Small-market newspapers: the view from on the ground

As recently as six years ago, Minnesota’s Cook County News-Herald employed seven full-time staff. Now, there are two working in the office, in addition to some remote help for advertising and layout from staff in New Jersey working on weekly assignments. In a county of 5,400, the paper has around 2,400 subscribers. In 2020, CherryRoad Media—a subsidiary of a tech company based in New Jersey—purchased the News-Herald.

In the summer of 2021, News-Herald Editor Brian Larsen helped CherryRoad CEO Jeremy Gulban devise an editorial strategy to launch a newspaper in nearby International Falls, Minnesota, after CherryRoad was unable to purchase the newspaper that closed in the town. Since then, CherryRoad has acquired more small-market newspapers, accumulating a total of twenty-six.

“The breadth of the local newspaper landscape, and the range of experiences within it, are both an opportunity ― and a challenge ― for anyone interested in helping to preserve, strengthen, and enhance local journalism in 2021 and beyond,” Tow Fellow Damian Radcliffe, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, wrote in his recent report on the state of small-market newspapers, which found both challenges and reasons for optimism.

In separate conversations with CJR, Radcliffe, Gulban and Larsen discussed the possibilities for small-market newspapers across the country. These conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity.

CJR: Damian, what were some of the primary findings in your research?

Damian Radcliffe, Researcher, Tow Center for Digital Journalism: I didn’t think it was as pessimistic as some of the coverage has painted. There was a lot of enthusiasm for a nonprofit future and a nonprofit model for local journalism; that wasn’t a conversation that was being had with local journalists four years ago. And a lot of our respondents were publishers, people working on the business side of things. People were most critical of chain and chain ownership, hedge funds, and the sense of asset stripping, lack of investment, efforts to produce sort of identical models of what a paper should look like, which doesn’t acknowledge the diversity of the location that each of those papers is based in.

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CJR: Jeremy, as a business person, why invest in newspapers?

Jeremy Gulban, CEO, CherryRoad Media: What really gave me confidence was the whole International Falls project, launching the new newspaper. The paper had closed, and the people in the community were going to rally around, and we were able to work together to start this new paper in three weeks’ time.

CJR: How did the International Falls project happen, and what else is happening on the ground with small-market papers? 

Brian Larsen, Editor, Cook County News-Herald: I was talking to Tom Bakk, he’s an area legislator, second highest in our state. And I asked him to do some legislation that would help newspapers. He casually mentioned that International Falls was losing its newspaper. A hedge fund bought out a bunch of papers, and that was one of them. They kept the St. Paul Pioneer Press and a few of the other bigger ones, but they shut down smaller papers. But International Falls is not a small area! And they don’t have great internet either. So I mentioned this to Jeremy.

Gulban: If you look at some of these smaller rural communities, there really is a technology gap. And I think that also became clear last year. Here in the New Jersey suburbs, we have great broadband access. But when I do a Zoom call to some of these communities, they really don’t have good internet access. A lot of businesses in these small communities don’t have websites. I think there’s an opportunity to help all of them move forward into the digital age.

Larsen: He goes, “Well, let’s see if we buy the Journal.” He called, we worked on that for a while. And the hedge fund company—even after paying very good money—said “We’re just not interested at all. It’s just easier for us to close.” So now you have a community that has nowhere to put legals, has nowhere to put obits. You know, you can go on and on and on. I think all towns need a paper. Eventually they will be online. That’s where it’s going. But people need to have the ability to find out what’s going on in their local communities.

Gulban: On one day’s notice, twenty people showed up at the Chamber of Commerce to meet with me to talk about this. And then all the help that was given, all the collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce, the business community, the postmaster… to pull this off in such a short amount of time, it told me that people want to have a local newspaper. And I heard from a lot of people, “I wish we hadn’t taken it for granted when we had the paper. We’re going to support this new paper going forward.” Which is true. We’ve gotten back more subscribers locally than I believe the old paper had when it closed.

Larsen: We didn’t even have an office up there, so we had our phone number here [in Cook County] printed. We took over 100 phone calls—and I mean literally—from people who were very happy to get a paper back.

Gulban: There’s still demand in these areas. If you’re in the New York metropolitan area, you might never know that. I think a lot of the decisions that are being made in New York and California and Washington don’t necessarily reflect the reality on the ground in parts of Middle America. There are cultural differences that exist between a small town and a suburban or urban area. In a small community, there’s an office with the newspaper’s name on it. People want to walk in every day and buy a paper, tell you about their grandmother’s 90th birthday, about a trip they just took. And that’s not going to go away, in my opinion, even as these communities become more digitally advanced, because that’s what small town life is all about. And I think that means the people want that institution to be there. A key takeaway from International Falls was they felt like the community would be less of a community if it didn’t have a newspaper.

Radcliffe: COVID has really just reinforced the importance of local news and journalism. Why is there this backdrop of distrust in the media that we’re seeing with communities? Our research is reinforcing what other studies have found, which is that trust at a local level tends to be much higher. We have lots of examples of people saying, you know, that people will distrust the national news services, or they dislike wire services, but they think very differently about local journalists and locally produced content.

