Editor's note: This is the first of a series on super-healthy small-town newspapers: where they are, what makes them thrive, and why they matter.
Here is the dirty little secret of the newspaper industry: In some small cities across America newspapers are thriving, with fat print editions and nearly universal local readership.
In case you missed it, 1,800 papers have closed in the past 15 years. But local media executives have started to ask why some newspapers seem to be immune from the consistent losses of advertising and readership plaguing the rest of the industry.
How much is market and how much is management? Is it nature or nurture?
Gordon Borrell, president of Borrell Associates, took on the issue in a LinkedIn post this summer after Warroad Pioneer shutdown in Minnesota.
“So sad, but I wish someone would write about the fact that, while weak and poorly managed newspapers are closing, many others are doing just fine. How about Vail Daily or The Jackson Hole Daily, which routinely average (get this) more than 70 pages per day. (That's not a typo. SEVENTY pages). Wonder when the media is going to write about that.”
He was immediately challenged on the nature versus nurture issue in one of the comments:
“Do you really think papers in Vail and Jackson Hole are just better managed than those in places like Warroad and Youngstown? That better-trained salespeople would have saved those newspapers? Because I can think of some other differences between those communities.”
Borrell’s answer, the most succinct description on micropolitan markets that I’ve read, is worth quoting at length:
“These super-healthy newspapers… require three essential nutrients: a well-managed staff of editorial and advertising people, a well-defined community that has limited local broadcast choices, and a financially healthy community. Youngstown had none of that.”
“While many resort communities top the list for healthy newspapers (Florida and Colorado come to mind), it's not always the case. Many healthy small towns have likewise healthy newspapers. They have an interesting exclusivity that seems to be forgotten if you don't live in the heartland.”
“Where else can you find out who died, who's kid made Eagle Scout, who just got engaged, and what the Lieutenant Governor said at the Garden Club luncheon last week? Facebook? Google? The local radio station?”
The out-performing newspapers, in other words, perch on a three-legged stool, of which market size and economics account for two of the three legs.
For career newspaper executives, the idea that management comprises only a third of the keys to success is sobering.
It’s a bit of an ego buster to admit how much the market really matters - until it does.
The country is littered with newspaper execs who were asked to sell, edit and manage their way out of a jam only to see their revenues hollowed out by external forces.
What seems clear today, however, is that newspapers in micropolitan areas too small to attract broadcast competition have real advantages and that some of these markets do better than others.
Failures of management can ruin a good thing - and we still believe that nimble management can save newspapers in more difficult markets - but it is worth it to slow down a bit and look closely at the external dimensions.
Take the first leg of the stool: Market size and cohesiveness.
Technically, a micropolis is defined somewhat arbitrarily for Census purposes: Having more than 10,000 and less than 50,000 residents, including one core city and at least one county. From a newspaper perspective having a core city is vital to cohesion, a sense of identity and appetite for local news.
Micropolitan cities typically lack broadcast news options, and, with sales in the $3 million to $10 million range, can run with a tiny staff and deliver consistently healthy margins.
The population marker is essentially arbitrary, and while a few small metros with population more than 50,000 also meet these criteria, "micropolitan" seems like a useful term to describe this phenomenon.
Besides size and cohesion, what makes a good newspaper town? After all, it was the economic depression in small town America fueled the Trumpian political wave. From 2008 to 2017, only 1 percent of job and population growth occurred outside metropolitan and their adjacent counties.
Thad Swiderski, president of Etype Services, which provides platforms for some 500 newspapers mostly in towns with less than 20,000 people, says he sees newspapers thriving in two kinds of small towns in out-of-way areas. Let's call them edge cities and big, small towns.
“I think of San Marcos, Texas; Norman, Oklahoma or Lawrence, Kansas. Those are edge cities where people are leaving the (metropolitan) city moving out to new suburban areas, 30 to 50 miles away. These regional metro centers are growing.”
And then there are the big, small towns. “You would know that Wichita is the big city in Kansas, but Salina, about 100 miles west of Topeka, is the big boy in the central part of the state.” The population is just under 50,000 countywide.
These small cities in the heartland have Borrell´s "interesting exclusivity" that is hard to fathom in larger towns.
What’s that, you say? You don’t want to live in a small town and run a $3 millon paper? Ok, we get it. Stay in Chicago.
Leave those markets to companies like Adams Publishing Group - APG as it is colloquially known - a start-up founded as recently as 2014 by Mark Adams, the third generation scion of a newspaper family, with family capital, long after the great recession chewed off another chunk off an already shrunken industry.
