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Wednesday, 17 November 2010 20:10

Press Wars: Community newspapers thrive despite stagnant economy

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It’s a Monday night in early November and the meeting is, in one word, boring. As a result of the recent elections, the makeup of the Macon County Board of Commissioners will soon change. The members clearly don’t intend to make momentous decisions, or even meaningful small ones, before that transition happens.

Despite the lack of news being generated, there are no fewer than six journalists covering this meeting, where the biggest event that will take place is the scheduling of another meeting in December. The reporters scribble diligently in their notebooks, peck away on portable laptops and spring up occasionally to take photographs of people speaking to the board. Nobody pays them any mind.

That’s because having this many journalists camped out in the boardroom is not an unusual sight in Macon County, and hasn’t been for at least three decades. The county has an astounding number of community newspapers based within its borders — four — plus two regional newspapers (The Smoky Mountain News and the Asheville Citizen-Times), a local radio station providing news coverage, an Asheville-based television station eager for man-bites-dog stories, and a blogger (Thunderpig) who streams every county and town of Franklin meeting live via the Internet.

In this corner of the world, at least, the news industry is thriving, though times are tough, and every ad sold represents a minor achievement against the prevailing economic tide. It’s hard to get blood out of a turnip, and a lot of local businesses are struggling. This, in turn, has hurt the news industry, here and across the nation.

So how is it that Macon County — and Western North Carolina at large — can continue to support so many fish in such a tiny pond? And what does it mean for communities, both locally and regionally, to have such a smorgasbord of information to choose from?

 

Adjusting to the marketplace

It’s Thursday at The Macon County News and Shopping Guide in Franklin, and that’s a good day on which to visit. The weekly newspaper publishes on Thursday, so the few staff members on hand are relaxed and relatively jolly.

In theory, The Macon County News cuts a regional swath. And it does, at times, venture to cover news events beyond the county’s borders. But in the main, this is a local newspaper that expends most of its resources on its home turf.

Betsey Gooder and husband Gary started the weekly in 1983. Gary Gooder died in February 2006, and his son, Colin, took over as editor. As a team, Gary and Betsey Gooder were very clear about their intentions — they wanted to publish a weekly newspaper that provided local news free of charge. USA Today had entered the marketplace in 1982, and the couple was influenced by the concept of presenting information in short, easily digested forms.

Colin Gooder is harder hitting than his father was. He clearly enjoys stirring the pot some, and he’s been more aggressive as a newsman. The Macon County News serves as an excellent example of how a single individual can have a tremendous influence over a small news organization. Which perhaps goes a long way toward explaining the continuing allure of community journalism for some news professionals.

“The success of the paper was due to the dedication of Mom and Dad,” Gooder said. “And it continues to be successful because Mom is such a dynamite salesperson.”

Betsey Gooder, at age 70, has a good grasp of the Macon County market and the overall newspaper industry in WNC.

There’s more competition than ever,” she said. “We just have to work harder.”

Betsey Gooder doesn’t worry much about the competition, though, particularly the Asheville Citizen-Times or other larger news organizations.

“Their ad prices are so out of line,” she said. “They don’t adjust to the marketplace.”

 

The ties that bind

When there are four newspapers based in a county of just more than 33,000 people, the organizations have ties to the community that extend beyond news coverage.

Vic Perry, the county’s clerk of court, worked at The Franklin Press at one time, as did other family members. Mike Decker, Franklin’s assistant manager, was a reporter for The Press. So was Alisa Ashe, who heads up a child victim advocacy group and counseling center in Macon County. (In the interest of full disclosure, this reporter worked there, too, from 1992-1996).

Kevin Corbin, a Republican tapped to fill Jim Davis’ two-year term as commissioner —Davis is headed to the state Senate — started working at The Press when he was aged 14 or 15, and continued doing so during summer breaks until he finished college. At age 23, Corbin became the youngest elected official in the state after being elected to the county school board. He served in that position for five terms — 20 years, including a long stint as chairman — before growing weary in 2006 and opting not to run for probable re-election.

Corbin does not remember local reporters failing to cover a single school board meeting during that time.

“I haven’t thought about it before,” Corbin said. “It’s been like this as long as I remember. In my adult life, there always have been at least two newspapers. And I always read them both.”

That way, Corbin said, he gets different takes on the same events. And that’s nice, he said, but unremarkable, at least in his life as a Macon County resident and elected official.

 

‘Planned abandonment’

John Morton last year wrote an article headlined “Not Dead Yet: Despite the gloomy news about newspapers, many smaller dailies still make money” for American Journalism Review, a monthly trade magazine.

