Small Town Newspapers Swimming against the social media wave

By Aimee Robinette • Photo by Timothy Ivy

For decades, there have been discussions throughout the industry that newspapers are on the verge of extinction. With the advent of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, a new generation demands their news posthaste and in 200 characters. The days of great journalists such as the likes of Woodward and Bernstein seem to be dwindling as social media marches forward without ceasing. Small town newspaper publishing teams continue to look for ways to cut costs while still releasing a quality product.

Layne Bruce, executive director of Mississippi Press Association, says Mississippi newspapers are weathering a tough climate for community journalism and media in general.

“But I don’t think the problems they face are inconsistent with the issues that face small businesses and rural America, including increased competition from the Internet as a source of information and commerce, says Bruce. Newspapers are like any other business—trying to serve their long-time customers while adapting for the future.

Jason Patterson, publisher of The Yazoo Herald, (circulation 4,000, plus paid digital subscribers,) says he thinks there will be a place for small town newspapers as long as there are people willing to put in the hard work it takes to publish quality journalism.

“Small town papers are usually the only media that cares about what is going on in the communities they serve unless it’s something sensational. We’re the only people who are going to sit through local government and school board meetings and break those details down into useful information that is easy to understand,” Patterson notes. “We’re the only people who are going to be on the sideline with camera in hand when your kid catches a pass, makes a basket or hits a home run. We’re the only people who are going to seek out the interesting stories that come from the lives of everyday people right here in our own community.”

That’s not to say he hasn’t noticed a significant change in the business.

“The biggest challenge we have faced in Yazoo has been changes in the local business community. Our largest grocery store, which was also our largest advertiser, closed when Walmart arrived in Yazoo City last year,” Patterson says. “We also saw a landmark downtown business and a restaurant that had been a local favorite for many years close. Both were loyal advertisers and faithful supporters of our newspaper. Those revenue challenges have not been easy to overcome, but I am blessed with a hard-working staff that knows what it takes to be successful in this business.”

Bryan Davis, publisher of The Enterprise-Tocsin, in Indianola, (circulation 4,700,) agrees and says the newspaper industry has met its fair share of challenges in the 21st Century.

“Media disruption in the digital age and the threat of tariffs on newspaper print are just a couple we’re facing now. That being said, local newspapers that continue to have a hyper-local focus are still going strong in many communities. Indianola’s newspaper is still a very strong and viable product. We’re very thankful that our readers and the business community continue to see the value of our news product and the advertising potential in the paper,” he says of The Enterprise-Tocsin, which opened in 1888. “At the end of the day, we’re no different than any other business, meaning we have to watch how every penny is spent. We look at all expenses very closely to make sure it’s the highest and best use of our money. If the cost of print goes up, for instance, we have to look at other areas where we can save to try and make up for that. If that means cutting down on mileage, meals and things like that.”

Bill McKnight of Quitman County Democrat, (circulation 1,200,) says business in the last few years has been both challenging and rewarding.

“Challenging because seven years ago my wife and business partner, left two long-term careers for a chance to own, write and publish a small town newspaper. Although difficult at times, the reward has been that we believe we fill a purpose and are able to convey the daily life experiences of so many that live, work and play in our Quitman County community,” he explains. “We try to maximize every piece of revenue that we receive being frugal in how we use our resources to meet all the obligations that arise from being small entrepreneurs and citizens in the community that we serve.”

Brooks Taylor, publisher and owner of The Tunica Times, in Tunica (circulation 1,600) a week, is practical if nothing else.

“We have been struggling for ten years, about the time the economy went sour. But it doesn’t have to do with anything we have done. Small towns have been hit, so advertising has been hit. Local businesses don’t have extra money to spend on advertising. Also, we haven’t had a rate increase since 2007. After all, what good is it to set rates that no one can afford to pay?”

Taylor is not discouraged, however.

“I still see there is a need for a community newspaper, there is no one else that covers the kind of news we do. There is nowhere, not even the Internet, where you can find high school sports, births, deaths, honor rolls—that’s why our out of town subscribers continue to pay for our online paper,” she says.

