Abernathy: Community newspapers have a future

Posted June 4, 2014

By Catherine Payne, NAA content producer

A new book may help community newspapers turn the corner.

Penelope Muse Abernathy, author of "Saving Community Journalism," released April 29, keeps her finger on the pulse of community newspapers as they face challenges in the digital age.


In her book, Abernathy, Knight chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, draws on research and analysis to reveal ways for community newspapers to transform and become profitable. She shares ways to build vibrant communities on multiple platforms as well as to generate revenue.

Abernathy, a former executive at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, talks to NAA about her book and its companion website. The website, which is constantly updated, features lessons, interviews with leaders profiled in the book, resources and a blog.

Q: What is the goal of your book?

A: My goal in writing the book was to provide publishers and editors of community newspapers with a practical framework for implementing strategies that help them survive and thrive in the digital era. The Internet has leveled three blows to the business model that has traditionally supported newspapers -- attacking the cost structure, and siphoning off both readers and advertising revenue. So publishers need a three-pronged strategy for reducing legacy costs associated with the print edition wisely, building readership and engagement in the digital space and pursuing new revenue profitably. In other words, they need to keep three plates spinning at the same time -- which is never easy, even during tranquil times. It's especially difficult during times of disruption, when there is a lot of noise, so publishers and editors need to prioritize how they invest and implement various tactics.


Q: How does the book define community newspaper?

A: The traditional definition for a "community newspaper" has been any newspaper under 15,000 circulation. That is very much a 20th century, print definition. Circulation doesn't really determine whether you are a community newspaper or not. It's more about the mission. In the book, "community newspaper" applies to the mission that you have to cover a geographic community, an ethnic community or even a special interest community. Basically, the cutoff is 100,000 (circulation).

Q: Why did you focus on community newspapers?

A: One, a study talked about an emerging digital divide in this country that could result in two Americas. The community divide was basically focused on which areas had broadband and which didn't. The second thing is that studies pointed to the fact that community newspapers had historically produced as much as 85% of the news that feeds into our news ecosystem. Most of the attention has been focused on the larger newspapers because they felt the financial falloff first. For community newspapers, it usually didn't hit until 2008, 2009. If we lose them, we lose the foundation of what has traditionally fed news into our ecosystem.

Q: What is something about community newspapers that is widely misunderstood?

A: A Pew survey found that most consumers of news felt that the news that they received had diminished in quantity and quality over the last five to 10 years, but they were totally unaware of the financial issues facing community newspapers. One publisher said he was really hesitant to write a letter to readers explaining why he was having cutbacks on the days that he was publishing because it would indicate they weren't doing well financially. ... Editors and publishers need to be a lot more transparent with both readers and advertisers about what they are doing to change, why it's important that they change, and why it's important that they survive.

Q: Why are community newspapers needed?

A: Readers rely on newspapers to help identify the most important issues of the day. They rely on them to help point out things that would encourage economic growth. There are two ways newspapers have historically done that. They put advertisers and readers together. Readers actually find advertising information to be very helpful. Newspapers point out things that affect long-term regional economic growth. Finally, readers depend on newspapers to help them understand how their vote counts.

Q: What does the future hold for community newspapers?

A: It depends on how aggressively they move to transition to multiproduct in terms of content and multiplatform in terms of distribution.

Q: Can you tell us about the book's companion website?

A: I wanted to take the classroom to the newsroom, and provide a free digital instructional site that would allow very busy publishers and editors to helicopter up from the day-to-day bustle of creating a newspaper and utilize the tools and implement the tactics recommended in the book.

For more information about the book and its companion website, visit www.savingcommunityjournalism.com.