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Experts ponder future of small-town daily newspapers


Rob Collins July 31st, 2008

In the far west edge of The Norman Transcript's building stands a massive piece of machinery. The blue, eight-unit Goss Urbanite can be spied near a walkway where tour groups view the running press wi...

Norman-Transcript-press-77m
Professor of Community Journalism. "If you owned five newspapers in an area, maybe you can have a central accounting office instead of having an individual at each location, and you provide group buys for your papers and things of this sort to provide economic efficiencies. And that's helped the profit margins."

Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein recently argued the newspaper industry cannot be salvaged as long as owners insist on returning to hefty 20 percent profit margins. While newspapers are still profitable, Hix said, publishers are feeling the pinch and reacting by slashing budgets and staff.

"They are having to fight this historical high profit, and it's making it tougher to keep that level of profit, and stockholders aren't happy," Hix said. "With the lower profit margins, how do we maintain it? How do we keep it from slipping further? We need to stay alive, and what do we do? What changes are we going to have to make to keep newspapers viable?"

YESTERDAY'S NEWS
Jack Willis witnessed a newspaper's transition from local to corporate ownership as managing editor, when the highly profitable Muskogee Phoenix was acquired by Gannett Company Inc. in the Seventies.

"Salaries were very low, so when Gannett took over all that, profit started going to them," Willis said. "But they did, over time, raise salaries. "¦ Obviously I'm prejudiced, but I thought it became one of the better papers in the state. I think that corporate push for quality helped me and helped the paper, but also they pushed for the bottom line.

"They want you to do more for less. That's one reason I got out. "¦ It just kept getting harder and harder to do it within the budget, and with a big corporation, that's what you've got to do."

Willis left Muskogee in August 1993 to become faculty adviser at OU's student-run Oklahoma Daily. Meanwhile, the Muskogee paper was purchased in 2006 by CNHI. The Alabama state pension system is the corporation's largest investor, according to Columbia Journalism Review.

"(CNHI) didn't buy that to win the Pulitzer Prize," said the now-retired Willis. "Those guys didn't start that chain to win Pulitzers. They started it to make money because newspapers are profitable. And they still are."

The pressures are real. According to the new Project for Excellence in Journalism study, "The Changing Newsroom," 63 percent of smaller-market editors expressed concern about erosion of the wall dividing the news and business departments. And as a cost-cutting measure, three quarters of all editors surveyed said their newspapers' width had been trimmed, literally shrinking news holes.

What's the biggest threat? Corporate cutbacks can milk publications dry, said Terry Clark, chair of the Department of Mass Communication at the University of Central Oklahoma.

"You ought to know if you take away what people are buying you for, they're going to quit taking you," Clark said of dwindling circulation numbers. "I'm frightened for the future of newspapers as we know them because they're essential to our freedoms. But the pictures are not good."

Rieger, a former co-owner of the Cleveland County Record weekly newspaper, said he hopes small-town publications can continue to thrive. If these dailies disappear, the watchdog may be put out to pasture.

"My concern is that most of the news generated in the United States comes from newspapers," he said. "If newspapers go away, then that news also goes away."

For editors facing cutbacks, push can come to shove. Deb Flemming, editor of the CNHI-owned Mankato (Minnesota) Free Press, eliminated her own position instead of cutting two reporting slots in the newsroom in 2005, according to CJR. Although management said day-to-day operations would not be influenced by the departure, Flemming said the elimination allowed more reporters on the street.

And when local newspapers lack continuity with a revolving door of publishers, Bannister said, community prestige is diminished.

Is it innovation or desperation when two Oklahoma newspapers " the CNHI-owned Edmond Sun and The Clinton Daily News " switch to a snail-mail distribution model? Earlier this summer, the Edmond paper told readers maintaining an internal delivery force is more difficult with rising gas and newsprint costs.

"Our company knows how valuable local news is to Edmond and it is our commitment to our readers and advertisers to provide them with the best product possible," said Keith Ponder, vice president and division manager of the Great Plains Division for CNHI, according to Oklahoma Publisher, the monthly publication of the Oklahoma Press Association.

STOP THE PRESS
Don't write that obituary for small-market dailies just yet. All the journalism instructors interviewed by Gazette agreed smaller-market newspapers will continue, but they must evolve with the changing technology.

"Newspapers are going to be around," Willis said. "I think the platforms are going to be different, but more people are reading than ever. They may not be just reading the newspaper with paid subscription, but people read. There's always going to be a market for it."

Clark, whose 20 years of newspaper experience includes owning the Waurika News-Democrat, still reads The New York Times every morning. However, instead of spending his time exclusively with newsprint, he surfs the Web daily to check headlines.

"I'm picking up news from lots of different sources, which is good, but the newspaper is not the main one anymore," said Clark, who praised several community papers, including the CNHI-owned Norman Transcript.

As more readers migrate online, newspaper executives are struggling with how to translate traditional display advertising revenue to the Web.

"(Papers) have to change and they have to adapt, just like we went from typewriters to computers, from letterpress to offset, from darkrooms to digital. Everything's changing, and it's changing faster and faster now," Willis said. "And now you don't even have to have a press."

In Norman, Rieger acknowledged how staff has to work smarter and harder to make money in the newspaper business. The Transcript is buoyed by Internet traffic, with page views increasing 12 percent over last year and daily visitors rising 15 percent. With the traditional press, Norman's revenue still flows with the Goss press churning out commercial print jobs like The Oklahoma Daily.

"There's no question that we run a tighter ship," Rieger said. "We're always looking for ways to save money and to partner with other publications. You know the term "

 
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