Know Your Readers

The newspaper in my small town is on a downward spiral. Just a matter of time before there is no newspaper, and I think we all know it.

You probably have some idea of small-town papers. Stories wired in from the Associated Press, and a whole lot of feel-good stories about the local kid who’s collecting cans for the food bank, or the fireman who saved Mrs. Murphy’s cat from a tree (again.) That’s about what we have.

You aren’t going to find one of our local reporters at a press junket for the latest movie, or at the White House, but they do pretty well going to the High School football games.

So, here is the honest truth of the matter:

People read small-town news to read about themselves, their families, their friends. They read the sports section, and the obituaries, and the community calendar.

Everything else… every other syndicated column and news feed… that’s on the national news… on the television, or the internet, or in the fat newspapers from bigger towns. (You can get at least three bigger-city papers delivered to your door, and more to your laptop.)

A newspaper has basically two sources of income. There are advertisements–and keep in mind that these are what has traditionally paid for the paper–and there are subscriptions. (Traditionally, this lets the advertisers know just how many people will see their ads, and also gives readers the illusion that they are the customers, but may not–in reality–cover the cost of the paper it’s all printed on.) (Yes, that’s a jaded way of putting it.)

The cost of advertising has gone down, no doubt about it. And Facebook has produced advertisers who expect a much more targeted (and measurable) approach.

So, what’s a paper to do?

In the case of my particular newspaper…

The newspaper is now charging for obituaries as if they were advertisements for the mortuaries. (Go to Joe’s Funeral Home. The way he puttied up Aunt Edna, she looks even better than she did when she was alive. Drop dead on Double Trochar Days for your chance to win a new car.)

The death spiral begins.

Because, after all, readers are reading the newspaper to hear about the small town. Not to hear about the latest political gaffe, or which starlet flashed some wardrobe-malfunction at the latest red carpet event.

So, readers stop reading the paper for obituaries, because honestly… between the mortuary websites and Facebook, who the hell would pay per-column inch to tell the world that Aunt Edna loved Jesus, her 1987 Chevy Celebrity, and her cats?

You know that joke about people only reading the newspaper for the obituaries? Well, in so many ways, it’s true. And by charging for the space, all the newspaper has really done is guarantee an obituary page that’s just a list of names.

People don’t read newspapers for lists of names.

And reduced readership means that ads in the paper are even less valuable than they were before.

If I wanted to sell newspapers?

If I wanted to boost the value of a newspaper ad?

I’d get people out there, interviewing a different kid every day of the week. Put people in a paper, and they’ll buy it. Free obituaries for everyone. And if an event’s coming up… well, I’d probably make sure it hits the paper before it happens. You know… while people still have the option of going. The community calendar as it stands? Mostly a list of AA meetings.

Sure, charge more for the subscription. Make it more like a magazine.

But legitimately draw readership to boost the ad revenues, too.



  1. jmh


    It’s so sad what’s happening to newspapers all over. And, as you’ve highlighted, often the very people charged with saving them are hastening their death.

    My city paper instituted a “pay wall.” Big mistake. Huge. Barely anyone bothers to share its stories on social media anymore, because if you haven’t subscribed, you can’t read them. The paper needs more exposure, not less. Advertising has gone way down because they lost so many readers with the pay wall. I agree the articles have value, but there’s a better way to make money.

    Sadly, once they discover something isn’t working, they never kibosh it, but cling stubbornly to their bad decisions. Sounds like yours might be the same way.

    • Reply

      You’d have to be a truly remarkable newspaper to get away with a paywall… especially since so much of the content is syndicated in so many places. My paper’s attempt was laughably disastrous… in addition to paring down the traffic, it also relies on storing cookies on readers’s computers. I happen to have a whitelist approach to cookies, so I didn’t even notice there was a paywall until older family members started complaining about the paper asking for money. Obviously, I don’t believe businesses should be able to use MY resources to make money, so let’s be honest… I don’t let the grocery store use my freezer, the mechanic doesn’t use my garage, and the newspaper doesn’t use my hard drive.

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