Would you — would I — buy a newspaper in 2019?
Many years ago, in the pre-internet and preAmazon world, partners and I bought a weekly newspaper in a small town in Montana. I was editor/publisher/janitor for 14 years. It was the greatest education of my life.
But would I do that now?
I saw a study many years ago that showed an inverse correlation between the time spent surfing the internet with the time reading newspapers. That study showed that time reading a traditional print publication declined by almost the same amount of time a customer spent surfing the World Wide Web.
All indications are that most people are spending more and more time looking at their smart phones, tablets and computers. Stats also show a continuing decline of both daily and Sunday print circulation of daily newspapers.
The trends are not favorable.
That being said, I’d still consider buying a newspaper, under the right conditions.
What are the right conditions?
First, the price would have to be right. Anyone overpaying for a newspaper these days is crazy. The price would have to be no more than a three- or four-multiple. I wouldn’t buy a paper that required me (or partners) to go into substantial debt.
The town would have to be right on a Goldilocks basis. That means neither too big nor too small
The newspaper we owned in Montana would be too small in today’s world. When we ran the paper, there were many potential advertisers — a hardware store, book store, travel agency, auto parts store, shoe store, a small department store, a grocery store and a bank.
All were locally owned, and I could talk to the owners. Now, mostly because of competition from online merchants like Amazon, most of my former advertisers are out of business.
From what I can see, many small towns are hard-pressed to support a newspaper. (In fact, the newspaper we owned — the Bigfork Eagle — has been shuttered, except for an online version run out of a nearby daily.)
Too big a market is a problem, too.
Metro newspapers face all kinds of competition from TV, radio, direct mail, online-only publications and others. The overhead is too high. (For example, metros can’t possibly cover all local high school sporting events. I think prep sports coverage is one of the keys to attracting a loyal, paying audience.)
Metro dailies once flourished thanks to double-truck ads from department stores, pages of classified ads, and huge numbers of employment display ads. All gone now.
The latest problem is the decline in the number of pre-print advertising inserts. This decline has been caused by a secular decline in the industry, the latest victim being the bankruptcy of Sears and K-Mart. As revenues decline, editorial staffs were decimated, causing the quality of the product to decline, causing readers and advertisers to find better alternatives. A vicious cycle.
And don’t overlook the impact of the so-called duopoly of Facebook and Google that has hurt all local media as both companies attract an ever-increasing portion of national programmatic advertising. Their technology allows their advertisers to reach the audience that spends more and more time looking at their smart phones.
But I do think (perhaps a foolish hope) that there is a “Cinderella space” left in mid-tier markets where there is no local TV, and maybe even no local radio stations.
I live in such a market in Colorado. TV signals come from Denver, and radio from nearby cities.
The only substantial local media is the local daily newspaper, which, unfortunately, has been stripped of most of its resources by an out-of-state (out-oftouch) investment company. The paper’s headquarters have been moved out of downtown, and the building is up for sale. The publisher is no longer locally based. Much of the content comes from other papers in the group.
Even so, many people in the community subscribe because they want a local news outlet.
This is potentially a “Goldilocks” situation because there is a deep-seeded demand for the product.
The city is vibrant and growing, and merchants — especially the many locally owned stores — need help with marketing and advertising.
Underlying my belief is that journalism is still a product the public wants and needs. Democracy needs a watchdog. Local merchants need local advertising. We want to know what’s going on at city hall, in the courts, at the county courthouse, at our schools. We want to follow prep and other local and regional sports.
If advertising can’t fully support a newspaper, I think subscriptions and memberships can make up the difference. (Anyone buying a newspaper needs to understand these nuances, if there is to be any hope of success.)
Can a newspaper “stand alone” without the efficiencies of a group? My sense in many cases is that the groups have saddled their newspapers with burdens of reducing too much corporate debt, and paying for corporate staff overhead. Local operators spend too much of their time trying to make this month’s or this quarter’s profit plan, rather than improving the quality of the product.
Over the last score of years, too many newspapers have steadily become less competitive in a more competitive media environment. They steadily raised circulation and advertising rates while reducing their size, page count, and editorial and advertising staffs.
What would happen if we started giving our readers and advertisers more for their money, instead of less? I think the response would be overwhelming favorable.
Online technology is incredibly important for success going forward. To control overhead, print production will have to be reduced to two or three publications a week, and quality online products will have to be created to establish and maintain customer loyalty. Technology allows affordable solutions to deliver video, audio — and maybe even Web-delivered TV — to be produced by a local newspaper. Print needs to partner with online, as I don’t think either can thrive without the other.
Would it be easy to buy and run a newspaper? No way. It might not even be smart.
But thousands of people every day invest in businesses that, even when successful, operate on small margins and owners’ sweat equity. Wouldn’t it be better to spend your life running (even a struggling) newspaper than to run a hot dog stand, or whatever?
Remember, too: There are still many smart, dedicated owners successfully running daily and weekly newspapers. Hats off to them! They are our models for success.
Bottom line, buying a newspaper in 2019 isn’t a terrible idea if “Goldilocks” conditions exist — the right price, the right market, the right editorial people, the right advertising and business staff.
That’s a lot to ask, I know, but there is hope, folk