Small can be beautiful in today’s newspaper business

Bradley J. Furnish

By Bradley J. Furnish
Big-city newspapers are fighting rising costs, falling circulation, advertising losses to other media and a competitive challenge from the Internet. But their woes present an opportunity to small daily and weekly newspapers, shoppers and alternative papers. By assuming some of the functions of big papers — while still retaining their distinctive identity — small papers can reap big rewards.

An analysis by leading classified-ad-placement agency Access Advertising of Kansas City, MO clarifies the changes that are transforming the newspaper business.

The bottom dropped out of newspaper classified advertising revenue in the first quarter of 2001, even before 9/11. If you adjust the data for inflation, classified ad revenue still hasn’t recovered to the level it reached in 1996. From $19.6 billion in 2000, classified-ad revenue has fallen to $5.7 billion in 2010.

The data was gathered by the National Newspaper Association and the Newspaper Association of America.

Major-metro paid circulations have been declining for two decades. The public has turned to cable channels and news networks for breaking news. The editorial slant of most major metros is left-of-center politically, which puts them at odds with the shift in political attitudes that has driven the U.S. rightward over the last 25 years.

Are newspapers dying? It depends on just what you mean by “newspapers.” There are only about 230 major-metropolitan newspapers such as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, but the number of such newspaper-type publications as small dailies, weeklies, shoppers and alternative papers approaches 10,000. These smaller publications can offer an audience to potential advertisers at lower cost and without the drawbacks of advertising in major metros.

“Small dailies, weeklies, shoppers and alternatives charge very attractive advertising rates,” said Access Advertising General Manager Trae Nunnink. “What’s more, they don’t offend their readers with their style, their politics or with mandatory Internet fees. I think they’ll be around for a long time.”

Nunnink believes that the key to success will be for smaller papers to recognize their comparative advantage and press it to the fullest. “Not every advertiser in the major-metro newspapers is well-suited for smaller papers,” Nunnink warns.

“Recruitment ads often work beautifully there. We place hundreds of thousands of ads in smaller papers every year to recruit truck drivers for trucking firms. They target the right people and areas, they fit the budget of almost any firm and the ad doesn’t compete with dozens of similar ads so it automatically stands out.”

“When trucking recruiters run ads in major-metro newspapers, they often feel obligated to run a big, expensive ad just to make it conspicuous,” said Nunnink. We call this ‘advertising on steroids.’ The beauty of using the smaller papers for recruitment ads is that you can write simple, concise ad copy, stay within your budget and still get great results.”

The next time you hear about the impending death of the newspaper, consider the possibility that — to paraphrase Mark Twain — the story may be slightly exaggerated.

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