Kevin Slimp: Why are some newspapers growing?

Answers from publishers at growing papers provide a range of insights.

Over the past few weeks, I've spoken (virtually) at five state and regional press association conventions. In all but one, my leadoff topic was 'What's going on in newspapers right now?', based on my most recent research among newspaper publishers throughout the US and Canada.

At all five conferences, I spoke on the topic, 'Getting people to pick up your paper', using information from my research and other sources to help publishers and others understand what we can do to get more readers which in turn, gets more advertisers to read and advertise in our papers.

In my past few columns, I've discussed results of my 2020 publishers survey, completed by publishers and managers representing more than 600 newspapers and groups. Today, I'd like to look at the last section of the survey, which gives participants the opportunity to share advice about what has worked for them over the past year.

There were thousands of responses from folks eager to share their thoughts, so I'm going to stick with responses from the 16 per cent of newspapers that have grown over the past five years. Respondents in this group universally commented that "keeping everything local" was important to sustaining growth, and I've written enough about that, so we'll move on from there.

One respondent, from a small weekly in the Northeast region of the US wrote, "We began a 'Support local business subscription campaign.' When someone subscribes in the name of a business and we'll give them $5 in advertising credit."

A midsize weekly (4,000-7,000) on the West Coast wrote that some of their growth correlated with a stronger opinion section in the paper.

A large weekly (12,000-20,000) in the Southwest US confirmed what a lot of growing newspapers noted: A redesign of the newspaper was credited as one reason for their growth.

Another publisher from the Southwest US indicated one key to growth at his/her newspaper was "Getting copies in people's hands with subscription forms."

A small weekly in the US Great Plains region noted some of their growth was due to a focus on children and family activities, while a midsize weekly in the Southwest noted, "daily calls for subscriptions that are one month from expiring" was very successful for them. The respondent went on to add, "We are renewing 75 per cent of them over the phone."

The publisher at a growing midsize weekly in the US Great Plains region wrote, "We did a county-wide saturation mailing for two weeks."

A free weekly publisher in the Midwest responded that a key to their paper's growth was "aggressive sales and marketing."

One of the last questions on the survey was, "If you were asked to share one lesson you have learned in your newspaper career, what would it be?"

Here are just a few nuggets of wisdom from publishers of growing papers:

  • A publisher at a free weekly in the Southeast US wrote, "Network with other publishers to learn new methods of generating revenue and survival";
  • Another publisher from the Southeast US wrote, "Always make sure your employees are happy. When they are, they will do a good job";
  • "Listen to your readers and develop a product people want to read";
  • Quality local stories, written by local people who live in the community, plus great photos and good layout make for something that will interest most members of a community";
  • "Give readers and advertisers more than they expect";
  • "Always under-promise and over-deliver";
  • "Believe in your product. Those who work for a newspaper, really work for their communities. It's a privilege and it's a service".

I couldn't have said it better. In my next column, we will look at a software product that just might change the way we design newspapers.

A personal plug: If you haven't already, check out my fiction books, 'The Good Folks of Lennox Valley' and 'Who Killed A.J. Fryerson?' Both are now available wherever books are sold and follow the exploits of a small-town weekly newspaper publisher as she searches for truth in a community with shady politicians who will do anything to discredit her.

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