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Sky isn’t falling; papers aren’t dying

Everyone has heard some version of the fable about Chicken Little, where the title fowl lets everyone know that, “The sky is falling!” after getting hit with an acorn. Although the tale has a variety of endings, it always turns out that the sky isn’t going anywhere.

The moral of the story, in most versions, is not to believe everything you hear and to show courage in times of real — or even perceived — crisis.

A modern cry for panic that especially hits home for me goes something like, “Get out the nails. The newspaper industry is dying!”

Just like Chicken Little, those who say that can’t see the real picture or don’t have the courage to face change.

The newspaper industry is alive and well, although facing challenges as many businesses are in these difficult times.

Recently a reporter at a Texas newspaper was working on a story about community newspapers like The Tribune. The reporter emailed questions to Dolph Tillotson, the executive vice president of Southern Newspapers, a Houston-based group of 15 community newspapers.

The reporter’s question and Tillotson’s response have been printed in a variety of industry publications but really hits on important points that resonate in every community.

“So, what must we do? And how? Help me tell our readers why (some) newspapers … are successful while the bigger publications are failing. What makes us different than the others? And, finally, how can we successfully integrate our online products with the print edition? It seems that the industry has struggled to answer that question.”

Tillotson’s reply illustrates vital points that anyone who works at a newspaper, reads a newspaper or advertises in a newspaper needs to hear.

This is what the longtime newspaperman had to say:


“I think we should shut our ears to the buzz of distraction and focus on what we do best — tell stories, engage readers, help to build communities.

Smaller newspapers like their big-city brothers are struggling with change. In fact, I think anyone in business these days is facing the same struggle. Name a business that is not struggling in 2012 to cope with the pace of change. I can’t think of one.

However, it’s also true that community newspapers face a different and somewhat less daunting set of challenges than metro papers do.

Our enterprises are smaller and more manageable. Likewise, our cost bases are smaller and more manageable. In addition, our markets are smaller, better defined and much easier to serve.

These days, the name of the game in the news business — at least as it is practiced outside of Washington, D.C., and New York — is to be focused locally. The cliché of the month in our industry is “hyper local.” Interestingly, community newspapers have always been hyper local, something metro papers apparently are just discovering.

There’s a practical reason for that. It is much easier to deliver a clearly identifiable and highly localized package of information tailored to the needs of readers in, say, Nacogdoches, Texas, than to do the same thing in Houston.

Consequently, most of our 15 community newspapers still operate at profit margins that would be enviable in other businesses. Those margins may be less than they were five years ago, but they’re still respectable enough to attract investors and buyers for community newspaper companies. Actually, our company is forecasting in the year ahead that our business overall will be a little better than this year, and that’s encouraging.

Having said that let me also say emphatically that small-town newspapers face their own challenges. The last thing anyone in our business should do is to become complacent.

We should be working every day to deliver more local news and commentary across more different media platforms to more and more readers. We should strive every day to tell stories more completely and more compellingly about the communities we serve than anyone else can. We should fight — and I use the word “fight” deliberately — to inform, engage and even inspire readers as never before.

Sometimes, it seems to me that our industry has lost focus. Our publishers and editors have been pummeled by the rapid pace of technological change, by the media’s fixation on Internet competition, by the advent of mobile phone and iPad apps and by the ongoing debate over whether or not to charge for Internet access to our products.

With those hornets buzzing in our ears, it’s too easy to lose sight of the fact that our job is much the same as it has always been.

The media platforms may change, but we are essentially storytellers.

That mission — telling stories — is a function that is basic to the human condition, and it has been since our ancestors gathered around campfires in the days before writing. It’s still basic, and it’s still vital. Community newspapers are the one medium in the world that can give small towns focus and a forum, a careful and caring focal point for discussion of the crucial issues all communities face.

Certainly it is our challenge to keep pace with a rapidly changing world. No doubt about it. However, it may be an even more important challenge to fight the distractions and stay focused on job No. 1, which is to tell stories more completely and in more compelling ways.

Our company owns 15 community newspapers from Georgia to Del Rio, Texas. Yesterday, more people read the content we generate, in print and on the Internet, than ever before in this history of those 15 newspapers. Even more will read what we write tomorrow. That story is the wonderful news about community newspapers that no one seems to be telling, and we should be shouting it every day.

We should not retreat, as some in our industry seem intent upon doing. We should take a collective deep breath and fight back with all our heart and energy — fight back against complacency and boring stories told boringly.

We should focus on being the beating heart of each community we serve. We must be the lifeblood of the dialogue and progress in each community. We have to be not just competent but passionate about the job before us.

I think community newspapers have the chance to thrive for many decades to come. The chance. The opportunity.

Whether community newspapers seize that opportunity depends on how well those newspapers are run, how vital they are. I can’t wait to see how that story turns out.”


And just like Chicken Little, we will all have to show some courage and not believe everything we hear.

One of the greatest storytellers ever to live, Mark Twain, was quoted as saying something to the effect of, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

The same goes for newspapers.


Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at mike.caldwell@irontontribune.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCaldwell_IT.