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What can we learn from small newspapers?

My local newspaper, the Stokes News

While big newspapers are foundering and shrinking, small local newspapers are holding their own, or even thriving. Is there a useful economic lesson in this for relocalization?

Oceans of ink have been spilled in attempts to analyze why larger newspapers are dying. It boils down to two things: both readers and advertising are leaving the larger newspapers at a fast rate.

Since local newspapers are holding on, then clearly local newspapers are holding on both to readers and advertisers. I understand that my local newspaper, the Stokes News, is doing well and making money. Let’s take a look at the Stokes News and see if we can make some guesses about why.

On the front of this week’s issue are profiles of the race for county sheriff. Each candidate gets about 20 column inches — a lot of space. There is a story on a new campaign to market Stokes County as a country-music destination. That story is 42 column inches long — huge. Inside is a lot of community news, including columnists from different communities who write about who is sick and who is visiting whom. The cooking column, “Cat’s Kitchen” by Cathy Long, is far more solid and enlightened than the quirky-trendy food writing I see in the larger Winston-Salem Journal. And besides those quirky trends are stale by the time they arrive in Winston-Salem. The Stokes News has a huge sports section, with detailed coverage of high school sports and lots of stuff on hunting, fishing, and golfing.

In short, the Stokes News contains hyper-local information that people want, and there isn’t anywhere else to get that information in one place.

Let’s take a look at the advertising. Inside the paper are ads for local merchants and services. For example, lawn mower ads from local hardware stores. Even small businesses like pet-grooming and handyman services can afford the small ads.

But I’m sure the real money-makers are the preprinted inserts. These include inserts from three grocery store chains: Lowe’s, Food Lion, and Ingles. There’s also an insert for CVS pharmacies, and Wal-Mart. Those are the stores that capture most of the routine weekly spending by people in Stokes County (though you have to go outside Stokes County to find a Wal-Mart).

People spend a big chunk of their money close to home, at places within driving distance. That, I believe, is the key to why small newspapers are doing well.

With a population of about 44,000 people and a per capita income of about $18,000, total Stokes County household income is something over $800 million a year. That’s a lot of money, enough to support a lot of businesses, and much of that money is spent close to home.

Corporations are capturing most of that money — grocery and drug store chains, Wal-Mart, etc. How long did it take corporations to figure out how to capture so much local income?

The number of family farms in the United States peaked in 1935. I think it’s safe to say that corporations didn’t get a big percentage of local income in 1935. But probably the year of the turning point was 1945, the end of World War II. That was when the trends began that turned the United States from an agrarian economy to what it is today — corporatized and suburbanized. In less than 65 years, corporations ultimately responsible to Wall Street have come to soak up most of the spending of people even in small, rural counties such as Stokes County.

Relocalization is about reversing that process. If more of that $800 million a year stayed in Stokes County, just think of the jobs it would produce. Many of those jobs, to be sure, would be agrarian jobs similar to what people here did in 1935. Do people still want to do those kinds of jobs? I don’t know. But one thing is clear, as local newspapers prove: There’s a lot of money in local economies, so much money that Wall Street wants it. Grocery stores get the biggest chunk of it.

Local folks who figure out how to reverse those postwar trends and sell (particularly food) into the local market will find that the money is there. And every dollar that stays inside the county makes the county better off.

One Comment

  1. Quetal wrote:

    Hi, maybe the Chronicle should go more local and survival may be in its future. I don’t know if you heard (at least a week ago) subscriptions dropped another 20%, huge hit for that thinning daily. Dang iPad/Kindle/Laptop

    Wednesday, May 5, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

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