THE BLOG
08/15/2011 12:24 pm ET | Updated Oct 15, 2011

Newspapers That Know Their Community and Readers Aren't Failing

Suppose that every major newspaper in the United States decided to pull its paper from the Internet? Would they sink even faster?

A publisher would first have to look at that mythical bottom line. Is the newspaper making or losing money by posting the entire paper on the Internet?

A number of years ago Microsoft's Bill Gates was the keynote speaker at the National Newspaper Association's Convention. As a participant at that conference I was puzzled. What were these giants of the print media thinking?

I questioned John Strum, the president of NNA, about why newspaper publishers felt compelled to become a part of or to join an electronic innovation that could lead to their ruin. To me it was like handing someone a razor blade and then asking them to cut their own throats. Strum angrily dismissed me as a small town nobody from a small Native American newspaper who lacked the background, finances or standing to dare question the direction that major newspapers were about to pursue.

One point I brought up was: how can a newspaper gain revenue by putting itself online? At that time a full-page ad in papers like the New York Times went for as high as $35,000. Would advertisers be willing to pay anywhere near that amount for a 3 by 4 inch ad on a computer screen? I also questioned the fact that people would not buy a newspaper if they could get it free on the Internet.

But the Internet was a far reaching trend; one that newspaper publishers believed would pass them by and condemn them to mediocrity if they did not jump on the Net bandwagon. They assumed that revenues would somehow emerge on the Net and readership would increase. They were wrong on both counts.

Major newspapers across America took a plunge and many publishers blamed it on the economy. I blame it on the Internet. The Rocky Mountain News, Tucson Citizen and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer were some of the newspapers that went belly-up.

Along with giving away a product that had been sold as a money-maker for a couple of hundred years, publishers badly misjudged how the loss of advertising revenue would impact their bottom line. Even today major newspapers continue to shrink and they continue to layoff journalists so vital to their existence. The newspapers began to lose that spark that caused people to take out subscriptions or to pick up a paper at the local supermarket. They began to lose touch with their communities.

The conglomerates that caused newspapers across America to replicas of each other were more interested in their profit margins than in serving their readers. If I picked up a newspaper in San Francisco the day after reading one in Chicago, the similarities in news content would be strikingly similar.

But this is not the case in the small, rural communities in America, and I think I can speak for South Dakota. The weekly, community newspapers are still doing well. Weeklies like the Todd Country Tribune, Bennett County Booster and the Mobridge Tribune are not only hanging in there, they are prospering. One small daily, the Mitchell Daily Republic, is continuing to grow. And in just two and one half years, the newspaper I founded and retired from in April grew to become the largest weekly newspaper in South Dakota.

I did not put Native Sun News on the Internet. I followed my instincts on this taking into consideration the demise of so many good newspapers in this age of the Internet. It is apparently working because NSN continues to gain new readers every week. We serve a state-wide community known here as Indian country. There are nine Indian reservations in the state and we are a presence on all of them. We keep our readers informed with news that is important to them, both local and national. Some would say we are a niche newspaper, but we have made an extreme effort to serve our readers, an ideal that has apparently been lost in many major city newspapers. In a time when major newspapers are laying off thousands of workers, we are hiring.

But what does a small town newspaper publisher know about lofty things like how to manage a newspaper? I probably do not know nearly as much as those big city publishers watching their newspapers bleed red. But I do know my community and I do know my readers and that says much for the success of the weekly newspaper I built.

Perhaps the new trend is toward Internet newspapers like the Huffington Post and others, but Arianna Huffington knew her community and she knew her audience and she chose a different path than the Los Angeles Times to follow.

School is still out on which path is the right one in this business and heaven knows where newspapers will be in 10 years. They survived radio and television and I believe that if they go back to their roots, they will survive the Internet.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is President of Unity South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1990. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. He was the founder of The Lakota Times, Indian Country Today, Lakota Journal and Native Sun News. He can be reached at UnitySoDak1@knology.net