Peter Wagner: Papers can’t depend on retail advertisers to survive

Publishers looking to reboot their markets following the pandemic need to recognize the retail sector is no longer their best revenue source.

The recent demise of one Minnesota newspaper, the Warroad Pioneer, is well documented in the April issue of Reader’s Digest magazine.

I have personal knowledge of the Pioneer story because I spent two days working with Warroad Pioneer publisher Rebecca Golden in 1999, speaking for her with the community on how she and local businesses might thrive.

Warroad, like much of America, is a small community. The region is known for its great fishing, internationally acclaimed hockey stars and an excellent high school hockey team.
The community has a decent number of small retail businesses for its size, but many of them depend on the tourist trade, not the local residents, to exist. The local supermarket distributes its weekly preprint in an out-of-town shopper and the only new car dealer, once a regular major advertiser, is investing most of its dollars into online advertising.

Golden published a good paper. It was well written and nicely designed. But her dependence on retail advertising was her Achilles’ heel. It wasn’t that the majority of local stores didn’t want to support her, they just thought they didn’t need to advertise to locals they believed were already “loyal” customers. Most didn’t understand how important a local paper is to holding a community together. Warroad’s local businesses either forgot, or were never taught, the importance of TOMA (Top of Mind Awareness) and the marketing axiom “Seventy-five percent of your customers live within 25 miles of your front door.”

All across America newspapers and free circulation publications are facing the same situation. Most national and regional chain stores, once a lucrative source of revenue, have deserted smaller communities. The small, local boutiques that replaced them are often poorly informed regarding the reach of digital advertising, too tightly financed to afford traditional advertising and are more of a hobby for the owner than a business.

So where does today’s publisher turn for new revenue? And what can a paper’s ad manager do to increase the company’s bottom line?

In our mostly rural communities, we’ve turned to the service providers, local manufacturing firms and once overlooked professionals as fresh revenue sources. Locally owned banks and credit unions as well as full-service insurance agencies are good examples of service providers that continue to be excellent potential advertisers.

Others include locally managed hospitals and medical facilities, home construction and sales organizations, privately owned colleges, universities and regional community colleges. The city itself, the local chamber of commerce, community celebrations and annual event organizations as well as the economic development director also are emerging sources for new advertising dollars.

These are major dollar advertisers who understand that the local newspaper is key to creating community and a spirit of consensus. Without a strong, united community those businesses have a limited future with a declining number of clients, students, employees and attendees. It also will lead to a diminishing tax base. These resources have the deep pockets and good reason to underwrite the future of their hometown paper.

But it doesn’t stop there. Local, smaller professionals from the fancy-cuts men’s barbershop to local CPA and law firms are becoming good community supports and local paper advertisers.

Still, harvesting those new dollars requires creativity and a commitment to more one-of-a-kind special sections and numerous weekly community support pages.

Special projects and sections which draw strong support from the first group of advertisers include tabloid or multi-page salutes to law enforcement officers, volunteer or city firefighters, health-care workers (including the EMT volunteers) in your area and even the members of your local FFA and 4-H chapters.

Other ideas include “(Town Name), An All-American City” and “All Roads Lead To (Town Name).”

The “All-American City” project features articles about nationally recognized people — military, political, religious, business leaders — born in your community as well as nationally known products, practices and cultural changes that originated in your town.”

“All Roads Lead To” is a guide of exciting experiences that can be found by driving into your community via key highways located on each side of town.

Both sections, and many others like them, have been well received and supported by local-minded businesses that appreciate sections that promote the history, fun and value of living in their town.

We do a different approach to the annual summer series in our N’West Iowa REVIEW each year. The multiweek series usually includes coverage of 12-14 communities in our four-county area.

The smaller businesses on the second list — as well as many traditional advertisers — are excellent prospects for regular monthly pages that provide a consistent, contracted advertising package at an economical predetermined cost. Some such pages include 6-pacs, 8-pacs, monthly professional page, our Home Improvement page, the “I believe in (your town)” sponsored page and our A to Z Business Directory.

Even more exceptional dollars are available by selling an unlimited number of once-a-year salute pages promoting everything from Easter Sunday church service schedules to homecoming courts to annual celebration ideas.

So, take a big breath and put a smile on your face. There continues to be a strong future for community papers. We simply need to direct our attention to the advertisers that believe in the community and the value of the hometown paper. It will require hard work and fresh thinking, but the survival of the printed paper is well worth the effort.

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