquartered in Shelbyville, KY.
  • Wally Lage, COO of Rust Communications. Lage is a Mizzou alumni and will be inducted to the Missouri Press Hall of Fame on Friday night.
  • Dave Berry, Community Publishers, Inc. Berry’s papers are circulated in Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. He runs operations in Springfield and is a member of the NAA Board of Directors.
  • Ralph Gage, The World Company and WorldWest LLC. Gage runs the special projects division.
  • Steve Haynes, The Oberlin Herald and Nor’West Newspapers. Haynes is also the President of NNA and publishes half a dozen papers in northwest Kansas.
Reflecting on the accuracy of Fleming’s presentation, the panel agreed that the study was a fair statistical analysis of community newspapers in America. Abernathy stated, “Research that [I have seen] seemed to match the belief that we have in the strength of community newspapers.” Haynes also added that the figures “pretty much reflect we we see [in Nor’West Newspapers].” Berry concurred with the other panelists, but comically added, “I believe the data that’s in this report, it’s pretty revealing, but I think we need to be careful not to put too much lipstick on the pig.”

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