“It’s all about the content.”
That was the underlying message during a morning session at last weekend’s Texas Press Association summer convention. The speaker was talking about the importance of the content that readers find in community newspapers — the stories, photos and advertising. Although Russell Viers, a former reporter who now works as a consultant, also spoke about using software to simplify production, he kept coming back to content and its importance for newspapers’ continued relevance.
Later that same morning, the Bulletin staff learned it had earned six awards in the annual Better Newspaper Contest, an increase of two over the previous year and four more than in 2005. The entries submitted, and the awards garnered, consisted of local coverage including sports, news, photos and editorials. It wasn’t our packaging of national stories, or columns lamenting our fascination with “celebutantes,” or coverage of the Rangers or Cowboys that stood out to a group of judges from newspapers similar to this one. It was stories of a local funeral, a photo from a track meet and an editorial about puppy sales at Wal-Mart that got the judges’ attention.
As technology continues to advance, the ways we go about producing the daily newspaper will continue to change as well. Gone are days of sticky wax, dull razor blades and developing our own photos. Today much of our work is done electronically, at least until the paper reaches the printing stage of the process — where the offset press is still the industry standard. Advances in software and data transmission mean that certain phases of production can now be done off-site. The Bulletin already does that to an extent with our two weekly papers located in Runnels County. We do a majority of the ad composition and page layout here, while the reporting, photography and ad sales are done by staff members who live and work there.
According to Viers, it makes sense to look at “outsourcing” some production work because not only does today’s software make it possible, but also because the process allows newspapers to pool talent and take advantage of employees’ strengths, rather than force them into roles in which they may not be successful.
Several larger papers, the Boston Globe being one of the leaders, is beginning to outsource parts of its production and classified advertising incoming call handling to outside companies. The local reporting is still done from Boston and the newspaper’s bureaus, but ad composition and some other functions will now take place off-site. The driving force behind these changes has less to do with software than with managing expenses through economies of scale. By letting an outside company manage some “behind the scenes” elements of the newspaper, there are immediate savings that in theory don’t affect “localness” of the final product. After all, readers don’t care where a grocery or department store ad is built, as long as the prices and specials are in effect for the local store.
Which brings us back to local content driving readership and successful newspapers. Three years ago at a Texas Press meeting, four newspaper group representatives held a roundtable discussion. The newspapers they represented ranged from dailies with circulations in the hundreds of thousands, to weeklies that were happy to sell 1,000 copies of each edition. For all their resources, the larger papers admitted to struggling with declining circulation. The smaller papers’ owners, which included the Bulletin’s owner Jeremy Halbreich, said that at most of their papers, circulation was actually growing. This was due to the fact that the papers covered their communities in a way that no other medium can.
It is the coverage of local events and people, which you don’t find on online, on television or in larger metropolitan newspapers, that will continue to make the Bulletin and other papers our size relevant.
Bill Crist is associate publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.