Community newspapers feeling the pressure
Editor’s note: The names of the editors quoted below have been changed and we’ve opted not to identify their publications in order to protect them.
RED DEER, Alta., April 10, 2017 /Troy Media/ – Local content is the soul of community newspapers. And the holy trinity that allows publishers and editors to create that content is made up of time, revenue and resources.
But far too few community newspapers can find the time, generate the revenue or develop the resources to serve their markets the way they want to.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” says editor Joan when asked where the pressure points – and potential – exist in her twice-weekly operation.
“Even having enough people to do the work when a staff member is off is a struggle,” says Joan, who has taken one day off in the last year – for a funeral.
Her paper places a premium on local copy. It avoids canned copy to fill holes at all costs, even when ad volumes unexpectedly push up page counts in increments of eight, at the last minute.
The gap is filled, in part, with submitted copy from local freelancers, although that copy can be time-consuming to track down and to edit. “Dealing with freelancers and their copy is a chore,” she admits.
Her paper also publishes several special sections a year, again leaning heavily on local copy, and again seeking material from freelancers.
“We have no access to news services to fill the gaps.”
And when all that copy comes flooding in?
“We’re slim on the production end,” Joan says. “We have just two editors (for seven reporters) and sometimes it feels like we’re the big bottleneck.”
Trying to ensure quality and quantity, then, becomes a seven-day-a-week job, particularly when responsibility for maintaining the website and updating social media is thrown into the mix.
Just ask Fred, editor of a weekly community paper and a partner in a four-paper chain. “I take a lot of work home at night,” he admits ruefully.
He estimates it takes two full days a week to edit local copy from a staff that is the full-time equivalent of six reporters.
Things are no different at another weekly operation, where the resources are even slimmer but the workload is just as heavy.
“I’m a one-man show, so it’s a lot of work but I think I’m able to do a lot of good here,” says editor Leo. “The biggest question I face is my ability to keep up the work pace without putting myself in the ground.”
Fred says he spends a great deal of time coaching young reporters who are in part overwhelmed by the workload and in part in need of time-management skills to similarly avoid putting themselves into the ground. Taking two days off in a row is a rarity.
“The first thing we need to teach them is that it’s not about generating column inches, it’s about good stories – and more of those good stories.
“Our emphasis is always on getting more quality local material in our papers,” Fred says. “And we’re up for several provincial awards, so we’re making headway.”
But maintaining momentum can be difficult. A recent provincial government budget has created economic uncertainty.
“If things continue to tighten, we’ll have to get more creative about coverage and local news generation,” he admits.
And that creativity comes at a cost.
“We could use one more reporter. We need the hours but how that fits into a body, I’m not sure.”
Those hours, however, can only be paid with more income.
“We desperately need a way to access national ad revenue,” says Fred. “Cash flow is always tight and anything we can do to improve that will enhance our operations.”
At Joan’s paper, in a robust bedroom community of a large city, the tabloid page counts can reach 96 and rarely fall as low as 48. But the national ad revenue remains elusive.
“It’s particularly tough to get national ads online,” admits Joan.
Ultimately, the additional resources needed to ease the time crunch – and feed the soul of community papers – requires more revenue.
John Stewart is editorial vice-president with Troy Media Digital Solutions Ltd. and editor-in-chief of Troy Media.