Big media has defined the public impression about print - closures, sell-outs, layoffs and dwindling profitability.
But in the world of small publishers it is actually a far more positive scene.
Community newspapers, which comprise the overwhelming number of newspapers across the world, tell a different story to the big media’s narrative of How Digital Killed Print.
The small newspaper market faces similar challenges from media fragmentation, but the strong appetite for hyperlocal news means the local paper continues to provide a great sales and marketing environment.
Take New Zealand.
That reader value is strongly established in local newspapers does not mean the status quo will sustain them ...
I rang the New Zealand Community Newspapers Association president Simon Ellis to ask him how his members were faring. As a consultant working across Australia and NZ, I wanted to understand their pains. I expected they would be caught in the slipstream of the fast-flowing changes in media.
That was true to an extent, but Ellis conveyed a more optimistic picture than I imagined. Smaller publishers, he said, would continue to survive on the back of unique and relevant content. And there was nothing like getting directly into someone’s home with print.
The NZCNA represents 80 mastheads, which produce more than one million newspapers each week and reap about NZ$52 million in advertising per annum.
As someone romantic about newspapers, I wanted to check in that I was not being a Pollyanna about print. As a journalist, I wanted to know the truth. As a consultant, I wanted to know how I could help.
With the NZCNA’s co-operation, I surveyed their members - and, yes, they were buoyant about 2018.
Almost 80 per cent of the respondents were very or extremely confident about the future of their businesses. As well:
Their confidence in the small newspaper market is supported by a study released in 2017 by the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism based at the Columbia Journalism School.
Small newspapers comprise the bulk of the North American newspaper market. In fact, of the 7071 newspapers in the US, almost all (6851) have circulations under 50,000.
As a body, this market has been little researched - and the iconic American papers have defined the narrative about the fortunes of print.
The study found change is impacting on the smaller newspaper market, but it has been slower than for large mastheads. It also confirmed the important place local newspapers had in their communities, providing the bulk of local, quality storytelling.
That reader value is strongly established in local newspapers does not mean the status quo will sustain them, though. The report advised publishers to prioritise income diversification.
“Most small-market newspapers will not be able to survive based on their traditional mix of subscriptions, advertising and single-copy sales. Multiple income streams will be essential if outlets are to secure the stablest future possible,” the report said.
The bigger chains have the resources, partnerships and influence to do this. Smaller publishers, as my sample indicates, are more wary about straying from what they know. Certainly, I find newspaper managements that will talk about the need to diversify but for various reasons struggle to get off first base.
For all publishers there comes a tipping point. Best then to have a plan that is in place and activated.
An obvious area of opportunity for local papers, as the study identifies and I have long advocated, is in events.
Local newspapers are always harassed to sponsor and cover events - but, sheesh, why not run and profit from them directly? Even in the most distressed markets, and I have seen a few, there are opportunities to develop joint ventures.
Newspapers, along with their associated media interests, bring to the table unmatched reach. Partners bring event infrastructure, processes and specialist know-how.
Partnerships reduce the risk and divide the load - and it is a helluva lot easier growing revenue from a handful of good events each year than trying to flog additional column centimetres in a distressed advertising market.
Some larger media outlets, notably Stuff (Fairfax Media) in New Zealand, who we consult to, and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) are staking their future on joint ventures. Stuff has partnered to provide fibre-optic internet services, retail energy and subscription entertainment. SPH is profiting from health and education services. You can argue whether these should be core activities for media companies, but the proof would seem to be in the bottom line.
When publishers contemplate such things, they can encounter self doubts and obstacles such as “we do not have the … experience, skills, relationships, strategy (fill in the blanks).”
Experience shows, though, that opening up partnership conversations quickly flips the mindset. Finding businesses with complementary skills and resources is a winning strategy.
What then makes small publishers confident amid such disruption? Perhaps one of the drivers is the self-satisfaction to have seen plenty of wrong moves by digital media wannabes. Better the late adopter, hey?
But for everyone, there is, or will be, a tipping point.
Even in the best of circumstances, producing newspapers is a complex business with lots of moving parts, fixed costs and market vagaries. This makes breaking away from the operational day-to-day, to think and act strategically, almost impossible.
Typically, I get calls from owners and publishers when they realise that everything they have spent building up over the years (sometimes we are talking generations of family ownership) could disappear before their eyes.
For CEOs and general managers, righting the ship will not get any easier unless a firm plan, including diversification and reconciling the place of print, is developed and activated.
It all comes back to this ... diversify or die.
Four big realities will also bite, if they have not already:
Newspapers, the research shows, equate to trust, credibility and retention of message. Which is everything social media is not. Digital might get our attention but print gets our respect.
Of all newspapers, the local paper is in the best position. Indeed, on the the back of a reawakening about “real news”, the industry should be seeking ways to creatively promote itself as of distinct and high value. Newspapers can also do more to work within their own industry for a networked approach across activities.
However, local papers have a clear call to arms - to act decisively - because of what is ahead.
In short, print can survive but it will have a reduced and distinct place in a broader media ecosystem.
This is complex stuff to get right. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are consistent themes to be addressed, including:
The small newspaper market cannot change the societal and technological forces at play, but it can reset its own operations within the context of today.
Ultimately, success is defined by something less tangible and which no consultant can package up and provide.
Publishers need courage to make bold decisions. Courage to break from the pack. Courage to stay the course. Courage to change.
In many respects, the next chapter in the story of print is, quite aptly, in the capable hands of the people who publish.
* Stuart Howie is executive director of Flame Tree Media and creator of SMART Print™. He is a former editorial director of Fairfax Regional Media, a stable of more than 180 newspapers and associated websites across Australia.
Stuart Howie is a communications and media consultant. He runs Flame Tree Media, which specialises in setting up newsrooms for organisations wanting a better return on communications. Stuart has worked in media and publishing for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.