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How to make more money: Serve more (desirable) readers

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My hometown newspaper, for which I labored for nearly 20 years, used this promotional line: “Serving the people of Franklin County.” Over the years, that claim became less and less accurate.

Claims of broad, demographically diverse coverage by newspapers today remain just that — claims.

Franklin County consists of 26 towns with the county seat, Greenfield, smack in the middle of 400 rural square miles. Greenfield held a third of the countywide population of some 70,000. But we had “county” reporters who covered smaller towns with populations measured in the few thousands — towns covered by bureaus in east county, west county, south county and north county.

As the ’70s became the ’80s, rising staff and newsprint costs, the recession of the early ’80s and a change in profit expectations by new ownership led to, one by one, the cutting of these bureaus. Sure, the paper had stringers and still does. But the shrinking expectations of coverage by readers did not match the proud claim of “serving the readers of Franklin County.”

That’s the microcosm I worked in. But there’s a macrocosm, too: Newsroom folks at almost any newspaper will tell stories about the incredible shrinking coverage areas of their newspapers.

And that’s bad for democracy. When newspapers cover the broadest possible community, readers live in an inclusive atmosphere. Government works better at more levels, because the press inspects it more closely — small town school boards, zoning and planning boards, and so on get that reportorial eye continually focused on their doings.

But as the coverage area shrinks, many levels of government no longer have the press holding them accountable.

This week the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal said it will close three regional bureaus. Said its publisher, Edward Manassah:

We want to continue to focus on local news and better utilize our resources. … we would like very much to grow our suburban coverage. We’d like to intensify our online presence to continue to improve the newspaper in terms of impacting our readers.

But the closing of bureaus in in Hazard, Paducah and Elizabethtown, many argue, will end the C-J’s reputation as a statewide newspaper. Manassah said the paper will continue to cover “big” statewide stories, but that’s not the same as journalistic resources focused on a daily basis on regional and local governments statewide.

The C-J, the nation’s 44th largest paper with a circulation of 271,000, has fared better than other Gannett papers, losing only about 5,000 to 6,000 subscribers since 2000. Still, that’s a revenue loss the paper must address. And there are other costs, too. For example, any newspaper wants to cut newsprint costs, which have increased three times this year to nearly $650 a ton.

So why would the C-J turn its reporting horsepower inward, so to speak, rather than statewide? The answer lies in Manassah’s use of the phrase “grow our suburban coverage.” If a newspaper wants to make money, it can cut expenses and/or increase revenue. Closing bureaus and altering press runs to reduce newsprint waste does the former; focusing on suburban coverage where the pricey demographics lives means delivering a more attractive audience to advertisers — who in turn might pay higher ad rates for that audience. In other words, cover the well-to-do who can afford what the advertisers advertise.

And, says the C-J public editor, Pam Platt:

[the new] mission fuels the newspaper’s most ambitious, hard-hitting and significant news projects, which have given voice to the voiceless and have spoken truth to power for people not only in the “primary market area,” but in the hollers and hills of Kentucky, too.

Well, that’s fine. Newspapers ought to do that. But what democracy needs is constant vigilance by the press on governance at all levels. Doing occasional statewide stories does not accomplish that.

The C-J’s a good paper. It’s won six Pulitzers. But it should no longer kid anyone that it is a true statewide paper that holds government (and corporations should count as government, too, these days) accountable statewide.

The Des Moines Register, one of the nation’s best newspapers (at least every four years) in covering politics, is no longer the statewide paper it used to be. It’s won 15 Pulitzers, but it, too, has focused closer to home than statewide.

My little hometown paper is one of many, many small- and medium-market dailies and weeklies that have mirrored the insular actions of big metros like the Courier-Journal and the Register: Alter coverage patterns to the detriment of some demographically unsuitable readers to maintain or increase profit margins.

If the press expects to play a role in the maintenance and oversight of democracy, it must find a way to remodel itself as an economic institution. Cutting off its arms and legs to maintain its core may make sense to Wall Street, but it does little to further fulfilling the press’ obligation given it in return for First Amendment protection from government interference.

“I have always regarded the newspaper owned by me as a public trust,” said Judge Robert W. Bingham, once U.S. ambassador to Great Britain and a former owner of the Courier-Journal.

Increasingly, that public trust is circulated through fewer and fewer outreaches as the press condenses itself into a black hole of perfect demographics.

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

December 14, 2005 at 2:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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