Local papers and grocery stores face common problems

By Peter Wagner, N’West Iowa Review

Peter W. Wagner is founder and publisher of the award-winning N’West Iowa REVIEW and nine additional newspapers and shoppers. He often is called The Idea Man and has been a presenter at more than 300 state and national press association and conventions and publishing group meetings. You can contact him regarding his programs “100 Ideas for Fun and Profit,” “Seven Steps to Selling Success” or “Watch Your P’s and Q’s” by e-mailing pww@iowainformation.com or calling his cell 712-348-3550.


America’s largest internet-based retailer, Amazon.com., continues to bite into the already meager profits of local grocery stores with additional distribution centers and a growing list of low-priced private label products.

The added warehouses are another step by Amazon to hijack the customer base of local brick-and-mortar stores in large and small communities. The move is affecting ma-and-pa operations and major chains.

Many smaller grocery stores, key advertisers in most community newspapers, will have to reinvent themselves to maintain their local customer base.

According to a University of Minnesota study, almost two-thirds of our nation’s rural grocery stores will close in the next 10 years. In most cases there will never be a new store to replace it.


The economic conditions affecting smaller grocery stores are the same ones affecting other hometown businesses including newspapers. The local grocery story and the hometown newspaper are part of the backbone of every Main Street. Both, along with a local bank, local health center and community school are necessary to create a complete local community.

The greatest problem effecting the rural grocery store as well as the hometown paper is lack of interest by younger generations in owning or managing a small community business. The grocery business is hard work. Most hometown grocers are expected to be open long hours seven days a week. It is a business that requires the owner to be an expert in multiple areas. There are few individuals of today’s generation interested in working that hard.

And the same can be said about the newspaper business. Owning and producing a good newspaper requires countless hours attending meetings, taking pictures, selling ads, writing news stories, editing outside material, laying out the paper. managing postal reports, hiring employees and finally overseeing the paper’s delivery.

Yet both businesses offer great satisfaction. Grocery stores are necessary for the flavor and health of the community. They are a gathering point in any community. Their customer base reaches far beyond local homemakers to include local restaurants, nursing homes, schools and day-care centers.

The community newspaper, meanwhile, is more than just a billboard of weekly happenings. It is the first writer of local history, the creator of community consensus, the booster of school organizations and public enterprise and the watchdog of local government. It is unfortunate that many schools of journalism have turned their back on teaching print journalism and instead preach the future of public relations and digital blogging for financial success and personal satisfaction.


More than 90 percent of rural grocers report their most troubling challenges are competition with large grocery chains, high operating costs and narrow profit margins.

This, too, is true of the publishing business. The world’s demand for instant information, the many social media companies providing citizen journalism and the declining number of businesses to buy advertising are all curtailing the hometown paper.

Yet, while many praise bloggers and independent websites for their quick delivery of the news, only the local paper have the staff, information resources and credibility to present a balanced a local story in one clear-cut, easy to understand package. Once again, the printed report is the only one that can be easily filed and retrieved when needed. Most important, the story can be as simple as Johnny’s winning hit at last week’s baseball game or as involved as the city’s plan to build a new multimillion-dollar water system.


One final reason the University of Minnesota says local grocers are thinking of calling it quits is the condition of their buildings.

Many grocery stores are housed in structures over 50 years old. They are expensive to keep up, heat, air-condition, light and offer limited opportunities to create higher profit departments. Putting up a new, modern facility in their limited market is simply out of the question.

Many newspapers also are located in older structures designed for the days of hot type. They are appreciated for their easy-to-find, longtime location but otherwise out of date.


So, what can newspapers do to expand their financial base in a changing future? Twitter instantly reports the news of a two-car collision in town. CNN can instantly report that a plane crashed while flying from Paris to Egypt. But neither have the heartwarming, refrigerator posting of stories in the local paper.

America’s hometowns need their newspapers to create consensus and build awareness. To continue to do so it may be necessary for publishers to expand their services for additional income.

1. These could include opening an in-house digital printing operation with modern short-run digital presses. Digital printing is quick, interfaces with existing design platforms and can be custom addressed as it is printed.

2. Offer web design and social media content services. Most businesses feel they need to be on Facebook and Twitter but don’t know what to post to create daily customer interest and response.

3. Provide a retail service not otherwise available in your community. This might be a coffee bar, (a great opportunity to overhearing story ideas), small office supply store, paperback bookstore or a local product gift store.

4. Create an in-house advertising agency to serve local banks, multi-location retailers, manufacturers, and public service organizations. Newspapers already have quality writers and designers to produce print, radio and social media campaigns and you can outsource desired television commercials.

5. Become a local online only broadcast station with occasional podcasts by local experts on food, family relations, the public schools, agriculture, gardening and whatever else is of interest to the community.

6. Produce local community events such as bridal shows, job fairs, summer theater in the park and color runs. Along with new advertising opportunities charge for participation, booth space and sponsorships. Some papers even get a cut of the food and beverage sales.

The future is changing but it is not bleak. The community paper has a strong future, but it will take vision and imagination to continue to be the king of the hill.

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