Gulban: Some of these papers do not have anyone working at them, which is impossible to sustain. It’s mostly wire service using articles from the other papers.

CJR: What needs to change, moving forward?

Gulban: In some cases, we’re looking at a hundred percent increase in staff. In other cases, it’s adding another part time or maybe one additional reporter. And a lot of that, I think, will correlate to the circulation. Over the last five years, if you mapped out the circulation, you would see a correlation between the more that they cut the newsroom and the quality, the lower the circulation went. So as we reverse that curve, that will generate more revenue that will allow for more expansion.

Radcliffe: There can sometimes also be a disconnect between the types of conversations that are taking place at national level, at conferences, for example, or trade publications, versus the conversations that are taking place in newsrooms. We’ve seen lots of discussion about creating newsletters, podcasts, webinar series, and so forth, the dropping of paywalls for COVID content. And what our data suggests is that that was just not a conversation that was taking place at many local newsrooms. Many had kept their paywall in place because they couldn’t afford to drop it. And they were not necessarily creating these new pop up products, which again, may well be as a result of resource issues. As many of these places saw people laid off or furloughed or working reduced hours during the pandemic, we had many people saying, “Well, we’re supposed to be working reduced hours, but if I do, the hours I’m contracted to do, we’ll never get the paper out.” So they do whatever it takes to get it done. That sense of duty is very, very strong.

Larsen: One thing about a small paper is you get to do everything: the sports, you do the meetings, you do everything. And that’s the draw. Because if you did this just for money you wouldn’t do it. I mean, you don’t want to break down your hourly rate. You’d just weep. I’m quite certain I have bartenders at my family restaurant that make far more than I do.

Radcliffe: There’s definitely a sense for some young people that this just doesn’t pay enough. Many of them are also having to do side hustles to be able to earn enough to get by: wedding photography, or copywriting or copy editing, to supplement the salary of a newspaper, to earn enough to meet rent and potentially even save for a rainy day.

CJR: What are some of the other barriers to hiring reporters at the local level? 

Radcliffe: One is whether people want to move the locations where some of these roles might be. There might be areas that they’re not familiar with, they don’t know anybody. Smaller locations, by default, might not be a very appealing place to start fresh in.

Gulban: You have to find someone who wants to either live in a small town or is willing to relocate there. When all these job cuts were taking place, they drove everybody away. In some cases, people have such a bad taste in their mouth, they are reluctant to even talk to us. So we’re trying to learn from experience. Okay, we’re gonna do things differently. 

Radcliffe: What are the opportunities [for early-career reporters] to move forward to advance their careers? That can be hard in newsrooms where you may very quickly hit a ceiling. And a lot of people are leaving because they can’t afford to do it. They reach a point, for example, where they want to buy a house or they have children. And they find that this is not a sustainable profession for them and that they can parlay those skills in other sectors like PR or communications. They can earn a better salary and have more job security.

Gulban: On the other side of it, we have had people in the community step up and say, “I want to do this,” even in some cases with no journalistic experience. So there’s people out there who want to do it; it’s just a matter of finding them. I think we have to rebuild the brands a little bit, you know, to be able to attract some talent.

Larsen: It turns out Jeremy is a great owner. I got a new camera to shoot pictures with. We got new computers. We put in a nice picnic area outside with a little alcove, which I’d been trying to get something done with for a long time. So passers by can sit down, take a break. Just really nice things for the community. We can pay people for pictures now. I dare say, if you can see our paper online, you tell me who’s got better pictures? Our outdoor photography? Bar none, the best. I don’t care where you are looking. It’s just tremendous. And I actually have benefits now. I haven’t had benefits for twelve years.

We need more owners like Jeremy Gulban out there, but I’m always looking at ways to make some money. The cost of paper is going to go up 15 percent, it goes on and on. You’ve got to cover those costs. You’ve got to be thinking forward, talking to your legislature about passing laws that don’t hurt newspapers and trying to level the playing field a little bit out there with Facebooks of the world. Nothing against Facebook or any of the other modern ways of communicating. But there’s got to be ways to make it work for everybody.

Radcliffe: Even if you had all of those elements: a salary that was attractive in a location you want where you can see a progression, you may be writing for an audience that tends to be older and sees the world differently. Or might have different information needs than the ones that you’re interested in. Are there opportunities within that paper for the type of innovation and creativity that you want to bring to the table in terms of new formats, new delivery mechanisms, or even the types of stories that you are covering? Gen Z or millennial journalists may well feel that a local newspaper is not addressing those issues in a way that they like. Those papers might have more traditional mindsets around objectivity and advocacy that don’t chime with how they see the purpose of journalism.

Gulban: I think the whole industry has to get younger people to engage with the newspaper, because over the last twenty years, almost an entire generation has grown up not really ever even picking up a newspaper. And we’ve got to reverse that. Otherwise, if you look at the subscriber demographics, you’ll see that you have a problem happening in the next ten years.

Larsen: I’ve got a son, 18, that lives with me. He’s just like, “I don’t know why anybody would read a newspaper.” And he reads; he’s a news-aholic. And he thinks that it should be coming in from all these different sources. And I like to have a cup of coffee and sit on the porch and read a paper, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.

