On the Death of My Hometown Newspaper (and What I’d Do if I Were in Charge)

The first time my name ever appeared in print I was 11 years old. The county youth basketball team I played for had just won a state tournament in Roanoke, Va. -- four hours from home -- and it was covered in our town's newspaper the following day. I was even visible in the black-and-white picture accompanying the story, much to my 11-year-old delight.

In another six years, my name would again appear in print, this time on a byline. I scored a job as a "stringer" for a different local paper, assigned to cover local high school sports. I wrote about basketball, football, and swim meets and was paid $40 for each story. (These were early Internet days, when no one asked you to do it for free.)

End of an era
In November of this year, my hometown newspaper and its accompanying Web property announced plans to close, effective Dec. 30.

I found the news a bit surprising, because over the summer it was bought by a Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  ) subsidiary called World Media Enterprises. Berkshire Chairman/CEO Warren Buffett is among the few businessmen in America who continue to invest in newspapers. Berkshire already owned papers in Omaha and Buffalo, and with its acquisition of almost all of Media General's (NYSE: MEG  ) newspapers, it added scores of localized papers to its roster.

Six months later, the Berkshire subsidiary is closing one -- and thus far, only one -- newspaper: The News & Messenger of Prince William County, Va.

Things past
The local papers of my youth provided the pre-digital way of egosurfing -- or as we know it now, Googling yourself. If you participated in a sporting event, parade, academic challenge, etc., the following morning you'd flip to the relevant section to see whether you were written about.

In the suburban Washington, D.C., town where I was raised, that usually meant a subscription to the Potomac News. There was also the Prince William Journal (which later hired me as a stringer, for which I am forever grateful), but back then, it had only recently become a daily and lacked the cachet of the Potomac News.

That paper had the mindshare of my community. We knew the writers' names and faces, and my friends and I would debate whether they had biases toward a particular high school's athletics program. (Hey, we were teenagers.)

When I went off to college, I had no reason to think that the Potomac News, which had been around since 1959, would lose its grip on the area. Then again, Google hadn't yet been invented... so it was hard to see the cliff coming.

The Internet disruption
Consolidation came first. In 2001, all of the Northern Virginia Journal newspapers -- Prince William, Arlington, Fairfax, and Alexandria -- were consolidated and called the Northern Virginia Journal. That paper was eventually given away for free at train stations, and then was acquired by Phil Anschutz, called the Washington Examiner, and made into a free daily and political foil to the Washington Post.

Smack in the middle of the financial crisis, the Manassas Journal Messenger merged with the Potomac News to form the News & Messenger, a sort of super-paper to cover the fast-growing Prince William County. There was perhaps reason to believe that the community could sustain its own paper:

Year

Population

1980

144,703

1990

215,686

2000

280,813

2010

402,002

Source: Census data.

It wasn't just that the population was growing. It also featured the kind of demography advertisers love: Prince William County is among the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States, according to recent census data.

Yet here's the bleak picture of newspaper circulation figures:

  • 1997 -- Potomac News: 31,000
  • 2008 -- Potomac News: 13,440
  • 2008 -- Manassas Journal Messenger: 8,234
  • November 2012 -- News & Messenger (combined entity): 8,000-10,000

It was bleeding to death. Or as was reported in The New York Times after the closure was announced: "The News & Messenger has lost money for a number of years ...  [and management was] unable to come up with a scenario that would result in a likelihood of profitable operations there."

Bad business
The eventual undoing of the News & Messenger and papers like it wasn't necessarily that the Internet made information more widely accessible, or that locally focused blogs could cover many of the same topics as a small newsroom. What changed wasn't the journalism, it was the revenue model.

There was one disruptor -- the Web -- that took two main forms:

  • Craigslist took away the need for consumers to list their for-sale items with the local paper.
  • Google took away the need for businesses to buy advertising with the local paper.

Traditional newsrooms were long bankrolled by the classifieds and advertising departments, which could do a lot with a dominant presence in even small markets. No more. Why would a local business owner want to buy display advertising in newsprint when they can buy keywords with Google, which come with highly targeted leads and a measurable return on investment?

Are there viable sources to fill the void?
The night that news of News & Messenger's closing hit, I sought out its local competitors to gauge their offerings.

AOL is betting big on its Patch network of local one-stop-shop blogs, but in its current form, it's not the answer. I follow the local Patch via social media, and several hours after the announcement was made, the news of the closing -- which is significant in the county -- appeared... as a link to the News & Messenger's website, InsideNOVA.com. The very site being closed by World Media Enterprises.

Could blogs fill the void? I ventured to a blog competitor, PotomacLocal.com, and found a short piece on the news, but it incorrectly spelled "losing" as "loosing" (it was eventually fixed) and "based" as "baesed," as well as "its" as "it's" (they were not fixed).

While I'm optimistic that the PotomacLocals of the world can fill certain niches, they don't yet have the resources -- copyediting and otherwise -- to be a viable alternative, and as an ad-supported business, I'm not sure they ever will.

A model for the future
I believe a business based on local journalism can work, because I believe it can provide something of value for the consumer. But it will look different tomorrow than it did yesterday.

Here's my playbook for making local journalism viable:

  1. It will be digital-only. Being free of legacy costs, and legacy thinking, is critical.
  2. It will acquire or partner with the best local blogs, to act as a one-stop shop for news and commentary about a specific area.
  3. It will have a sustainable labor model -- let's call this the Huffington Post Rule -- that will feature trained professional editors and reporters paid full-time wages, as well as paid stringers and bloggers and possibly even unpaid contributors. It will feature robust coverage from many writers (who will have multiple backgrounds and skill sets), with a full-time editorial team playing both coach and quarterback.
  4. It will have digital subscription elements, in either a metered paywall form (e.g., consumers can read up to X many articles per month for free, and must pay for access beyond X) or pure subscription form (e.g., an add-on, business-to-business-like local business spotlight, along the lines of Washington Business Journal or the Post's Capital Business).
    I'm on Team Paywall, but No. 4 on my list is highly dependent upon getting No. 3 right, because you can't charge for something that lacks breadth and depth. It's simply too easy to imitate and give away for free, even if those competitors are getting only paltry RPMs.
    But assuming the newsroom and its collection of motley contributors is aligned to provide robust local coverage, a subscription model can work. (Here's support for my view from Gawker's Hamilton Nolan.)
  5. It will have an adaptive business model that is constantly testing and learning. The paywall or digital subscription isn't a panacea. Viable journalism-based businesses will need a mixture of advertising and subscription revenues, and will need to constantly experiment with new revenue opportunities. For example: events and conferences, one-off sales of things like e-books (compiling existing coverage of, say, local elections or popular sports seasons), or brand licensing to local merchants (think Good Housekeeping).

It's sad to see the News & Messenger go. But my hope is that as legacy publications fade away, digital-era upstarts can fill the gaps they leave, providing a place for new generations of kids to look for their name after basketball tournaments.

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