In the article Morton, a former reporter turned president of a consulting firm that specializes in analyzing the news industry, noted 70 percent of newspapers with an average circulation of less than 12,000 remain profitable, though at a smaller profit margin than they once enjoyed.

Normally, he wrote, large dailies get 50 percent or more of their advertising from classified ads, with automotive, real estate and help wanted making up the three primary legs of that advertising stool. Small dailies, by comparison, get about 30 percent of revenue from classified, and they didn’t take as significant a hit overall in classified as large metros.

“What I wrote about smaller dailies is even more true about community weeklies, especially if they don’t have a nearby daily swamping their market,” Morton said via email. “Most dailies have stopped doing that to save money. Saving money, I fear, is going to be the death of some small dailies. I’m not sure that hyper-local community weeklies represent the only future for the newspaper business, but I am sure that these kind of publications do have a future if they do their job right.”

The lone daily newspaper in this part of WNC is the Asheville Citizen-Times (where this reporter worked from 1996-2007, including as a general manager and as a member of the newspaper’s operating committee). The Gannett Co. product has suffered massive layoffs during the past few years. At least four more employees were cut at the newspaper this month alone, and open positions on the editorial side have been frozen until further notice. Gannett has discussed having its employees take one-week unpaid furloughs, as they did last year, to help increase profit margins.

Citizen-Times Publisher Randy Hammer did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Not too many years ago, the Citizen-Times covered a 17- or 18-county region, depending on which editor was in charge. Through at least the early 1990s, the newspaper covered the far western counties of the state aggressively. Up to three reporters were based in a bureau in Haywood County, and one of the Citizen-Times’ reporters, Bob Scott, who is now a Franklin alderman, worked from an office in Macon County, covering the farthest western reaches.

Prior to the recession, in the late 1990s, the Citizen-Times began a process dubbed “planned abandonment.” The newspaper instituted a deliberate and outlined retreat from the region, citing costs versus revenue return. Today, the newspaper doesn’t have a reporter in the state house. It has a single reporter, who lives in Haywood County, tasked with handling major news events occurring west of Buncombe County.

“The Voice of the Mountains,” a newspaper that once had at least three bureaus and was discussing opening another in McDowell County, today has none.

“When I was the western bureau chief of the Asheville Citizen, the company expected two or three stories from the seven westernmost counties,” Scott said. “There was a great emphasis on being WNC’s leading news outlet. However, due to those pesky budget cuts, the Citizen doesn’t seem to be that much interested in the area unless it is a major story.”

 

What happened?

“So here’s the deal, the Internet killed about 90 percent of what made big dailies so vital,” said Jock Lauterer, director of the Carolina Community Media Project for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a professor in the journalism school. “We don’t get our ‘news’ from the morning newspaper anymore. We get it from a variety of other sources. But, the only place to get your in-depth, community, local, down-to-your doorstep news is your local community paper — be it online or print. And the fact that so many folks still crave tactile experience with a ‘paper’ — the old portable, clippable, hold-and-fold legacy media, is a testimony to human nature and the survivability and sustainability of the community press,” sad Lauterer.

It doesn’t get anymore “community” than at some of the upstart independents, including The Smoky Mountain News, birthed to fill the regional news void opened when the Citizen-Times pulled back.

In the southern part of Macon County, Kim Lewicki and husband Jim started Highlands’ Newspaper in July 2003. The scrappy, free weekly newspaper successfully clawed a financial toehold in the highly lucrative upscale Highlands market, which had previously been the sole domain of The Highlander Newspaper, owned by the Athens, Ga.-based Community Newspapers Inc. (CNI), also the parent company of The Franklin Press and many of the region’s weeklies.

The Franklin Press’ publisher, Rachel Hoskins, who serves as CNI’s regional publisher overseeing newspapers in Highlands, Franklin, Bryson City, Cashiers and Spruce Pine, declined to comment for this article.

“Macon County’s demographics are diverse due to the migration here in the spring, summer and fall and the growing number of full-time residents,” Kim Lewicki said. “Couple that with the geographic layout — hence seclusion and isolation of communities like Nantahala, Franklin and Highlands — and you have niches for news, community news, specifically, about which the population is keenly interested.”

In this brave new world where community journalism rules, there are downsides to the local-local-local approach to which most weeklies and bi-weeklies adhere.

“Salaries are generally lower, especially at weeklies,” Lauterer said. “Hiring standards are therefore generally lower, so you often get a lower grade of writing and photography. Yes it is true. But not always the case, as we have seen by looking at fabulous community papers across our state and region.”­­

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