By Danielle Lanning, ONA intern
Weekly newspapers in Ohio have long brought specialized coverage to their communities that online and larger media outlets can’t provide. With the changing times, though, what’s next for Ohio’s weeklies?
To gauge the state of weekly newspapers in Ohio, the ONA recently conducted a survey of weekly editors and publishers. The majority of the respondents showed that staffing, circulation, number of printed pages and advertising revenue have all decreased within the past five years.
However, the survey also found that 54 percent of the respondents said they were optimistic about the future of weeklies, and 23 percent said they might be.
Merging papers, resources
One way some Ohio weeklies are adjusting to the changing media landscape is by consolidating papers and resources. For example, Today’s Pulse of Butler County and Today’s Pulse of Warren County recently converted from six weeklies to two, each with a county news focus, according to Terry Bouquot, the senior director of business operations. He said in his survey comments that the significant change has helped from an “efficiency and profitability perspective” as well as simplifying the sales and content approach.
“We continue to invest in our weekly newspapers and continue to see tremendous opportunity as they remain very profitable and are positioned in very strong demographic markets with additional growth potential,” Bouquot said in his survey comments.
Another weekly newspaper company, DHI Media Group, recently connected multiple newsrooms in order to share articles easily and quickly. Kirk Dougal, the publisher of DHI Media Group, said the reporters and editors have also been able to work together to create more in-depth stories.
However, maintaining staffing has been a problem for 62 percent of the weeklies who responded to the ONA survey. Staffing has decreased overall, and still 69 percent of respondents said it’s difficult to find adequate people to fill positions. Although there are some issues, 39 percent of respondents said that their staff numbers have at least remained stable.
A challenge facing many weeklies revolves around advertising revenue. The ONA survey showed 77 percent of respondents said revenue has decreased compared to five years ago. At DHI Media Group, Dougal said he is optimistic about the future of weeklies although he said he recognizes the advertising decrease in the last few years has had consequences.
“Weekly newspapers are perfectly situated to use a reverse publishing model that will increase digital readership, the fastest growing area of the industry,” Dougal said in his survey comments. “Add in technological advances like augmented reality and user-flexible digital products and this is an extremely exciting time for newspapers.”
Mary Huber, general manager and advertising director at the Archbold Buckeye, said she is also optimistic about the future of Ohio weeklies, but with an exception. Small, local advertisers need to be willing to help support the weeklies through advertising, because the big corporate stores that are taking over aren’t, she said.
Gaining subscribers and readers
With the changing media landscape, some weeklies have suffered in circulation numbers. Fifty-four percent of the ONA survey respondents said circulation has decreased in the past five years.
Cheryl Vespoint, the publisher and owner of The Barberton Herald, said she is very optimistic and excited about the future of her paper. “Our town has been experiencing great changes and the paper has more to follow,” she said.
A strategy The Barberton Herald has used to gain more subscribers and readership is sending out complimentary issues of the paper to target areas with a flyer inside for a subscription discount. “Once the reader sees the value of our paper the subscriptions follow,” she said. Originally, the Herald was sending out complimentary issues because of advertising and decided to implement the same strategy to gain subscribers.
Vespoint said the paper pays 4 cents for the insert, which is an 8.5 inch by 11 inch one-sided, colored sheet of paper. Even though there is also extra postal cost for the extra weight, Vespoint said the inserts are an inexpensive way to gain more subscribers, and 25 percent of the coupons are returned as new subscriptions.
Along with working to gain more subscribers, the Barberton Herald has also developed ways to stay engaged with the community. Recently, the front part of the Barberton Herald office was remodeled to bring accessibility to a stage as well as a live feed for streaming meetings and speeches. There is also a coffee area where an advertiser supplies doughnuts. Two computers are in the front area as well which give the public access to submit classifieds, talk with reporters or learn to access the online content.
Although Vespoint said they have experienced more competition digitally from the large daily paper nearby, they have done more investigative reporting with ideas generated both by reporters and the readers. She said the writers have enjoyed the reporting and the readers enjoy reading the more in-depth coverage. One recent example of their coverage was during the third week of June 2014, when the 98-year-old Barberton Herald ran the first same-sex marriage announcement in the paper’s history.
Engaging the community through digital platforms is another way Ohio weeklies have been changing with the times. One hundred percent of the ONA survey respondents said they are using social media to promote their content. All were making use of Facebook, but some also were reaching out through Twitter, YouTube and Google+.
The Herald’s Facebook audience is slightly higher than their paper subscribers, Vespoint said. The paper has just now reached 1,000 subscribers for the online flip-pages edition which began four years ago in 2010 and has had a fee since day one.
The Telegram in Jackson County has implemented a daily website and uses Facebook and Twitter to interact with readers. “I believe the weekly newspaper will always be needed in smaller communities,” said Jerry Mossbarger, the publisher, in his survey comments. “Even if the printed version gradually evolves into electronic versions, it will be needed.”
Some weekly papers, 15 percent of respondents, have yet to create an online presence with a website but instead are utilizing social media. One benefit to incorporating social media as a weekly is the ability to have an online presence essentially for free whereas websites come with fees for domain names and maintenance.
Kim Ross-Polito, editor at the Crestline Advocate, said she was optimistic about the future but only for those weekly papers that have the financial resources to move online. “Utilizing the digital presence consumers want takes more money than most of us have,” she said in her survey comments. “Getting online is easy. Staying online is hard and costly. It’s survival of the fittest and many of the weekly community papers will not survive the next 10 years.”
The ONA’s survey of weekly papers in Ohio was conducted from June 12 to 16, with 13 weekly papers and publishing groups responding.