You certainly don’t hear newspaper editors talk like this anymore. Then again can you blame them? Under the gun by publishers to produce copy for newspapers that they both know very few people read anymore, I’d surmise that most newspaper editors are simply there to get it out the door and move onto the next edition. As newsrooms cut staff and continue to pay abysmally low wages to the staff they can maintain it’s no wonder that the quality of local newspapers continues to decline.
The obituary for the American newspaper has arguably been written and published long ago. Yet, in some communities it’s refreshing to see or read about local newspapers that seem to have bucked this trend. A recent editorial in Anderson, California’s Anderson Valley Post heralds something I’ve only seen in the smaller community newspapers: readership.
Much of my journalism career was spent working for the smaller publications. Of the handful of newspapers I worked for over the course of my 13-year tenure in print media, nine months of that period was spent writing full time for a small daily before I took a job at a non-profit organization that started me at over $10,000 a year more than I was being paid at the daily newspaper. What’s truly sad is that more than 10 years after that job change I’ve discovered that many newspapers pay within a dollar or two an hour of what they did 15 years ago. In California the only reason this has changed is because the state’s minimum wage has changed a time or two in the past 15 years and newspapers have had to change to stay a few cents ahead of the minimum wage.
But I digress.
What was refreshing to read was the positive comments of an editor for his community, and his reporting of the positive comments that his community has for his newspaper.
The headline says it all: “It’s a good thing when community takes ownership.” Editor George Winship writes about the positive comments he overheard at a recent community breakfast he attended. Hold the presses! Newspaper editor attends community breakfast! On a Sunday? In most communities that’s unheard of, and where the editor might attend, he or she probably either tries to slip in and out without going noticed, or flashes in with the publisher in a failed attempt to score some advertising.
Anderson Valley Post Editor George Winship writes: “While it may seem strange to some, a local newspaper’s greatest assets are not calculated by how much money the advertising revenues bring in each month or how much profit is left over at the end of the year. Nor should the editor or anyone else associated with the newspaper’s operation consider their own efforts and accomplishments as having much worth.
“When all is said and done, what matters most is what its readers think.”
Can I get an “amen?” One could argue that the overall notion of customer service is woefully lacking in many business models today, particularly in the newspaper industry.
One small newspaper I worked for, the Modoc County Record in Alturas, California, was one of those amazing places where members of the community would wait in their cars starting at about 8 a.m. every Thursday, knowing full well that the newspaper wasn’t going to be available for another 90 minutes or so. And that was on a good day when the weather was clear and the courier didn’t have to bring the newspaper back from the printer, one hundred miles away in Klamath Falls, Oregon, in a blinding snowstorm. Even on those days the newspaper would typically hit the streets by lunchtime. Even then folks would wait in their cars outside the newspaper office, engines running and the heater blaring, waiting for the pickup to arrive and the staff to begin distributing the weekly newspaper.
I’ve said this in the past, but the success of a newspaper isn’t in its financial ledger, but in how many people can’t wait to get their hands on it when it’s published.
Let’s put it another way: people don’t generally pick up the newspaper to read the classified ads or scour the display ads inside; people pick up the newspaper to read about what’s going on inside their community. Whether they agree totally with what’s printed on the editorial page is immaterial.
That’s not to say that profit and loss margins are important; they are. I once had a friend who worked for a weekly newspaper in an affluent section of Phoenix, Arizona that had no sales staff. They employed reporters and other folks to publish the newspaper, but no sales staff. The publisher was the only salesman in the room. According to my friend, the publisher spent much of his day fielding phone calls from businesses requesting to advertise. How many newspapers in America could say they have businesses chasing them down to advertise, versus them having to coerce businessmen to cough up money to market their goods and services in the newspaper?
So, kudos to Winship and his Anderson Valley Post newspaper for serving his local community like he does and for recognizing that his business is driven by what the reader thinks. Kudos to those editors out there like Rick Holloway, now the owner and publisher of the Modoc County Record, who work hard to serve their communities with print periodicals, and who know what it takes to publish a newspaper that the community wants to read and can’t wait to get its hands on.
The American newspaper industry could learn a lesson from people like this, who understand that it’s not the advertising tail that wags the editorial dog, but that it’s the readers who determine whether the newspaper will be successful. Serve the reader (your customer) with quality journalism and the rest will follow.