Small-town American newspapers are surprisingly resilient

JAY NOLAN surveys his media empire from a shed-like building outside London, Kentucky. On his desk is a stack of eight newspapers, including the Berea Citizen (“established in 1899”, circulation 4,511), the Mountain Advocate (“since 1904”, circulation 4,500) and the Pineville Sun-Cumberland Courier (“celebrating 109 years”, circulation 1,646).

Each paper is under local management, with its own publisher and editor, but Nolan Group Newspapers owns a majority stake in all of them and prints them at its press outside London. Together, the eight papers have a combined circulation of about 25,000 and employ a dozen journalists and nine ad-sales representatives. They bring in around $2m in revenue, perhaps $3m in a good year, with a profit margin of about 10%, says Mr Nolan.

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The local-newspaper business is not going to make him rich. Which is why he also owns J. Frank Publishing, which undertakes contract printing work for other newspapers and commercial clients, and produces banners and signs where margins are juicier. Mr Nolan, a third-generation newspaperman, took over the business in March, when his father retired to Florida. It is not a role he planned. After a stint in the army, including deployments abroad, he returned home, initially taking a job in finance in California. “I can make a lot more money in the sign business,” he says, but local newspapers are important. “If journalists aren’t here, Kentucky will become as corrupt as Afghanistan.”

This is a worry that animates discussion of local news in America. Circulation and ad revenue have been shrinking for years, as has the number of newsroom staff. Papers have become thinner or shut down altogether. America has lost a fifth of its newspapers since 2004.

Media-watchers worry about “news deserts”, or areas without any newspapers. The mere presence of reporters at city-council meetings can help keep them straight, says Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky.

Yet look beyond the headline figures, and the health of small-town newspapers may not be as bad as it appears. Fully 61% of weekly papers and 70% of dailies that have ceased publication since 2004 are in counties with more than 100,000 people. Just 20% of weeklies and 11% of dailies disappeared in counties with fewer than 30,000 people, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC). The number and variety of newspapers that continue to exist—in tiny towns with populations in four figures, at gas stations in poor rural counties, and in villages clumped near each other—give hope to even the most pessimistic observer.

There are two main reasons for the resilience of small-town newspapers. The first is that size matters. Businesses in small communities know that every reader of a local paper is a potential customer, and advertise accordingly. Newspapers in bigger cities do not enjoy this advantage. Nor are they representative of the industry. Although much attention is lavished on newspapers in metropolitan areas, they represent less than 2% of all American newspapers, according to a paper entitled “Despite losses, community newspapers still dominate the US market”. Community dailies and weeklies, by contrast, account for 60% of all the papers sold.

Second, small communities rally round their newspapers in ways that bigger ones do not, with rates of loyalty twice that of readers of national or regional papers, according to research by Penelope Muse Abernathy of UNC. The Shawangunk Journal, published from Ellenville, New York and serving the region around it, was on the verge of shutting down when its publisher tried a new tactic: a subscription drive with an annual price of at least $55 a year and as much as subscribers could afford to give. Some people contribute as much every month, says Amberly Jane Campbell, who describes herself as “publisher, distributor, managing editor, and everything else”. The paper is now back in the black. Asking for donations is an increasingly popular business model.

Small papers are not relying on goodwill alone. They are experimenting with the same things the big papers are trying, including digital advertising, events, sponsored content, glossy supplements and magazines, and price increases. Some, such as the Sentinel-Echo in London, are even expecting modest growth, mostly from online.

Taking the First

The survival of small-town newspapers in America is far from guaranteed. The towns they serve are growing older and thinning out as working-age Americans migrate from small towns to cities, often never to return. Mandatory advertising by local government, a significant source of revenue, is increasingly under attack as state legislatures try to save money. Tariffs on imported Canadian newsprint have raised costs. Another worrying trend is of local owners selling to big media companies as the industry consolidates, robbing local newspapers of the very thing that makes them valuable. Yet they may be “in a stronger position than their metro cousins”, according to a recent report by the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism. That is crucial. As Mr Nolan puts it, “We have to have a free and vibrant press in America to be great in America.” That is as true of little towns in the hills and hollows of Kentucky as it is in Washington, DC.

Correction (June 22nd, 2018): A previous version of this piece said that Jay Nolan served in Afghanistan. While he was stationed overseas, it was in Europe.  

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline "Still kicking"