Communities without newspapers
July 19, 2014 11:59 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking about starting a newspaper, maybe in a few years. So I am looking for communities without newspapers. Please tell me about the largest such one(s) you know of, about how many people are there, and anything else about the area that might help me decide.
posted by maurreen to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ummm... I think print newspapers are really, really in trouble these days... I cannot imagine there are any communities without a newspaper (except where the local paper has already closed down).
posted by saradarlin at 12:19 AM on July 20, 2014 [9 favorites]

I worked for a small-town newspaper ~10 years ago, and though they've adjusted relatively well to the changes in the marketplace, it's still been rough going, and it's not getting any easier.

You might have better luck starting a "hyperlocal" newspaper in a larger city. Chicago, say, has 9 million people in the metro and 2.5 million in the city, but I also want to know what's going on specifically in my ward/neighborhood of 80,000 people. The Sun-Times can't really cover all that stuff, but a hyperlocal paper can. We actually had a great paper in my neighborhood - all online though - but they closed down. Maybe someone's found a way to make money off of hyperlocals, but they didn't. Still think it's a better bet than starting a paper in a small town, though.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 12:26 AM on July 20, 2014 [7 favorites]

I've had a vision, the perfect solution for you: drone-based delivery of papers to capture far-flung low-population-density markets or niche constituencies in urban areas that never got any attention from publishers anyways, so a morning paper relevant to their interests would be an exciting novelty for your customers!

There's got to be some sweet spot with Amazon Prime Air, the combination of print on demand capabilities and the drone infrastructure... you'd be their secret weapon to command a daily morning paper delivery that they can anchor a revenue stream around and upsell people to tack on the coffee cream they ran out of to the delivery or the USB thumb drive they need or the 3D-printed plastic pistol + ammo because they've got an errand on the bad side of town today, and have been reading about all of the meth addict police blotter shenanigans from your paper!

I know nothing about the newspaper industry, so this is probably thinking out side the box or one of those other things that people in business school tell me are so great. I should probably do a TED talk.
posted by XMLicious at 1:10 AM on July 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What goodbywaffles suggests is a good idea. I was a supervisor/junior-executive at a smallish newspaper (6 day per week/approx. 50,000 circ.) early to middle career. Here are a few observations which might be helpful:

Places which do not currently have a newspaper generally do not for a simple reason: it's hard to make a viable business plan for that area. Odds are that someone has already tried and failed. There are lots of variables involved but generally it's the old story of "too much cost/too little revenue." Production and distribution costs are substantial, especially if your circulation area is fairly wide. The "gravy train" of newspaper revenue in the pre-Internet days was classified ads. Those days are decidedly over.

We reported over a densely populated, wide geographical area, covering about a dozen towns. We were in competition with both other small local papers (town specific for the most part) and one of the big-chain papers serving a large municipality. We were successful (and it still is) because there was a strong emphasis on excellent local reporting and a very cost-conscious business strategy. Still, there were a few extended periods of wage freezes and one period where there were wage reductions (in lieu of laying people off.)

I don't want to seem discouraging and in fact, I want to applaud you for having this particular dream. Every community deserves a good paper. But my caution to you is to really do your groundwork on both the biz side and the journalism side. It will not be easy but if you do the work you have a chance to create a profitable and socially significant institution.

It's been a while since I've been active in the biz; I career-shifted over to a start up ISP in the early to mid-90s because I saw both the handwriting on the wall for the industry as well as a personal opportunity for myself. If you think it worthwhile, pm me with questions, etc... Be happy to share what little I know.
posted by CincyBlues at 4:15 AM on July 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

One item to look at closely is whether there's a press in the area who will print your newspaper. I do ads for a friend who publishes a regional free newspaper (ad-supported and aimed at a very specific demographic) and the closest newspaper printer that sells press time to outside publications is an hour+ drive away.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:59 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just an echo here. Communities without newspapers are that way because those communities can't support a newspaper.

The model is antiquated. The internet is killing newspapers not because newspapers were so awesome, the were ad flyers with journalism in them, but because advertisers would MUCH rather target their customers and know that their message is getting to people who are waiting to hear it.

I think you need to give us some more insight as to what about publishing and distributing a newspaper appeals to you.

Anecdata: I used to get the Dunwoody Crier at my house. It was thrown on my driveway for free on Wednesdays. Which was convenient because I could pick it up and put it directing into the recycle bin.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:46 AM on July 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Dunwoody Crier was probably mostly ads. If you could somehow figure out how to make a paper that contained mostly useful information, and could convince people to support it, then you could well succeed.

Also - most of the comments above seem to assume you intend to actually print a newspaper on _paper_; that's not necessarily the only way, is it? Although, in a rural area, you might want to couple your new startup with a grassroots drive to get everyone connected to the net.
drone-based delivery of papers
Please don't do this; it would be very wasteful.
posted by amtho at 5:56 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you may want to look into areas similar to Sheboygan, Sheboygan Falls, or Plymouth, WI to see what they are doing. I know that most of us (I spend half the week in Sheboygan County) get both the Press and the Review, but they come through the mail - they aren't delivered.