Stephanie Patton, publisher and owner of The Leland Progress, in Leland (circulation 950,) says she hasn’t been as affected as others in the industry.

“I haven’t had to change hours or staffing since I bought the paper in 2010,” she says, though the paper itself was open in 1897. “Because I’m a smaller community newspaper, with little overhead, I’m not seeing the same struggles that other larger newspapers may be seeing—or in fact, other businesses in general, whether they are in the newspaper business or not. My advertising base and subscriber base are pretty steady. My biggest challenge is the U.S. Postal Service. Due to the distribution center consolidation in Mississippi and the rest of the country, it’s getting more difficult to have my product delivered through the mail.”

Small town newspapers are also harnessing social media in degrees as most realize they can’t fight progress. They find they must embrace it little by little.

“Since I’m a weekly, I use social media for any late-breaking news or news that is a follow-up to a story that ran in the print edition. I primarily use Facebook, and it’s a good way to engage those interested in the newspaper,” Patton says.

Patterson says they mostly use social media for promotional purposes.

“I have done some circulation campaigns on social media to try to attract new subscribers, and we have had decent results with that. We sometimes use social media to drive traffic to our website, but Facebook has really limited those efforts lately,” he says. “I’m not complaining about that though. Now that Facebook is charging business to get any worthwhile level of exposure, it’s much easier for us to show the value of what we have to offer with the combination of the reach of our newspaper and website. We often provide live updates from high school games on Twitter. My 10-year-old son James has actually taken some video clips from football games that we shared on Twitter.”

Davis says The Enterprise-Tocsin primarily uses Facebook, but by the end of 2018, they plan to have their news on multiple social media platforms.

The Tunica Times has also incorporated social media.

“We have a website and have for years, even before many other newspapers did,” Taylor says. “We are on Facebook. My daughter is the tech person and manages our Twitter account. We are making an effort to reach out to the younger generation of readers.”

Regardless, newspaper teams will not give up on their product or their community and all agree that to remain relevant they should report local, local and more local news and events.

“I think the future will be fine as long as the community newspaper remembers that they are there to report on the community—not the state, the country or the world. There are hundreds of options to find state, national and world news. There’s only one good option to find out the news in Leland,” Patton says.

“About fifteen years ago, people talked about newspapers like they were obsolete. It’s true that many have reduced their editorial staffs, and some are struggling, but print rebounded like it always has and always will. Newspapers serve a very important function in American society. They inform the public and hold people accountable, from elected leaders, to businesses and even clergy. Man is never more corruptible than when he thinks no one is watching. As long as we’re doing our job, we will be a marketable and sustainable product,” Davis says. “Our readers can get statewide and national news through just about any other means than the local newspaper. In order for us to be successful moving forward, we must double down on our focus on local news. Local news is the chief commodity of The Enterprise-Tocsin.”

McKnight is still a true believer as well.

“I believe the future for small town newspapers is bright. I know that it is the local newspaper that honestly from day to day really feels the heartbeat of the community,” he says. “As each individual has their own identity, their own hopes, dreams and personalities, so does each of the many small communities that dot the landscape of our country. It is the local community newspaper that can tell the story of each town best preserving a historical record that can be retrieved and read for decades to come.”

Considering Quitman County Democrat stores 110-years’ worth of local history, that statement couldn’t be more accurate.

As for The Yazoo Herald, the publisher said there will always be a place for small town newspapers.

“I believe there’s always going to be a demand for that, but it’s not easy work. The hours are long, and nobody’s getting rich in this business. If you make a mistake—and you will make many—there’s always someone eager to tell you about it,” he says. “The newspaper business ain’t for sissies, but I find it to be rewarding. Norman Mott Jr., whose family owned this paper for three generations, told us ‘Once you get that ink on your hands, it’s hard to wash it off.’ That’s exactly how I feel about newspapers. It’s like it becomes a part of who you are.”

Back at the Mississippi Press Association, Layne Bruce, who has a bird’s-eye view of all newspapers in the state, said the number of Mississippi newspapers has remained remarkably consistent over the past decade.

“MPA has 110 member publications in 81 counties. That’s still remarkable penetration,” he notes.