The paper is working on other ways to increase revenue. “We had to make some tough decisions,” says Rosiek. “We had a circulation model that was a mix of paid and free, and printing and delivery was quite expensive. We could no longer afford to deliver it totally free. And we could not give away our content for free.” Thus, free delivery was cancelled, leaving the paper with a subscription-only model. Eventually, the paper also plans to limit the free content offered on its Web site.
Efforts to increase ad revenue have been largely successful. After acquiring the paper in 2005, Gannett raised the Eccentric’s advertising rates. Now, Gannett has allowed the paper to lower those rates in order to attract local advertisers. The paper’s ad sales staff has also been working with local business organizations in order to encourage merchants to advertise in the Eccentric.
Luckily, Birmingham-area merchants are firmly committed to print advertising. Principal Shopping District executive director John Heiney says he tries to get his members online, but “by and large the merchants in Birmingham remain aligned toward print,” and that’s where the “vast majority of dollars” are spent. When asked why this loyalty to paper, Heiney cites, in part, the older demographic of the area and an “old school mentality” that comes along with businesses passed down through families over generations.
“In general, merchants are cutting back on their advertising,” says Heiney. “However, in Birmingham, they want to support the Eccentric. They see it as another local business. They know the value of having a hometown paper and they want to support that with their advertising dollars.”
The Good News (With a Little Caveat)
The Eccentric staff, David Bloom, and others hope that their efforts in Birmingham can serve as a model for other communities hoping to save their own newspapers. But it might not be that simple.
The median—not average, median—income for the towns served by the Eccentric spans a range from $86,000 to $184,000. This makes it one of the wealthiest communities in Michigan. Susan Rosiek describes the area as “the most upscale in the metro Detroit area and, perhaps, in the entire country. The economy is going to recover sometime, and it’s going to recover here first.”
In that context, a $52 per year subscription rate is hardly a hardship for residents. Rosiek reports that a number of subscribers have even suggested raising the rate and, perhaps, that may be a future option for the Eccentric. This, obviously, is not an option for many small town papers with lower-income readers: there is only so much disposable cash to go around in most communities, and newspaper subscriptions usually aren’t high on struggling families’ priority lists.
John Heiney also stresses that “one of the things that makes Birmingham unique is that it is a very educated demographic of business leaders who have means and resources…. Key people can capture the imagination of other residents who have the resources.” Other communities aren’t always as lucky. In nearby Ann Arbor—a town dominated by the massive University of Michigan—the local Ann Arbor News folded its print edition and went entirely online. “The seven-day-a-week print model just is not sustainable here,” publisher Laurel Champion said in an interview with the Associated Press. “We have very low home ownership. The population is transient and young. Those demographics have worked against us.”
But while their demographics might not measure up to Birmingham’s, other communities can emulate several other aspects of the Eccentric’s multifaceted efforts to save itself. The Eccentric should be an example to communities and journalists alike: there is room for community newspapers, if the communities they serve find value in their product.
Here are some places to start.
Selling the Value of the Product
Raising awareness of the central role played by the community newspaper, its value, and what its loss would mean for individuals and businesses is a strategic theme that repeatedly arose in conversation with people involved in the Eccentric campaign.
“A lot of what we’ve been doing…is really an awareness thing…When you have it you don’t appreciate it, but when it’s gone you are kind of in limbo,” said Carrie Zarotney of the local Chamber of Commerce. “As soon as it was announced that this might be happening, there was a panic in the community.” Zarotney noted that many people tend to access the paper through their employers, at the library, at coffee shops, and so forth. Since they don’t pay for it, they simply do not realize how much they use the services provided by the paper.