YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Ask John Kroner about the state of print media and he’s candid: “Print is difficult right now.”
Since 1995, Kroner has been president and publisher of The Review Newspapers, based in Niles. Focused on delivering positive community news, the weekly newspapers maintain a loyal readership in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, he says.
Community news “is definitely something people want to know about,” Kroner says. “And it’s our obligation to communicate it to the community.”
Although the pandemic has reduced the type of news The Review reports, the demand for those stories has increased, Kroner says, particularly as people are isolated in their homes. “We do see a lot of action on our Facebook page and a lot of online interaction,” he says.
Mike McNair is seeing similar upticks with The Buckeye Review. In 1994, McNair and his wife, Linda, took over the weekly newspaper, which has been published since 1937 as the voice for the Black community, he says.
“Our majority audience is largely not the majority population,” McNair says. “Living in the world of the counter narrative, which is where we exist, is an important editorial focus because our audience knows they can trust what we present.”
That trust has driven readers to the Buckeye Review’s print and online platforms for stories about the pandemic, as well as social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. “Over the last year, online demand and activity have been very good,” McNair says, “and I can tell the print demand is up just by the newsstand movement.”
News consumers with a negative perception of national outlets and social media tend to gravitate to their community papers, McNair says. “These are the voices we trust. These are the places we can go for the information we can depend on.”
Analytics from The Business Journal’s website reflect that trend. Of the most popular stories in 2020, most centered on coronavirus or related economic issues, including the Paycheck Protection Program. (Stories on Lordstown Motors also cracked the top-10.)
At the start of the pandemic in March, BusinessJournalDaily.com saw a nearly 240% increase in traffic over March 2019. Among the top stories that month, the only one unrelated to COVID-19 was an article about the Royal Dutch Shell petrochemical complex in Monaca, Pa.
The events of 2020 have left readers “hungry for local news,” says the executive detector of the Ohio News Media Association, Monica Nieporte, and much of its membership looks to be “the lead source for trusted information.
“There’s so much wrong information out there on social media and even cable news depending on what network they watch,” Nieporte continues. “[Local newspapers] are viewed in their communities as providing facts that people need to know.”
Community newspaper editors need to constantly ask, “Is this relevant to my community?” she says. “As long as the answer is ‘yes,’ then you have a viable product.”
While increased readership has been good for newspapers, the pandemic has made it hard to sell ads, says Brett Wesner, chairman of the National Newspaper Association. The NNA represents some 1,600 community-based operations in all 50 states with circulations that range from 3,000 to 6,000.
Newspapers saw decreased ad revenue even before the pandemic. In 2018, total estimated advertising revenue for newspapers dropped 13% year-over-year to $14.3 billion, according to data from Pew Research Center. That’s down from a peak of $49.4 billion in 2005.
For Wesner’s own company, Wesner Publications, and other NNA members, ad revenue dropped about 25% to 30% during the COVID-19 pandemic, he says. Although the pandemic led to a spike in readership, it cost community newspapers advertising revenue from the small- to medium-sized businesses they rely on, he says.
The Review is free, The Review Newspapers’ Kroner says, so ads foot the bill. The trade off, he says, is readers support local advertisers.
“Advertisers like our format because the edition we put online is the exact same edition you receive in print,” Kroner says. “The ads are right there by editorial [news columns].”
Ad revenue is down “significantly” year-over-year, Kroner says. To adapt, Kroner has shed some staff and re-evaluated his business model. He still delivers the same number of papers to newsstand locations. But he reduced the number of sites he delivers to, he says. He’s introduced a weekly email newsletter as well.
He’s also cut back on supplemental inserts, particularly community guides that provide some history of a particular community. Until residents are able to freely support the businesses that advertise in the inserts, “That’s not something that we thought would be proper to ask the businesses to support,” he says.
While the pandemic “may have hurt some advertising budgets initially,” they will rebound as the economy recovers and businesses that stayed open start advertising, Nieporte says. Some newspapers have seen more ad revenue from segments that remained busy, she says, particularly roofers, deck and patio builders and home improvement contractors.
Moving forward, a major focus among newspapers will be learning how to leverage and monetize digital content, says NNA’s Wesner. The surge in interest for community news “tells me that readers want what we have,” he says.
In 2018, digital ads accounted for 35% of newspaper ad revenue, up from 17% in 2011, Pew reports.
As advertisers have put their dollars into digital advertising, particularly with Facebook and Google, newspapers have adopted more digital platforms and products, Wesner says.
Websites and digital newsletters and alerts are among the tools that newspapers have effectively implemented and monetized, Wesner says. Digital newsletters in particular have done “fairly well” for Wesner’s weekly newspapers by giving readers a mid-week update, he says.
“We’re finding that a COVID-related newsletter was successful for us,” he says. “Those can be obviously sponsored. So there is some revenue from that.”
In some cases, newspapers will need to employ higher subscription and single-copy rates to help finance operations, he notes. “Hopefully we’re able to mitigate that, however, with the use of digital advertising.” More paywalls on websites are also coming into play.
“Almost all have paywalls to my knowledge,” he says of the NNA’s membership. “That has not yet proved to be sufficient revenue to keep the place open. So we’re going to be heavily print-anchored for some time.”
Monetizing the Buckeye Review’s digital space is key for 2021, McNair says. Over the last few years, younger readers are “almost strictly online,” he says.
“Our online presence is far greater than our print presence,” McNair says. “And we are encouraged by online numbers because we know that a lot of the population depends on that venue.”
Still, a large number of his readers depend on the print edition. So he doesn’t see print going away anytime soon, he says.
Kroner agrees. Along with serving the people who still prefer a hard copy, having a print edition present in the market helps to raise awareness of digital products, he says.
“[Print] is definitely needed and I think they work hand-in-glove,” he says. “If you never see a printed newspaper, you never think to go online.”
To keep readership momentum going, Wesner advises newspapers to be forward thinking about what they cover.
“When there is a crisis or when there is something going on that people are really focused on, we have an important role to play,” he says. “So let’s think about other things that we can play an important role in, in a way maybe we haven’t thought about.”
Pictured at top: John Kroner establised The Review Newspapers in 1995. The company’s printing plant is in Niles.
Editor’s Note: Executives from The Tribune-Chronicle in Warren and its Vindicator edition, The Morning Journal in Lisbon, the East Liverpool Review and the Salem News declined to be interviewed for this story.