In a buyer’s market for weekly newspapers, where are the buyers?

Most days this summer, I have written a story about goings-on in Midway, a small Kentucky town where my students and I publish the Midway Messenger. When students aren’t around, I pick up the slack, but it’s a labor of love to provide coverage for a proud community that once had a paper of its own and has adopted ours, even though after 11 years I’m still something of a parachute publisher.

I’ve been in the newspaper business most of my life, but never as an owner, and our mainly online, non-commercial enterprise is as close as I am likely to get. But there are plenty of opportunities out there.

“It’s a buyer’s market right now for weekly newspapers,” former weekly publisher Gary Sosniecki writes, in a package of stories that we’re publishing to attract potential owners to community newspapers. This article introduces that package.

Al Cross, weekly newspapers
Al Cross

You might have chuckled at the “buyer’s market” line, since all the bad news about metropolitan newspapers may lead you to think that a newspaper is no longer a good investment. That’s not true of most community newspapers, because they are the sole, reliable source of news about their communities, and most of them “are doing fine financially,” says Kevin Slimp, the leading consultant to community papers.

“In areas where decreased population, diminished area businesses and other forces beyond our control are at work, it might not be viable to sustain a local newspaper,” Slimp acknowledges. “Having said that, I’ve worked with many newspapers in the past year in towns with fewer than 600 residents who are finding ways to be successful.”

Gary and Helen Sosniecki found success with weeklies in three Midwest towns, the first with only 900 people. “If the population is stable, if most storefronts on Main Street are filled, if the town has its own school and the all-important sense of community, the prospects for a weekly newspaper succeeding long-term are good,” he writes.

But this is a buyer’s market with not enough buyers. When the West Virginia Press Association voiced concern that some newspapers in the state might close because their owners couldn’t find buyers, Maryanne Reed, then dean of the West Virginia University College of Media and now the university provost, got some foundation money and started a program called NewStart to develop the next generation of community newspaper owners.

The program’s director, Jim Iovino, writes in this package about the success that Michael E. Sprengelmeyer found in a New Mexico weekly, the Guadalupe County Communicator, after the closing of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where he was a political correspondent and had the byline M.E. Sprengelmeyer.

Jim Iovino says his first group of fellows in the program is expected to start in June 2020. That will be none too soon for the Texas Press Association, which has seen a rash of closures and mergers, and hears talk of more. As in West Virginia, buyers are hard to find. We suspect it’s much the same in most of the country.

“Many owners of our generation waited too long to sell and — unable to find buyers — are shutting down their papers,” Gary Sosniecki writes.

Those of us in this informal group see at least two potential groups of buyers who need to be recruited: local business people who never thought about becoming publishers, but know their communities and the value of a newspaper, and know how to make a profit; and the thousands of journalists who have been laid off by metro newspapers.

“It’s a conundrum that independently-owned weekly newspapers are closing for lack of buyers at the same time that journalists who would make good weekly-newspaper owners are being laid off in record numbers by metro newspapers and national newspaper groups,” Gary writes. “The challenge for our industry is to convince these unemployed journalists to explore the joys and rewards of owning a small-town newspaper.”

Helen Sosniecki gets down to the nitty-gritty of that in another article, giving advice on how to go about buying a newspaper and testifying about the experience.

“It won’t be all fun and games, “ she writes. “The hours are long. The financial payback may be less than your corporate salary. But the rewards in your accomplishments as a community newspaper owner can overshadow those drawbacks. … You live there. You chronicle the town’s history. But you’re also one of them. It’s your town, too. It will fill you with pride when the school basketball team wins that first state championship. It will bring you to tears when you and your neighbors bury that young volunteer fireman with the pregnant wife who died along with another volunteer on the way to a brush fire. It will be your job, your business and your life — and you’ll likely love it more than anything you’ve ever done.”

Slimp and I agree that the keys to success as a community newspaper publisher are the right market, the right management and the right content. “Job number one is to put out a good product,” he told The Washington Post recently. In an email, he told me, “It’s time we began to focus on publishing the best newspapers we can.”

There are thousands of Americans who could put out a good newspaper. They need to give themselves the chance. We’re here to give advice if you need it.

Al Cross edited and managed weekly newspapers before working 26 years for the Louisville Courier-Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. For 15 years, he has directed the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, where he is a professor of journalism.