What happens when a one-newspaper town becomes a no-newspaper town?

This year large metropolitan newspapers have folded in Seattle, Denver, and Tucson. More will likely follow. Journalists at the Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News, and the Citizen joined the 10,000 print newsies downsized or bought out from print newsrooms over the past few decade. Media pundits (including me) cluck-cluck incessantly over these democracy-wrenching signs of the impending journalistic apocalypse.

But readers in those cities still have print options for newspapers providing some local news.

Not so in the mountain town of Carbondale, Colo., whose population about equals its elevation. The Valley Journal, founded in 1975, had its plug pulled in March, reports DeeDee Correll of the Center for Rural Affairs. The 6,000 residents had no other sources of local news.

Their solution: Publish a newspaper themselves.

A core of volunteers started the Sopris Sun, running it as non-profit free weekly with a press run of 3,000 copies. Why’d they do it? Says the Journal‘s original founder, Rebecca Young: “It just beat the dickens out of sitting around whining that our paper was dead.”

Carbondale’s solution was civic-minded. It taps every possible source of revenue, including grants. Says Carbondale Mayor Michael Hassig:

I don’t know if they have a business model that will work. It wouldn’t surprise me if [the newspaper] was sustainable because there are an awful lot of people who do labors of love here. There was a void. Every town should have a park, a library and a newspaper.” [emphasis added]

The Sun, of course, has days of reckoning ahead. Commitment and pride may drive volunteerism, but is free labor a sustainable business model? Will printing 3,000 copies a week be a cost that eventually cannot be borne? Will volunteers shy away from penetrating coverage of their neighbors and friends who may be public officials or business owners? Will the Sun succumb to soft-feature-itis by being unable or unwilling to produce eat-your-veggies journalism?

American has thousands of small daily and weekly newspapers. The mean circulation of the American daily newspaper is about 38,000 — but I’ll bet the median circulation is a third of that.

Small papers’ chances of economic survival are much higher than the metro newspapers of large cities. Small papers offer unique goods – local news and a local audience for local advertisers. Big newspapers are targets of aggregators galore. Their goods are not always unique.

Carbondale could react quickly to fulfill the communal void left by the demise of its newspaper. Could Cleveland? Portland (either one)? Tampa Bay? Dallas? Boise? Toledo? Burlington? San Diego? St. Louis? Spokane? Buffalo?

America’s cities are largely served by only one daily newspaper of substance. (Yes, that substance has been diluted by foolish cost-saving measures such as firing or buying out the professionals who report and write the product the papers are trying to sell.) We’ve seen the first metro dailies fail. What happens when the lone metro of a large city ceases print publication?

Perhaps opportunity happens. Dan Conover, says his bio, edited a big metro-daily and took a buyout in 2008 after 18 years in the news business. He makes this observation:

A client looking to invest in media asked me earlier this month for advice on what might replace failing newspapers. My response? There are plenty of interesting ideas in play, but the first meaningful test won’t come until a major American city loses its only metro daily. So wait.

That’s because metro newspapers are taking up the market space in which the innovation he’s looking for must occur. Newspapers may be failing, but most do a passable job of limiting serious competition in their markets. What succeeds in the shadow of an established metro, therefore, may not be what ultimately winds up contending for the market positions vacated by Old Media giants. [emphasis added]

That’s an interesting perspective. So pundits like me will be watching what’s lining up to contest for that “market space” about to be relinquished, developments in Seattle, Denver, and Tucson suggest, by large metro dailies.

[Thx to my colleague Carole McNall.]

3 replies »

  1. Fascinating! Esp. Conover’s comment that a major daily needs to fail before true innovation can begin.

    Somewhat related: I live in a town of 25,000 plus 25,000 students. The local paper sill exists, although it’s not clear to me how: about six months ago, the owners started delivering it free to every house in town. I have no idea how the bills are being paid (and yes, the daily edition is so frail and reed thin that it blow away in a strong wind, literally and figuratively).

    So in some sense, it’s also a labor of love a la Carbondale, although, again, how long the love will last is unclear.

  2. Interesting points. It’s funny. My knee-jerk reaction is to think I couldn’t trust a news source that accepts grant money; though I suppose I do have some trust of Public Television and NPR. If “labor of love” becomes the business model in even a large minority of communities, I can’t help but feel a few of those communities will receive a real bargain while the vast majority will be treated to nothing more than advertising.

    These next few years will be interesting if nothing else.