August 7, 2019
Community publications have a chance to carry the best of their pasts into the future
Some of North Carolina’s remaining independent, for-profit news publishers share their early successes and needs as they look to the future
by Melanie Sill
NC Local is a weekly email newsletter about North Carolina local news, information and storytelling. This post originally appeared in the weekly NC Local newsletter edition on August 7, 2019 and has been modified slightly for the Local News Lab. Subscribe to NC Local here.
The deepening local news crisis got more attention nationally this past week: GateHouse Media’s owner announced it would buy Gannett to boost revenue and reduce costs in the combined newspaper company, and The New York Times published a series of stories on local news focused mostly on the newspaper industry’s struggles.
In North Carolina, the Outer Banks Sentinel announced that the weekly newspaper would stop printing. In his final column for the Sentinel, publisher Mark Jurkowitz wrote: “There is only one reason we are making this announcement. Sadly, the financial realities of operating a print newspaper in this era made it impossible to sustain the publication.”
Old forms are passing, but new opportunities exist
Yet the Sentinel’s sad news came with a part two: Jurkowitz and Rick Loesch, owner of East Carolina Radio Inc., recently bought the Outer Banks Voice digital publication and plan to merge the two websites and keep covering local stories.
The bad-news, good-news announcement captured these times in community journalism: Old forms are passing, but new opportunities exist. Jurkowitz noted that the nine-year-old Voice, with 7 million annual page views and 66,000 Facebook followers, “is a real success story and we plan to take it to the next level — and to add the best of Sentinel journalism to its already rich diet of news and information.”
Community publications, with strong local positions and connections, have a chance to nail the transition to digital and do even more, carrying the best of their print pasts into the future.
Community newspapers don’t get as much attention in the national discussion about local news as metro dailies, which have sustained the biggest losses in advertising and shed the largest numbers of employees. The US News Deserts research from UNC and Knight Prof. Penelope Muse Abernethy shows the losses and increased consolidation of chain ownership, and reminds us that across the state, these papers make up most of the titles.
Local news has spawned countless startups, journalism innovation and audience growth amid newspapers’ struggles. Almost all of the growth has been in digital operations and the growing number of nonprofit newsrooms, most of which operate at small scale and with a focus on public interest journalism.
Yet the net result, as a recent Pew Research Center report showed, is a 25 percent loss in the number of US journalists since 2008.
Finding surprising optimism with independent publishers
Given all that, many would be surprised by the optimism and determination of North Carolina’s remaining independent, for-profit news publishers, some of whom gathered recently in Southern Pines to make or renew connections and to talk about challenges, tactics and strategy.
Here are just a few of the initiatives and experiments they shared:
Publisher Les High reports that the papers digital subscription push has increased circulation revenue by 47 percent over last year so far. The program includes a corporate subscription plan and free subscriptions for 500 students at a local high school, sponsored by a former resident. Editor Justin Smith also produces and hosts a two- to three-minute video show, The Columbus Report, twice a week on Facebook and Instagram, which has drawn sponsors. The paper also plans to set up a charitable arm to help secure funding for civic engagement initiatives, High says.
Recognized as one of the nation’s best community newspapers, it has diversified its business in recent years to add four regional magazines, Business North Carolina magazine, and the local bookstore, and has built a lively sub-brand through newsletter-guide-events host The Sway, now contributing significant revenue.
North Carolina’s last two independent dailies, The Wilson Times and Dunn Daily Record, recently formed a business partnership as Restoration Newsmedia (including several community papers) to combine production and ad production, freeing up more resources for local journalism and advertising sales. Restoration also has built a business doing production for other papers, among a long list of initiatives to cut legacy costs and grow revenue.
A newspaper with a 141-year history serving an eight-county area in that region with a focus on news for the black community, it has an affiliated foundation focused on education that extends the company’s service through charitable fundraising.
A new era for North Carolina newspapers
The independent publishers gathering, which NC Local helped organize and The Pilot hosted with support from the NC Local News Lab Fund, also included leaders from the Hendersonville Lightning, Qcitymetro.com and The Chatham News + Record.
Over meals and through a day of conversations and presentations, publishers described successes and struggles, shared their publications’ stories and aired worries and fears. Some themes included:
Digital Subscriptions: Most are experimenting with digital subscriptions or memberships (in the case of digital newsroom Qcitymetro.com, which just launched its Qcity Press Club). Yet these efforts are pretty new, and publishers are eager to learn more — from peers, industry research or others — about both tactics and strategy.
Common Needs: Despite the variety in their audiences and histories, locally owned community publications share some common need. Among them: How to do audience research, both quantitative and qualitative; how to measure what’s working, via digital tools or other metrics; and how to tap into successful approaches that are being used by publications elsewhere.
The Big Question: The biggest question, for the newspapers: how to expand beyond print, which still provides most of their revenue, to forge digital audiences and business built on local connections. For the digital startups: how to reach people with coverage, engage them as community and build loyalty and revenue from digital audiences.
Some of the publishers who met in Southern Pines think print will be around a long time and shouldn’t be written off (one even has seen recent growth in classified advertising).
That dilemma — how to build a digital service while serving print subscribers and advertisers who are loyal, paying customers — confounded the daily newspaper industry. Community publications, with strong local positions and connections, have a chance to nail that transition and do even more, carrying the best of the past into the best of the future.
At the Outer Banks Sentinel, publisher Jurkowitz took care in his final column to thank subscribers, readers, staff members, advertisers and the community, and recognized those who’d built the paper going back to its founding in 1996.
In closing, he looked ahead to the merger of the Sentinel site with the Outer Banks Voice: “I hope you’ll give us a chance to continue the relationship we started here.”
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Melanie Sill is a veteran news leader and change-maker now working as a senior consultant on the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. She was the top editor and news executive at The News & Observer of Raleigh, the Sacramento Bee and KPCC/ Southern California Public Radio and directed The N&O’s Pulitzer-winning “Boss Hog” series in the mid-1990s.