Don’t sell your paper short

By Peter Wagner, N’West Iowa Review

What could you get for your newspaper or shopper if you decided to sell it in today’s market?

Publishers could expect to retire comfortably on the proceeds from selling their family publishing company 10 years or more ago. But that’s all changed. I learned recently of a midwestern small-town weekly changing hands for just $450. Many small hometown newspapers are reportedly being bought for the equivalent of two year’s subscription revenue. What caused such a drastic drop in value of web press publications? More importantly, can the trend be reversed?

My prediction is the printed paper will survive and continue to play an important part in the life of the community it serves for many years. But I’m not sure how the hard copies will be put in the hands of the reader, the future size of the newsprint page, the depth of local coverage or who will be around to buy advertising.

I make my projection on a strong belief that the newsprint publications in a small to medium market will continue to be the strongest leaders in building community and creating consensus. Without a majority of the population’s commitment to be a community – and a solid general consensus regarding what is right – a town can quickly disappear.

Newspapers are the cheerleaders, fact-checkers, economic developers and first writers of history in the towns and smaller cities they serve.

But who’s responsible for the state of the sad shape of the American newspaper and shopper industry today? Fingers can be pointed in many directions: the cutbacks and changes in chain management, the reduced influence of many press associations, the mystical perception of digital messaging and the lack of commitment from too many family owned publishing companies. As our mothers once warned us, when we point a finger at someone else we also always point one back at ourselves.


Many chains, looking for faster and greater returns on their investments, are cutting acquired news and ad staffs by 50 percent or more. I was recently told of one expanding group that expects to eliminate all debt from the purchase of any paper in two years or less.

Still, a wise man once told me “You can’t save yourself into success!”

Other even better known national chains are eliminating on-site managers – even already stretched regional publishers – and replacing them with oversight from an office one or two states away.

It’s always been my belief the heart of any publication is local leadership with a passion for both the publication and the market.

National television networks, consolidated radio groups and talking heads exploding on the internet hear about these big market print media changes and report that all publications are failing and ineffective. Even still viable papers thriving in the small communities are judged by the changing national trends.


State and national press associations are also being curtailed by the problem. Many associations, squeezed by the loss of dues payments and annual donations from chain-owned metro papers more dependent on their own resources, are looking for ways to cut costs and find new revenue sources. That usually leads to more association webinars on “how to profit from digital media.” New is good, but the association’s smaller papers still get the majority of their revenue from their printed publications.

If the present and future belong to the electronic digital publication, why is everyone so concerned with the current newsprint tariff and the sudden shortage of newsprint? We don’t need newsprint if we’re all going prosper in a digital world.

If I read the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s recently published income charts clearly, print advertising revenue and printed publication circulation revenues still make up more than 60 percent of the company’s income.


But much of the blame has to be shouldered by the nation’s remaining locally owned printed papers. Too many local leadership teams have listened to the cries of Chicken Little that, “The sky is falling.”

Rather than expanding their coverage in areas younger readers are interested in – food, local entertainment, grade school and adult sports, local music, theatre and the arts and affordable travel to name a few – they’ve cut back on staff and resorted to printing less pages or fewer days a week.

Rather than producing additional worthwhile local material, they’ve become dependent on news releases and in some cases setting stories in larger type to fill more space.

Rather than increasing their photo count and improving their page and ad design, they continue to do things the same old way. The world is changing quickly, and printed papers have to change, too, to survive and prosper.

With competition from countless cable channels, dozens of places to eat and drink the night away and entertainment that beckons 24/7, how can a news and entertainment media survive by doing less?

What is your newspaper worth? A lot more than you might think if you give it some attention. But you need to tell your important story of how you serve and grow the community to your readers and advertiser regularly. Most important of all, it’s time to stop asking if the client has an ad and start selling promotions and packages.

The true value of any newspaper is determined by the current financial success and overall condition of the publishing plant. If you apply your efforts to succeed in your day-to-day business right now, you’ll greatly benefit when you choose to sell the paper in the future.

Peter W. Wagner is founder and publisher of the award winning N’West Iowa REVIEW and 13 additional publications. You can receive his free monthly GET REAL newsletter, written exclusively for State Press Associations, by contacting your association manager. To get his free PAPER POWER email newsletter for publishers, editors and sales managers email him at The two monthly email newsletters contain information completely different than the monthly Publisher’s Auxiliary column and are available without charge or obligation. Wagner can be contacted by emailing or calling his cell at 712-348-3550.

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