Since then the group has acquired about 170 newspapers, mostly in edge cities and big, small towns. Eric Johnston, President of APG West told me the acquisition strategy is loosely based on market size and quality - a university, a corporate headquarters or a county seat is a plus - a good relationship with the community, and an intact newsroom.
Their purchases - The Boseman Daily Chronicle, (Montana), The Dundalk Eagle, The Cecil Whig (Maryland), the Pike County News Watchman (Ohio), are both dailies and weeklies, but you won´t see any rebranded as ¨Media” companies. (Rick Edmonds wrote a great piece explaining the background and philosophy of the low-key, if not secretive, APG for Poynter here).
The criteria of economic health does not necessarily mean a resort town, or anything close.
In fact, Policom’s 2019 top ten list of the economically healthiest of 551 Micropolitan areas jerks almost randomly around the country.
Bozeman, Montana, whose newspaper was acquired by APG in 2017, was ranked number one by the index in 2019, just ahead of wealthier resort-town, Summit Park, Utah - home of Swift Communications-owned Summit Daily - which is ahead Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; followed by Hood River, Oregon and Wooster, Ohio - yes, right down the way from Youngstown. If you are not dizzy yet, there is a top ten city in North Dakota, Hawaii, Northern California, as well as Ellensburg, Washington.
Bill Fruth, an economic consultant and owner of Politicom who created the index, says only one factor creates economic strength, “money flowing into the area” for whatever reason.
The core unit in his methodology is not population growth or even jobs per se, but ¨what people earn.” He also subtracts for social service dependencies.
Sometimes there are unique local influxes of money and jobs: Dickinson, North Dakota hit the number one spot when they struck oil and gas, literally. The production of oil discovered in the Bukkan formations beneath the state in 2006, was extended by innovations of horizontal drilling and fracturing, peaking in 2013. By then the state, with a population of about 725,000, had amassed a billion-dollar budget surplus, and an income 29% above the national average.
Wooster and Bozeman do not have oil, however both had aggressive economic development plans that have attracted the right kind of industry. In Wooster it is primarily manufacturing. In Bosemen, it is tech.
“San Jose, this is not,” begins an article in Fast Company on the tech boom in Bozeman, but goes on to point out lifestyle advantages - the scenery, the skiing, the shorter commute. “Its only 15 minutes to get anywhere in Bozeman,” one exec pointed out.
The type of growth is important, Fruth says.
“If you create a million minimum wage jobs you will not have helped the economy. It’s not enough to live on, so (local governments) need to subsidize those people. But if you create $100,000 a year jobs the impact is enormous.”
Cities with cheap land can attract quality corporations to move in.
Coastal cities, on the other hand, like St. Petersburg, a boomtown in Pinellas County, Florida, population 280,000, cannot sustain continued job growth long term because there is no place for new companies to build.
“I know, I used to work for Pinellas County, " Fruth said. Companies located there will have to expand in an edge city, further towards the middle of the state.
Retirement destinations like Martin County, Florida, where Fruth lives, also do not rate high on his scale. “Social Security and Medicare are the biggest importers of money. That creates low paid medical service and retail jobs.
“Wages in Wooster are three times that of wages in Martin County… We haven´t had a new company move here in two years,” he said.All these factors affect a newspaper´s potential.
Good management is, of course, the third leg of the stool. Many small towns have sold or closed because they did not get that part right.
There is no shortage of opinionating on newspaper management. Fruth´s data-free opinion is that local newspapers are too liberal for their markets - that´s why he stopped taking his - but Borrell brushes that theory aside.
“I think people subscribe to a newspaper to learn what's going on in their communities, good/bad/boring and otherwise. If they don't agree with last week's liberal-leaning editorial, they likely will continue subscribing just so they can read the editor's obituary one day.”
Yes, he said, we could quote him.
For this series, we decided to ask the publishers of four super-healthy newspapers for their strategies. Should news be paid or stay free? Should management focus on print, or diversify with multiple business models? Are small family-owned enterprises slower or more nimble than larger chains? What is the right frequency for printing a small town newspaper?
Their answers differ, but we did find some common threads.
Spoiler alert: For the super healthy newspapers exclusive local news is more than a product; it is their superpower.
Part 2 of this series on the rise of the Micropolitan Newspaper will focus on The Miracle in Jackson Hole.