Count Dean Miller — a self-described "red-blooded American capitalist" — among those who think newspapers will be around and making money for a long time. Miller was until recently the editor of the Idaho Falls Post-Register, a job he had held for about 14 years until he locked horns one too many times with the head of his company. (Disclosure: I met Miller at a professional conference at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg and have kept in friendly contact since.)
I spoke with Miller because of a fact that often gets overlooked: While most of the ink, blood and tears spilled over newspapers involves big-city dailies, smaller papers have tended to fare better. He says many of the most influential regional papers in the country have forgotten to focus carefully enough on their local readers and advertisers and are weighed down by major debt.
But he offers lessons for the bigger names in the newspaper industry, culled in no small part from his experiences in eastern Idaho.
First: Take a deep breath and take print advertising seriously. While classified advertising has nearly evaporated in the age of Craigslist, Miller argues that much of the steep declines in advertising has occurred because of the larger economy.
"Advertising on radio, TV and online is considered an annoyance," he says. "But there's a significant number of people who buy newspapers to read the ads. That's unique about newspapers. So I think a lot of people are going to get kind of spanked by their predictions of the utter demise of newspapers because they've misread some of the economic impact as fundamental business model impact."
Second: Focus on local news and content, both in reporting and market research. Save the poetry for a yarn that's worth it. Study your market. Invest in software programs allow papers to, say, format incredibly detailed statistics from high school sporting events with minimal human interaction. Make the staff cuts you have to, Miller says, but don't pull punches on major institutions in your reporting. In one memorable episode, the Post-Register kicked up a firestorm when it disclosed child abuse by figures prominent in the local Boy Scout hierarchy.
"The number one reason for repeat readership is, 'This newspaper looks after my personal and civic interests,' " Miller says. "Meanwhile, everyone is wringing their hands about how the citizenry are idiots and don't care about journalism. No, they really want journalism. But they want it to be about them. So what's happened to the big papers is they've gotten into the contest to be the big Pulitzer generator and they've not done as good a job on local news as local papers have."
Third: Charge for news wherever it's consumed, in print or online. "There is no sustainable business that gives away its most expensive product," Miller says. At the Post-Register, "we've been a paid site forever. We've been sneered at, laughed at, yelled at." But he says the paper has made money both online and in print, in part by giving readers many alternatives of how often to receive the printed product at home each week.
We'll be following up on Miller's final plank with an interview with Steven Brill, one of the forces behind a high-powered new venture called Journalism Online LLC. The group seeks to create a news portal that would gather up news articles and content that have previously been provided online for free — and then convince readers to pay for it.