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MY VIEW

Jeremy Boyer: The surprising story of many small newspapers

Small-market newspapers

I was showing a visitor around our building recently when we approached the window that overlooks the printing press in the basement. As I was explaining what she was about to see, she expressed astonishment.

"You have your own press? Wow!"

The visitor was familiar with the industry narrative. Newspapers have been struggling, operations have been slimmed down. Surely, a small community newspaper in the middle of upstate New York wouldn't be in a position to print its publication onsite.

But after a few minutes of explaining our operation, it made perfect sense to her. We may be small, but what we do isn't duplicated by anyone else. No other news and information source is providing daily coverage of this market, and so we have a strong and growing audience. And thanks to our outstanding employees, we have a vibrant local business.

That's not a narrative you hear much about these days when the business of newspaper journalism is discussed, but stories like ours are far more common than people realize.

An excellent analysis that confirms this situation was published Wednesday in the Columbia Journalism Review. "New research: Small-market newspapers in the digital age," was written and researched by a pair of journalism professors, Christopher Ali and Damian Radcliffe, for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

Based on dozens of interviews with people immersed in the business of small-market newspaper journalism along with reviews of numerous industry studies and reports, the authors came up with some hopeful findings.

If you've got some time and the interest in reading a 24,000-word report, I highly recommend checking this study out. For me, four of the authors' key findings stood out as being completely in line with what we've seen here in Auburn:

• "We need to talk about the experience of local newspapers in a more nuanced manner." Just like every community and market has unique characteristics, so do the newspapers that cover them. And depending upon the competitive landscape and the demographics of the market, some newspapers are doing much better than others at engaging their audiences and, ultimately, operating their business plan.

• "Local newspapers may be in a stronger position than their metro cousins." Building off the first point, this observation rings true in many parts of the country. We have seen substantial growth in our audience over the past decade as we've witnessed the bigger regional media outlets largely retreat from Cayuga County unless there is a major breaking news story.

• "There is no cookie-cutter model for success in local journalism." To do it well, local journalism must be practiced on the ground, in the market. And it must be done in a way that reflects the interests and priorities of people in the area. We could easily fill all of our website and print pages with national wire and syndicated content, but we know our readers aren't looking for us to give that to them. What they want to know from us is what's going on in the places where they live and work and play.

• "The newspaper industry needs to change the 'doom and gloom' narrative that surrounds it." This is a big challenge, because many journalists have an instinct to focus on problems and challenges. And those exist for newspapers, to be sure. Too often, though, we've failed to convey the context that despite some well-known struggles, there's also many examples of thriving newspaper companies.

Ali and Radcliffe summarized where things stand for us, and I suspect many other small newspapers, well in this paragraph:

"Their future is not certain, and the road ahead will continue to be rocky and unpredictable. But the foundations of small-market newspapers are more solid than some people, including local journalists and local audiences, may realize. If all news is local, then this sector will continue to matter for a long time to come."

Executive editor Jeremy Boyer’s column appears Thursdays in The Citizen and he can be reached at (315) 282-2231 or jeremy.boyer@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenBoyer

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