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Community Newspapers Bucking Steep Downward Trend

Filed by KOSU News in Feature, Local News.
January 19, 2012

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Across Oklahoma, newspaper circulation is down. In some cases, it’s been cut by a third. In others, the numbers aren’t quite as bad. The common thread among the successful ones? They’re smaller, community oriented papers….

The Lawton Constitution employs about 125 people, 30 of them as journalists. Some only pitch in a couple hours a week at the office. But since 2002, the Constitution has barely lost any readers. Why? Because national stories from the Associated Press were largely dropped in favor of local coverage. Michael Owensby is the General Manager for the paper.

“And I really think that’s what the people in the community and throughout Southwestern Oklahoma, that’s what they want. They want to know what’s going on in their backyard, they don’t necessarily want to know what’s going on in Uzbekistan or wherever.”

In 2002, Lawton Constitution circulation was just short of 21 thousand. The latest numbers show it’s selling just 400 fewer papers. At another small paper, the Enid News and Eagle, they’ve lost about twenty percent of their readers. Publisher Jeff Funk remains optimistic about the future.

“I see a continued strength in the community news interest. Even during the recession that we’ve been in through, we’ve had an increase in the number of people who have come to us for community news.”

And he should. The Tulsa World and Oklahoman are shedding subscribers faster. The World’s lost 30,000, about 25%. The Oklahoman’s down 70,000, nearly 33%. The falling numbers are exposing the inefficiency of the business, says Funk.

“We deliver a fresh news product, printed, wrapped and driven out to my neighbor’s house and left on the driveway and we do that every day before breakfast and he pays less than 38 cents a day. That’s an incredible bargain.”

Out in front of the shift in technology is This Land Press. The upstart company is not a newspaper, as Founding Editor Michael Mason told me, it’s a media company.

“So we do print, TV, audio, video and we distribute online, on TV, radio airwaves and iTunes store, iPad apps, all of the above.”

As a new outfit, it’s had the opportunity to construct itself around a smaller stream of revenue. It started out with a skeleton staff, but is now up to about 15 workers. Mason says he sees more room for growth, too.

“Journalism is going local the way that food has gone local. The people are starting to demand things created here and value them in a way they haven’t before.”

Tread carefully though, says Joe Foote, Dean of OU’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. The large number of small papers in Oklahoma…good. Catering to your audience to sell papers…bad.

“We’re now in a period where newspapers are very attune to what their readers think and tend to give them what they think they want and they’re more responsive to the marketplace and that’s a good and a bad thing.”

This Land specializes in narrative journalism, giving reporters the space to tell stories rather than just report facts. Part of that is the luxury of putting out a print product once every two weeks. Still, the subscribers they had at the launch haven’t dropped off, they’re hanging steady at 4-thousand. But what helped This Land get off the ground could eventually help competitors pop up.

“Online has allowed the average journalist to be an entrepreneur.”

Joe Hight, director of information and technology for the Oklahoman.

“It’s allowed non profits to spring forth, so there’s a lot of opportunities in journalism today. I think those that are in journalism, in college journalism, can see different opportunities than what the used to.”

To a purist like OU Journalism School Dean Joe Foote, nothing will ever top a local paper, with that journalist wearing out a seat at the City Council chambers.

“At the end of the day, I think most of us look for credibility of those sources and you just can’t beat a daily or weekly newspaper for being there every single day.”

Lawton Constitution General Manager Michael Owensby says he’s got the content side figured out. It’s just about making sure people pay for it as more options pop up.


Thanks to the Audit Bureau of Circulations for circulation numbers. KOSU Radio compared the latest Monday-Friday average circulation with 2006 (earliest readily available) in the case of Tulsa World, 2002 for The Oklahoman, 2002 for the Enid News and Eagle, and 2002 for the Lawton Constitution.

An earlier version of this story cited “readership”. In some cases, readers may be up, but paying subscribers have trended downward for the state’s two major papers.

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