By Kevin Slimp

So many topics, so little space. This morning, I created a poll on my Facebook wall, which includes thousands of newspaper friends, and asked for help in deciding among three potential topics for this column. The poll looked like this:

I need your thoughts. Help me pick a topic for my column today. Select one of the following?

  • A few new tools out there to help newspaper folks get their jobs done.
  • The fallout from my previous Digital First column and their announcement to close down their Thunderdome division.
  • What I learned from working with six small papers in Nebraska this month about running successful papers.

Within minutes, I received 40 or so responses. I was a little surprised at the results. Almost 60 percent selected “What I learned from working with six small papers in Nebraska.”

Approximately 22 percent chose “A few new tools,” while 19 percent selected a column concerning the Digital First fallout.

I wasn’t surprised that the column on successful small newspapers was selected, but I didn’t expect a blowout. Making the results even more surprising,  I could tell who voted for what and it was clear that people at large dailies are just as interested in what the papers in Nebraska are doing to be successful as are people in small community papers.

So let me tell you a little about Nebraska. Rob Dump and his wife, Peggy, own six small papers in rural northeast Nebraska. The largest is Cedar County News in Hartington. According to US Census Bureau numbers, Hartington has dropped in population from 1,662 in 1990 to approximately 1,500 today.

The circulation of Cedar County News is 2,000. The circulation of the five smaller papers averages 900 each, with the smallest, The Coleridge Blade, reporting a circulation of 312. Total circulation for all six papers is 6,500.

Scenes for the movie “Nebraska” were filmed at the Osmond Republican.

Rob, along with Peggy, attended the Institute of Newspaper Technology years ago and has been contacting me ever since about my coming to work with their papers. The obvious problem was the cost associated with flying a consultant across the country to spend a few days in Hartington.

I learned years ago, when Jean Matua (another Institute alum) had both Ken Blum and me at her newspaper, a 1,300-circulation weekly in a Minnesota town of 700, in the same week to work with her and her staff of one, that such problems are opportunities for people like Rob and Jean. So I wasn’t surprised when Rob called me a few months back to let me know he had received a government grant to bring me to Nebraska.

After arriving in Sioux Falls and making the 90-minute drive to Hartington on Wednesday, I spent Thursday training Rob’s incredibly impressive staff. Most seemed to be graduates of journalism schools in or near Nebraska. His daughter, Kalee, shared time between school at The University of Nebraska, in Lincoln, and working with the paper in Hartington. Most of the staff had worked at the papers for extensive periods and seemed to thoroughly enjoy their work.

The staffs of all six papers gathered on the town’s primary street, in a former store that has since been converted to a home for the newspaper press, with a conference area in the front.

We spent most of the day improving the photo editing process for the papers and training the staff in advanced skills using Adobe InDesign. We worked on improving their method of creating ads for their websites and making the printing process go more smoothly.

On day two, I worked individually with several of the staff members. Peggy and I created a new system for streamlining her classifieds, using nested styles in InDesign. Rob and I began the work to create a photo archiving system for the papers. I worked with other staff members to solve PDF problems, get all the fonts to work together in all six papers and streamline the entire process.

At the end of day two, Rob and I sat in his office and discussed the time we’d spent together. He was amazed at how much we’d gotten done.  “I never imagined we could do so much in just two days,” he told me a few times.

Then it was my turn to ask questions. In our conversation I learned that all of his papers were written and designed in the communities they served.

All six papers have editors who live in, or near, the towns they serve. And get this: All are profitable.

I asked Rob how he could afford to have a paper with a circulation of 312.

“Well, people ask me that question a lot,” he said, “and I look at it this way. We’re able to pay for our staff and to make a little profit.” He continued, “And it’s good for the community to have its own newspaper.”

Rob pretty much summed up what I say are the three qualities that exist in most successful newspapers:

  • Focus on local content, produced locally
  • Support and training for staff
  • A quality sales staff that understands the role and benefits of newspaper advertising

Maybe next month, we can discuss those new tools.

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