Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Daughter to Dad: It’s a local issue

My recent comparison of newspapers to farms drew a number of comments from fellow journalists, but the one that gave me pause was from an unusual source – my daughter.

“Unusual” is not quite a fair term, as Gillian has never been afraid to voice her opinion. She has not only her father’s genes but also has a journalism degree from the University of Oregon.

Not that she shared my addiction to newsrooms. She instead became an elementary school teacher before tackling the full-time job of raising my rambunctious grandson and his lively little sister. At 31, she and her husband live in Charlottesville, VA, where she balances motherhood with authoring magazine articles and a book.

All that detail is a long way of saying she has a marketing bull’s-eye on her back. Gillian is in the demographic that newspaper advertisers most want – middle-class, college-educated moms who make the buying decisions for their fairly affluent families. And she even lives in the outer suburbs of the East Coast megalopolis.

All of us in the news media want the Gillians. My expert, however, warns that to woo them we need to work a lot harder than just diversifying into niche papers.

“I think that the key is localization not specialization,” she wrote, taking issue with a suggestion by the University of North Carolina’s Phil Meyer. “ I think that the generation that I, and in most ways (her 25-year-old brother) Garrett, are part of are heading to a hyper-local mindset.”

“Hyper-local.” How often have we heard that buzzword at conferences? And how well have we done at actually accomplishing it?

Gillian said she cares not a whit about the plays on Broadway nor who became the new mayor in San Antonio. She concedes that she regularly read the Sunday New York Times … “but it was the first thing to go when our budget got cut -- I could give it up easily.” The Gray Lady was fun, but she found she could get similar content from the plethora of online sites.

Staggering Dad: “Knife in the heart, dear daughter. What’s an old newspaper man to do?”

Impatient Daughter: “How about pay attention?”

“What I can't give up is reading the C-Ville and The Hook, which are focused specifically on Charlottesville. The "local" paper, The Daily Progress, focus too much on county information for me, so I never read it.”

C-Ville and The Hook? Though they sound like Comedy Network shows they in fact are just two of the umpteen non-daily newspapers in the United States that many journalists pretend do not exist. They don’t count among the Newspaper Association of America’s 1,422 – er, make that 1,420 – “real” daily newspapers. No one writes wistful op-ed piece about “what will the world be like without C-Ville?” In fact, I’ve never been able to find more than a guess at how many weekly newspapers are published in the United States.

(Brian Steffens of the small papers’ National Newspaper Association said “more than 7,000” is a safe estimate, though he has 11,000 unverified titles in his database.)

In both my heart and mind, I believe Gillian is right. But that does not mean only the metros are threatened by the recession. Cathy Harding, editor of my daughter’s beloved C-Ville, reminded me that the famous Creative Loafing filed bankruptcy and most other “alternative weeklies” are struggling with the downturn of advertising. No one is immune from the economy.

For some, the economy of small scale is a blessing. The Hook’s editor/publisher Hawes Spencer said the paper is down about 20%, “but that is not a fatal blow.” Like many small papers, everyone on his staff has multiple jobs and the company operates on a pay-as-you-go budget. The Hook has no middle management and no debt. Wouldn’t McClatchy love that?

Enough with the business stuff. What about Gillian’s local focus?

Local does indeed have an enticing appeal, both of her favorite editors said. While the daily paper is event-driven, Harding said the weekly gives readers something they can settle into for a while. They do that by drawing meaning from fact instead of just reporting the facts alone.

Both papers also put great stock in appearance. “If it was just a rag … it wouldn’t have the loyalty it has,” Harding said. C-Ville is “attractive, bright and free.”

Like the Internet. But neither editor holds out much hope for the digital medium. Revenues from their excellent Web sites are “microscopic.” Hard analysis shows the print publication stands up well to the Web readership, but those digital editions are an “investment in reader habit” that awaits the genius who can pull a Web revenue rabbit from the next generation’s hat.

So don’t give up on print, my dear daughter advises.

“I really do hope that there is a stronger future for small, local, even weekly papers,” Gillian wrote. “I think that the generation coming into things is too used to using to get their national news to ever really get into the swing of reading one of the big papers.

“But as we age, we will find ourselves wanting to know what our neighbors are up to.”

Eureka! She really did inherit my news nose.