I am ALWAYS surprised by how much the classified section in both papers is alive and well (relatively speaking). People advertise all kinds of things - from puppies to drinking glasses to auctions. I am also surprised that the tradition of clipping and exchanging printed articles through the mail and in person is going strong - just last week a friend brought me a gardening article.

If I had to guess, you are looking for a fairly rural small town like Plymouth or Sheboygan Falls or a county that has very little internet access and a low median income. I think that is what drives both of the papers in our area. Internet access is expensive for regular folks and there is an aging (50+) population that is still not computer/internet friendly.

I think the Sheboygan Press was bought out by a conglomerate a few years ago and is now run with a smattering of other small papers, so there may be some competition there. Or maybe that is the key - to start and/or buy up a local area.

Just some ideas/things to chew on.
posted by Tchad at 6:35 AM on July 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's a hyperlocal paper in my area that I enjoy: The Northwest Observer. It covers the northwest area of Greensboro and a few bedroom/semi-rural communities (Oak Ridge, Stokesdale, Summerfield). It it a small (usually around 30 tabloid-sized pages) weekly paper that gets mailed to everyone in certain zip codes. It has regular review of the various town council meetings, articles about things that are going on in the area (festivals, highway widening, development plans), a Q&A section where people can write in with questions, a "Grins and Gripes" section in which people can anonymously submit short appreciations or grievances about things (this is frequently unintentionally hilarious), profiles of local high school students, etc.

It isn't hard-hitting investigative journalism, but it is interesting and useful, and I'm glad they're producing it.
posted by jeoc at 7:53 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I guess I didn't really answer your question, but you might be better served by looking at communities in which newspapers are successful and then determining how you might replicate that success elsewhere. Just identifying the largest place without a newspaper may not be the way to go.
posted by jeoc at 7:54 AM on July 20, 2014

At a minimum, you have to figure a way to deliver your product electronically. Printing/delivery is too expensive.

Where I live, we have a paper that is a shadow of its former self, and we also have this: I imagine its hard to build up a readership for a community bulliton board but it would be a lot cheaper to get going.

You might also consider an email delivered newsletter. This is still a viable model for special interest markets, though not for general news.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:45 AM on July 20, 2014

Best answer: I have a friend (Lissa Harris) who did what you're thinking about about ten years ago, and as far as I know has been successful with it. She moved to an area of the Catskills where several neighboring towns had no local news, and started a web-only news site, the Watershed Post. She already had family ties in the area, and the cost of living was low for her so she could afford to just do all the work herself (going to all the local town meetings, selling all the ads, etc) and scrape by for a while to get it established. She had experience as a reporter in a large metro area, and was willing to work all the time. I'm pretty sure it's still a ton of work for not a lot of money, but she gets to live in the place she wants, and gets to provide this service she thinks is important. You can find her contact info on the site and ask her if she has reflections for you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:05 AM on July 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I am going to expand the context and clarify my question.

I have worked as a journalist for more than 15 years. I know newspapers are a dying medium. But: 1) On the whole, nothing has yet replaced local newspapers. 2) There is still a need for local news and information media of some type. 3) I am not wedded to any particular type. Whatever I build will likely use multiple media.

When I said “communities without newspapers,” I defined “communities” broadly. So, for instance, that includes areas that are now included in a metro daily but not covered very well … hyperlocal areas. It could include ethnic communities, except as a white monolingual person, I’m probably not best suited for those. Etc.

I’m aware of the challenges of the news industry. I have some ideas about overcoming those, and am aware of other people working on the issues.

If I start a newspaper or news site, I would not be looking to make a lot of money. But I think I could make it worthwhile.

In a couple of years, I expect to leave the area I am now in. I am looking for markets that are underserved with news and information and hopefully advertising. I can’t believe they don’t exist.
posted by maurreen at 10:52 AM on July 20, 2014

Maybe it would help to know where some hyperlocal news communities already exist? If so, try
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:35 AM on July 20, 2014

Best answer: I doubt there are many communities that never had a newspaper. But there are plenty where newspapers have died. Check out this website: Not sure if it's up to date, to be honest. I remember seeing it a few years ago, along with this study about how communities without newspapers see civic engagement drop off. Wikipedia also has a list of defunct newspapers in the U.S., which should be up to date. Read it and weep.

In my opinion, the future of newspapers is as non-profit organizations designed to serve the public. Yes, everyone who works there will get paid and make a living. But no one is looking to make a pile of money. The newspaper exists for the public good. Also, the future of newspapers is very likely online via websites and on mobile devices via phone apps and Kindles/Nooks.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:37 PM on July 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Most of the newer local papers I'm familiar with were started by people with some history and contacts in the area. While there's definitely a market for the hyperlocal even in cities with existing dailies (my own area has the twelve-year-old ad-supported Glendale Cherry Creek Chronicle, and if you'd like to see a print copy, memail me and I'll send you one) I think trying to enter that market without local connections is extremely risky.

It's a real public service, though, and I don't agree that the only way to do it now is online. Local advertisers are frequently more willing to pay for print space, and it's easier to build that funding base faster than it is to try to sell online subscriptions or solicit donations. Plus there's some value to the reader in local advertisements (restaurant coupons and such) over a flood of not-especially-local online advertising.
posted by asperity at 9:29 AM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

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