Who Will Gather the News? A Tale of Two Weeklies

For awhile now, this blog has explored the state of mainstream media business models, particularly the impact of technological advances and the decentralization of news-gathering and op-ed functions to alternative media modes such as blogging. In particular, there has been debate about the effect of shifting media market dynamics on the coverage of local issues. Though normally concerned with the national and large regional outlets, this issue is one that also involves smaller papers that serve local markets. Case in point: Just two months removed from its shift from twice-monthly to weekly publication, the Chesterfield Observer is announcing that access to the online addition will no longer be free to readers.

One of two weekly newspapers covering Richmond’s largest suburb, the free print news outlet, which reports a delivery base of over 35,000 and distribution of 47,000 copies through other means, will now charge $24.95 per year for access its current content. However, according to the paper, “there will be no charge to read the newspaper’s previous issues or search its archives.” In a few weeks, online readers will face the prospect of paying what amounts to around 50 cents per issue to gain immediate access to content. The publisher acknowledges that this will not please some saying, “We realize some online readers will be disappointed to find they have to pay for the latest week’s stories. We think this method is fair both to our online readers and to the advertisers in the print edition that support this community service. And, overall, it’s a much more useful website to our county now.”

How this situation plays out could shed light on the future of newsgathering and reporting by such community-based media outlets. For example, Chesterfield’s other weekly newspaper, The Village News, provides its print and online versions free of charge, including full access to its archives. Its circulation is around 10,000, and it is distributed to over 200 local business locations. It takes a different editorial-page bent than the Observer, focuses primarily on the eastern end of the county (whereas the Observer leans toward the western end), and provides links to other sources outlets such as blogs (including this one). Together the two papers roughly reach between 15-30% of Chesterfield’s 300,000 residents via distribution, and both claim to have steadily increasing print readership numbers, contrary to the trend with national papers. Both serve as alternative information and opinion sources to the venerable Richmond Times-Dispatch for Chesterfield residents.

With the steady growth in the local population, and the growing demand for news content, it remains to be seen if either paper’s business model (free print/free online vs. free print/paid online) is sustainable over the long term. We all know that generally, times are tough for the newspaper industry nationwide, particularly large daily papers and some larger regional ones. Smaller-circulation, community-focused papers represent quite a different operating paradigm than larger regional entities with whom they share markets.

Will changing consumer tastes, demographic shifts, technologies and cost factors represent increased opportunities for community-based papers, or will they wade through the same troubled waters as their larger brethren as they struggle to adapt their business models? Is there a role for blogs in this equation as either collaborators or competitors with these weekly outlets?


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2 responses to “Who Will Gather the News? A Tale of Two Weeklies”

  1. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    The free weeklies have a real dilemma with their online strategy. I haven’t been keeping close tabs on online advertising rates in Virginia — it’s been a couple of years since I’ve checked — but I can’t imagine that weeklies can hope to earn much more than $1 per 1,000 impressions (or page views), and that would represent a premium over national rates. If a weekly generated 1,000,000 page views per week (an improbably high figure), that would generate revenue of $1,000 — barely enough to cover the salary, benefits and office overhead of the sales person who sold the ads! There is no way that weeklies could generate enough advertising revenue from their websites to cover the cost of gathering the news.

    The same logic applies to the daily newspapers. They generate far more page views — in the millions per week — but their overhead is correspondingly higher. The news gathering operation at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, for instance, is supported by print advertising revenue. It couldn’t possibly survive on the revenue generated by online media.

    Someone has to gather the news, or we’ll all be left in the dark. Blogs and e-zines can take up some of the slack, but only a very small part.

    My guess is that we’ll see more content produced by those who benefit directly from it — politicians, lobbyists, trade associations, businesses — and packaged with their own, self-serving spin. This content is easily distributed electronically. (I’m involved in this business to some degree, producing content-rich electronic newsletters for clients. We shoot out the content via e-mail, and we post it on the Web where it can be accessed through key-word searches.)

    Increasingly, I believe, business opportunities will arise for people who filter through this content and package it for niche markets, perhaps adding a gloss of commentary or analysis.

  2. RedBull Avatar

    Here’s what the WAPO has to say about blogs.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/linkset/2005/04/11/LI2005041100587.html

    Howard Kurts makes some good points….

    “But the biggest evil of blogs is that first flaw, blogging’s original sin: the discounting of news-gathering in favor of news analysis. Bloggers are forever telling us how easy journalism is, yet very few of them have ever really practiced it. Sure, they may have written opinion pieces that compare favorably to the work of Molly Ivins or Ann Coulter, but opinion writing is a tiny – and let’s be honest, inconsequential – corner of the journalism world. Real journalism – the practice of adding to the store of public knowledge by reporting news – is a difficult, thankless, and often unpleasant task. Bloggers want no part of it. Everyone wants E.J. Dionne’s job; no one wants to be Michael Dobbs”

    I think blogs are here to stay and Newspapers would be better served to embrace the technology, particulalry on the editorial pages.

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