As Large Newspapers Struggle, Small Ones Thrive

In the age of Internet media and 24/7 cable outlets, more than 20 million Americans still get a significant amount of their news from small-circulation daily and weekly newspapers. For many of these mom-and-pop papers, business is booming — so much so that hundreds of papers have been targeted by growing national chains.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

A new report confirms something we've heard over and over - it is a tough time to be in the newspaper business. Figures out today show that circulation declined last year, down by more than three percent. That some big city papers but many small town papers are actually holding on to their audience. Some are even growing. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN: The newspaper business is, sort of, like King Kong perched on top of the Empire State Building and those little airplanes buzzing around Kong's head are the Internet and cable TV and blogs and podcasts. For 20 years, says John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, they've been chipping away at the circulation and the cultural influence of the big urban daily.

Mr. JOHN STURM (President, Newspaper Association of America): There's no secret that the paid circulation of print newspapers has been declining. It's been declining for many, many years.

MANN: But newspapers aren't one big gorilla. The industry is made up of thousands of papers from big media brands like The Wall Street Journal, with a total print circulation of 1.7 million all the way down to tiny papers like the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in northern New York, circulation roughly 5,000.

Ms. CATHERINE MOORE (Publisher, Daily Enterprise): Compared to the whole newspaper industry, we showed growth and circulation and online last year.

MANN: Midmorning publisher Catherine Moore watches as the Daily Enterprise rolls off an old-fashioned printing press. She says her paper found its niche years ago as a personal and intimate mirror of this rural community - two hours drive north of Albany.

Ms. MOORE: The pictures of the kids, their names, parents, they're going to pick up the paper and send it to the grandparents. Everybody has their five minutes of fame.

MANN: The focus on local means baby pictures and school budget votes sometimes trump big national stories like the war in Iraq or the Virginia Tech shooting. That may sound, sort of, hokey, but it's big business. A study released this month by the Institute for World Journalism at the University of Kentucky, found that 20 million Americans still get at least some of their news from this small daily and weekly papers.

One in three small town papers actually gained circulation last year. And the papers that lost circulation saw much smaller declines than urban dailies. That success has inspired the big media conglomerates to buy in. Landmark Communications runs the Weather Channel and, through a subsidiary, already owns more than a hundred small newspapers in 16 states. Editorial director Benjamin Raynham(ph) says the company hopes to buy as many as four small newspapers every year.

Mr. BENJAMIN RAHEM (Editorial Director, Weather Channel): We do see it as a good business model. We see community newspapers, in many ways, define the trends that you're seeing at the larger metros.

MANN: This kind of success has brought its own challenges. As more mom-and-pop papers are snatched up, local flavor and local control are sometimes lost.

Ms. JENAY TATE (Editor and Publisher, Coalfield Progress): My grandfather bought the paper in 1924. We sold the newspaper roughly 15 months ago.

MANN: Jenay Tate is editor and publisher of the Coalfield Progress, a paper in northern Virginia. Tate decided to stay on after her family's paper was sold to a chain.

Ms. TATE: It was like cutting off a limb, not cutting off a limb, it was like losing my heart.

MANN: Many small town papers face spiraling death as they struggle to modernize and upgrade their printing presses. As the value of rural papers skyrocket, Tate says more families are tempted to sellout. Sometimes triggering nasty ownership disputes. Growth pains aside, small papers face some big challenges. In the past, these rural towns had less access to the Internet, which meant less media competition. That's changing fast, and more mom-and-pop papers are rolling out their own online editions in a bid to keep pace.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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