But most importantly, Drescher said, the paper is part of a company, McClatchy, “that believes quality sells and that takes a long-term view of the newspaper industry” — not cutting back in bad times but not adding too many jobs in good times either. Asked if the increase was a victory in this era, Drescher said it was, but he also said this: “We’re disappointed that it’s not more than it is, because we have had such strong growth here.”

Over at the Indianapolis Star, where daily circulation ticked up from 252,021 to 252,862, editor Dennis Ryerson said an all-around effort in marketing, circulation and customer service “combined with a stronger push in local news in every section of the newspaper” were the keys to its relative success. With the rest of the media universe so fragmented, newspapers have to keep building on their strength of good local content, Ryerson said: “We have to work even harder to make sure our newspaper retains its role as what could be the last mass medium.”

Like Drescher, Ryerson said he was not content to just keep his paper afloat. “I think we can do much better,” he said. “[W]e need to work hard to stay ahead of the game. That’s why I’m not willing to declare victory. You get fat and easy if you declare victory, because pretty soon you [can] find yourself in a bind, facing layoffs and buyouts, and we can’t afford that.”

An examination of both papers’ hometown populations, using figures provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, indicates that only the Star is increasing its market penetration. (According to the bureau’s most up-to-date figures, the population of Raleigh increased from 276,093 in 2000 to 317,651 in 2004 — the “strong growth” Drescher mentioned — while the population of Indianapolis fell slightly from 781,870 to 766,094 in the same time frame.) Nevertheless, the relative success of both the News & Observer and the Star shows hope that print circulations can at least be stabilized.

More importantly, the common thread linking Drescher and Ryerson’s comments reveal the single most important way those who run newspapers can best position themselves for the future in these uncertain times: focusing on their core product of local news and working to make it far and away the best available in their market.

Newspapers must make themselves indispensable to hold onto their readers and attract new ones. And that is what makes newspapers’ increasing propensity to chop away at their own staffs so perplexing — cuts made to keep costs down (and profits up) for a Wall Street that, according to financial columnist Floyd Norris, has already given up on the enterprise. Something has to give. Each time newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Memphis Commercial Appeal make cuts like they did last week, they lose some more of what Malone calls their valuable “intellectual capital,” and what Philip Meyer, author of The Vanishing Newspaper, terms their “societal influence.” And though editors invariably vow they will be able to maintain the same level of coverage, each cutback only lessens the indispensability of the metro paper to its readers.

Instead of cutting back at such a crucial time, newspapers need to be investing in their future. As Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (which, like CJR Daily, is affiliated with the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism) argues, “There is tons of academic research, most of which publishers do not know … that reveals clearly that if you are willing to invest in improving your product by pouring more money in the newsroom and sacrificing profit for a year or two, that over the course of six or seven years, you can not only increase circulation, but you can also increase profit, and also how much you are able to charge for your advertising. The problem is you have to be willing to make that investment and sacrifice your profits initially.”

The shift to online readership makes this even more urgent. While their advertising revenue is still mostly in print, more and more of it will be going online — making the indispensability of what they offer at their news sites all the more important. And instead of simply trying to transfer their print product online, Rosenstiel says, newspapers need to create something new: “We’ve got to actually invest a lot more than we are now, at a time when it’s not going to pay for itself, so that consumers will say, ‘Wow, this is so valuable, I’m willing to pay for it. It’s different, better, richer than it is in print.’”

And only a recommitment to local news will get our papers there.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.