Most of the grim news you hear about declining newspaper subscriptions is in reference to large metro papers.
While there are some challenges that impact everyone in our industry, the dire accounts tend to emanate from those papers with 50,000 print readers or more.
The story is a little different for smaller newspapers, and that cohort is far and away the majority of newspapers.
Some 97 percent of all newspapers fall into the under-50,000 circulation category. They include about 1,200 daily papers — like the TH — and more than 5,600 weeklies — like other Woodward Communications publications, including the Dyersville Commercial, the Cascade Pioneer and the Manchester Press.
A new study by journalism professors Damian Radcliffe (University of Oregon) and Christopher Ali (University of Virginia) shows that smaller-market papers are doing quite well these days, especially in comparison to their larger counterparts.
Their report “Local News in a Digital World: Small-Market Newspapers in the Digital Age,” points to several reasons why community newspapers are generally faring better, and most of those reasons rang true for the TH.
Big or small, we’re all impacted by the availability of online news and changing reader habits. But Radcliffe and Ali found that smaller papers had better resilience for a few key reasons.
1) Smaller-market papers tend to provide local content readers can’t get anywhere else.
2) Ultra-local advertising markets hold appeal for both consumers and advertisers.
3) Small papers are able to leverage having a physical closeness with their audiences and tend to be more invested in their communities.
Check, check and check.
The report went on to say that the transition to digital content has been different for community newspapers than their larger counterparts. Websites tend to complement the print product, and the news first released there is done so intentionally. Readers have come along at the more deliberate pace set by smaller-market papers.
That absolutely rings true.
Jumping to the website wasn’t a bandwagon move for TH readers. We’ve had our site in place for more than two decades now and the migration started slowly. But digital subscriptions to the TH have been growing by 25 to 100 per month for the last four or five years.
Readers are using the online product in different ways. Before our website, at this time of year, we used to see a drop of 300-400 TH subscriptions when local snowbirds headed off to warmer climes for the winter. Or they switched from home delivery to a mail subscription, delivery of which was inconsistent at best. They’d receive their TH in Arizona, always several days late and sometimes three editions one day and none for the next two days.
Now, those same snowbirds are still reading their TH every morning — paging through the e-edition on their iPads as they sit on the lanai enjoying the warm weather.
The report concludes: “Sizable audiences continue to buy and value local newspapers. As a result, it is incumbent that the sector begin to change its own narrative. Outlets need to be honest with their audiences about the challenges they face, but they can also do more to highlight their unique successes, continued community impact, and important news value.”