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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Small town papers remain in rude health - for now

I read this story, headlined Small Towns, Big Profits, on Editor & Publisher a while back. It finds that small papers in the US are ticking along very nicely compared to their big-city counterparts. Some are even enjoying record profits and most report their margins remain intact.

The article goes on to explore what big papers could learn from the things that small papers do well - diversfied ad revenue, the personal touch, deep roots in the community, and discipline - and I think it's worth a read.

It's always nice to hear something positive from newspaper-land given the amount of ink currently dedicated to talk of its slow-but-steady demise.

The question, though, is how long rural and small-town newspapers will remain unaffected by the market changes that are eating into big-city newspaper circulation and margins.

As Bob Scaife, a Newspaper Association of America vice president of marketing who is quoted in the article, says: competing media and broadband penetration will eventually reach markets that are now sitting comfortably. "They have to keep an eye over their shoulder with what is going on out there."

I agree. There's no question that ink on paper remains strong in rural and small-town New Zealand. But most of those newspaper readers either don't have internet connections or have dial-up or low-speed broadband. Eventually that will change, and people's reading habits will change along with it - with a clear impact on local papers. Unless, of course, those local papers start working towards developing useful websites. Not much sign of that yet.

Meanwhile, a Marketing Week report on UK regional newspapers makes for grimmer reading. It says regional papers there are struggling and undergoing long-term falls in both circulation and advertising. The article quotes people on the positive side of the spectrum as well as those who say the sector is going through an identity crisis as it transitions from print to online.

It notes a flurry of website start-ups among regional papers - particularly recruitment sites and others aimed at re-capturing lost classified ads - but questions how well they'll be able to compete in the long term. David Newton, a media buyer quoted in the piece, says regional publishers have been "behind the pace in terms of the growth of online and embracing its opportunities."

The article notes that a recent Newspaper Society Annual Regional Press survey found that online makes up only 2.5% of ad revenue for the UK regional press - a very long way to go, then.