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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. There’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

Below, more on recent local media trends and changes in newsrooms:

  • AS LOCAL NEWSROOMS DISAPPEAR, CORPORATE CRIME RISES: Harvard Business School Professor Jonas Heese published a study of thousands of publicly listed firms, finding that after a newspaper shuts down, corporate violations increased in the paper’s coverage area and, in some cases, intensified, and penalties from regulators rose by fifteen percent.
  • LOCAL POP-UP SITES PROMOTE POLITICAL INTERESTS: For a new two-part investigation for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Priyanjana Bengani found that Metric Media—a network operating more than 1,200 local pop-up news sites across the country—has ties to the Tea Party movement, a right-wing funder called DonorsTrust, and a Catholic political advocacy group that campaigned against Joe Biden’s presidency in swing states. By tracing the group’s funding and tracking its news coverage, Bengani determined that the network of sites promotes these groups’ interests without making explicit disclosures.
  • LOCAL NEWS CO-OP SHUTS DOWN ABRUPTLY: The Devil Strip, a local news co-op in Akron, Ohio that has won praise for its cooperative ownership model, shut down without warning on Tuesday, Nieman Lab reported, and all of the staff were laid off, with no money available beyond this week’s payroll. The site’s ninety-four co-owners were not aware that the publisher was in financial trouble, Laura Hazard Owens reports, “much less consulted on a path forward.” Three board members have launched a GoFundMe, aiming to rehire staff. “I do not want you to fail,” one co-owner commented on the page. “I want to contribute additional funds, however we need more details before we go blindly.” In addition to investment from members, the Devil Strip’s donor page reported a total of $589,652 in philanthropic funding as of the end of 2020.
  • ON THE BALTIMORE “NEWSPAPER WAR” AND TWO-PAPER TOWNS: For CJR’s Media Today newsletter, Jon Allsop wrote about the news that hotel magnate Stewart Bainum Jr.—an investor who tried and failed to save the Baltimore Sun from Alden Global Capital—is working to build a new publication instead, being convinced, as he told the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins, that the Sun won’t provide “the kind of coverage the city needs.” Allsop noted that while many local news markets used to be competitive ecosystems, that’s no longer the case in most places. “Ultimately, more journalists covering a place or beat is usually better for democracy than fewer; an old-school, two-print-papers local ecosystem isn’t necessary to achieve this, but there is value to big cities, in particular, harboring multiple outlets working at a similar scale,” Allsop writes. “That, to me, is what makes the Baltimore Banner so interesting, and we should be careful not to resign ourselves to the prospect of a zero-sum newspaper war in which either it or the Sun must wind up dead.”
  • JOURNALISM STUDENTS TO STAFF NEWSPAPER SAVED FROM CLOSURE: When Georgia’s Ogelthorpe County newspaper, the Echo, announced that it would cease publication, county resident and newspaper executive Dink NeSmith purchased the paper with a plan to convert it to a nonprofit and transition its production over to students at his alma mater, Grady College. NeSmith and his collegiate collaborators believe the move will offer students learning opportunities while keeping the newspaper—an important community resource—alive. Janice Hume, head of the college’s journalism department, said on the college’s website, “I want to thank in advance the folks in Oglethorpe County who will help our journalism students learn. When you agree to an interview, or provide information to a student reporter, you become an educator as well as a source. When you offer feedback, you push these UGA journalists get better and better.”
  • ON LOCAL RADIO BY AND FOR INDIGENOUS AMERICANS: For the Texas Observer, in partnership with The Nation, Pauly Denetclaw profiled KNON, Dallas’ indigenous radio station. “Radio has long been an important resource for rural, Native American communities, utilized to disseminate essential information, create a sense of connection, and share culture and language,” Denetclaw writes.
  • IN CHICAGO, PUBLIC RADIO AND PRINT NEWS CONSIDER PARTNERSHIP: Chicago Public Media, which owns the local station WBEZ, is in talks to merge with the Chicago Sun-Times, the Verge reported. “Though exact plans are still in flux as CPM and the Sun-Times iron out the formal deal, they’re said to take several cues from what public radio already does well,” Aria Bracci writes.
  • THE FUTURE OF SUSTAINABLE LOCAL NEWS: In a series of live virtual events dedicated to the topic of local news, ProPublica interviewed leaders from Detroit’s Outlier Media, Canopy Atlanta, and Phoenix’s Conecta Arizona. Connor Goodwin shared some of the series takeaways: local outlets can increase transparency by pairing journalists with community members, publishers should use the communication platforms most familiar to their communities, and outlets should commit to diversifying their newsrooms leadership.
  • AS LOCAL NEWS DETERIORATES, SO DO COMMUNITY TIES: For The Atlantic, Elaine Godfrey wrote about the degradation of her hometown newspaper—Burlington Iowa’s Hawk Eye—since it was purchased by GateHouse in 2016. The paper’s deterioration has had many bad effects, including the loss of community. “We don’t often stop to ponder the way that a newspaper’s collapse makes people feel: less connected, more alone,” Godfrey writes. “As local news crumbles, so does our tether to one another.”

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites