“When you’re always there, people kind of forget about you,” notes Rosiek. She stresses the importance of selling this point to professionals in the community who rely on the paper for publicity. It needs to be made clear that, if the paper stopped publishing, their news would go unreported.
Find out What the Community Wants and is Willing to Pay For
“We have to go back to what makes the paper successful, emphasizes Rosiek. “People are realizing that they want a paper that is really their own.”
Toward that end, the Eccentric, the Citizens Committee, and the Chamber of Commerce have held a series of well-attended town hall and Committee meetings to ask what people want and the paper has incorporated many of those suggestions and requests, such as reducing regional and national coverage and expanding local community features. People have been signing up for new subscriptions at the weekly farmer’s market and leaving feedback with David Bloom and other volunteers, which makes its way to the Eccentric staff.
Even before the current crisis, the paper had hired design consultancy firm IDEO to conduct an extensive study of media usage habits. Interviews with merchants and consumers led to changes to the paper’s form and content. New features were added, such as weekly local business pages; Q&As with business owners; highlights of business special events; a special education section; and a public safety page.
While some of these features could, in theory, be covered by hyper-local online sources that rely on contributions from readers, Rosiek’s feedback suggests that readers want professional reporters to provide this coverage, and would only turn to alternative means after that option disappears.
Be the Cultural Centerpiece of the Community
“I find the Eccentric offers information you can’t find anywhere else,” wrote former Detroit Tigers great Al Kaline in a recent Eccentric article. “I enjoyed reading the story about my grandson when he was featured during his days as a high school ballplayer, and about all the kids who are playing sports in the area, whether it be baseball, or basketball, football or hockey.”
As a result of the Eccentric’s outreach efforts—town hall meeting, tabling at farmers markets, and direct contact with local residents—Rosiek learned that most readers agree with Kaline. They value the sense of community that the paper provides: society pages; coverage of high school graduations; marriages; listings of births, deaths, and community events. This material is what readers feel they cannot get anywhere else, and it is what they are willing to pay for.
As a result of this feedback, the Eccentric added a “Neighbors Page,” where community members’ personal announcements are featured editorially, rather than being relegated to paid notice status. “In many papers, readers pay to publish information about weddings, anniversaries, births, and graduations…We celebrate those things,” says Rosiek. “People told us that people want to know about these things. They want to feel connected to their community.”
Town officials, local celebrities like Kaline, and high school and middle school students will all be contributors to the new Eccentric; the goal being to further integrate the newspaper into all levels of the community, and to create a sustainable readership as the population ages. Linda Solomon is particularly focused on this goal. She has recruited several local students to contribute to her weekly column. Another student has agreed to use a designated internship time in school to recruit subscriptions.
Local, Local, Local
Keeping the Eccentric’s focus local is a sentiment echoed by the paper’s editors, advertisers, and readers.
Catering to local merchants in content, form, and community involvement is critical for financial success. “We used to sell [advertising] based on a regional model,” says Rosiek. “Now we sell on a strictly local model. It is something we got away from for a long time and now we are going back to our roots.”
Businesses in Birmingham believe that the local newspaper can be a strong factor in influencing potential customers to buy local. The Eccentric has also added a business section to highlight local merchants, and even incorporated editorial opportunities, including regular features and columns for officials who represent the Principal Shopping District and the Chamber of Commerce.
Local Media Can, and Must, Help Save Itself
The real lede of the Birmingham Eccentric’s story is that community commitment and activism on the part of citizens and the news media can change the fate of local newspapers, at least in some cases. David Bloom made it clear that “there was no shortage of discontent to fuel the effort. It just required one person to be the spark.” After that, it’s up to the community and the newspaper to grow that spark into a sustainable movement.