Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Richmond’s Other Newspapers Weather Media Paradigm Shift

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Everybody knows daily newspapers are having to scramble to retain market share in the new media environment, but what about the “other” newspapers, the smaller, non-daily periodicals aimed at specific market niches? Mark Dorroh and Brad Fulton talked to the editors of three such Richmond-base publications and filed this report:

The gold standard of niche market publications is, of course, the house organ; papers put out by churches, companies, schools, fraternal organizations and the like. One such paper is The Catholic Virginian. The publisher is Richmond Diocese Bishop Francis Xavier DiLorenzo. Steve Neill edits the paper which, twice a month, reaches 153 parishes, serving 73,000 subscribers spread out over 33,000 square miles. Parishes, except for mission parishes, are assessed to pay printing and mailing costs; Neill says newsroom operating expenses account for one and a half percent of the total. He is one of just three full-time workers at the paper; add one part-time proofreader and two part-time correspondents, and it’s easy to see overhead is kept to a minimum.

And while the Internet-savvy may access the current issue of The Catholic Virginian at the paper’s web site, Neill doubts the site will ever replace the paper-and-ink edition.

“For one thing, Bishop DeLorenzo says he’s a proponent of the written page in his hand,” says Neill, adding that he himself has the same old-school preference.

The Catholic Virginian has other revenue sources; it accepts limited advertising and has a small nest egg of income-yielding investments which function as a sort of endowment. Based on this business plan, Neill expects The Catholic Virginian to remain in business for years, even decades, to come.

Then there’s Style Weekly, the hip, literate tabloid which serves the Richmond area as far afield as Petersburg and Ashland. Style Weekly covers news, opinion, art and culture and has developed quite a following over the years. Editor-in-Chief Jason Roop believes publishing weekly allows his paper a unique perspective.

“We're not the paper of record like the daily newspaper,” he observes, “so we have the luxury of going to something, then going back to it and looking at other things that are happening, national things that are happening and then saying, 'OK, well here's really what that all means,' and we'll put out a story then.”

Style Weekly has a very accessible web page, but as many unfortunate persons discovered ten years ago, it’s no simple matter to translate web presence into income. Style finesses the issue; it has incorporated social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to facilitate a symbiotic relationship between online and print content.

"The idea there isn't, well we're replacing the newspaper with Twitter,” says Roop, “it's more like we are going where our readers are going and if it's important for them to connect to us in different ways, we want to be able to connect with them in that way. Right now we have about, I think 5,000 Twitter followers which is more than any other local media.”

Though it has full treatments of all content on the web, Style Weekly’s print readership remains considerably higher than the number of hits on its cyber-publication. Citing an 11% increase in magazine readership over the span of the 'Google age', Roop argues that although content is accessed and made available faster on the web, in general people still have a fondness for the printed word.

“I think there's always going to be all of these different types of media kind of changing," he speculates. "I don't see one dying off necessarily.”

With a weekly circulation of over 30,000 and weekly readership of over 60,000, Style Weekly seems poised for whatever the future of media may hold.

The Richmond Defender is, like Style Weekly, free to the public. The Defender is an advocacy paper: Its front page defines it as a “Quarterly Newspaper Published by the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality.” Its editor is Phil Wilayto (full disclosure; Mr. Wilayto’s spouse, Ana Edwards hosts The Defender Live show on WRIR). The current issue takes to task plans in Hopewell for a new ethanol plant in predominantly black neighborhoods, reports on a protest against VCU’s paving over an historic “Burial Ground for Negroes,” and has an “Immigration News” column written in English and Spanish, telling the story of a Spanish-speaking woman allegedly brutalized by a Manassas Park police officer in the course of a routine traffic stop.

It sounds as if The Defender has a marketable niche sensibility, but Wilayto says the advocacy press has taken some hits of late … after decades, The New River Free Press of Blacksburg died a couple of years ago.

“There’s another paper, Justice Speaks, published by Black Workers for Justice in North Carolina, also published for 25 years,” he says. “They’ve temporarily gone to a newsletter format.”

The Richmond Defender’s printing costs are met through a combination of ad revenues, a dedicated corps of donors and, in the extremity, Wilayto's personal credit cards. Distribution to willing merchants and institutions is free, performed by volunteers. Even so, The Defender has also been through its share of adjustments to the changing market.

“When we started we were coming out once a month with a 12-page paper,” says Wilayto. “We had to reduce that to an eight-page paper, then we went to every two months. We finally settled on a 12-page paper every three months, so it’s a quarterly. On the other hand we’ve increased circulation from 10,000 to 15,000 per issue, and this issue will be going up to 16,000.”

Like Style Weekly and The Catholic Virginian, The Richmond Defender seems to be in a good place for growth and certainly for survival.

/Mark Dorroh, Brad Fulton

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