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Is the Local Newspaper Dead? New Numbers Say No—How Weeklies Can Hold Subscribers

By OpenWeb

For what feels like decades now, people have been talking about the demise of the local newspaper. The industry had seemed to be in a state of continual contraction. Refer to the movie Spotlight, or the fifth season of The Wire; both rich depictions of life in a bustling city newsroom that feels like being transported to another era.

This is what made a recent New York Times article, on rising online subscriptions at local newspapers, so surprising. In place of the usual grim statistics were numbers which, in aggregate, offered something that newsroom observers haven’t felt in a while: hope. 

Lee Enterprises, an OpenWeb partner and publisher of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and The Buffalo News saw a 57% annual growth in digital subscribers this month. Hearst, which publishes The Houston Chronicle and The San Francisco Chronicle, saw its digital subscriptions grow by more than half by the end of 2021, to 300,000. Meanwhile, Gannett said last November that its digital-only subscriptions had increased by nearly half over the previous year, up to 1.5 million.

This is good news not only for hardworking local journalists across the country—it’s good news for everyone. A robust local press can dig into issues that larger national papers never could. The New York Times is an indispensable paper, but it’s never going to hold local officials in Pensacola or Fort Collins to account; that’s not its job.

Just as important, local papers can bind their readerships together. We are living, as we are so often reminded, in an atomized age where community, at the local level especially, is more important than ever. 

In fact, fostering that sense of community online can help local publishers grow even further.

How Conversation Helps Local News Outlets Grow

Comments sections on local news sites have a special advantage: their users are linked not only by shared interests but also, often, by shared location. The articles they’re commenting on bear directly on their lives: school boards, local elections, and local nightlife. Readers are desperate to engage about this stuff.

Of course, the extreme relevancy of the subject matter here can create some problems. Precisely because these topics matter so much to people, local conversations are always at risk of spiraling out of control, like a town hall meeting gone off the rails. Ironically, the very thing that makes local newspapers such great incubators of community—the closeness of their readers to the material at hand—is also the thing that makes them slightly more susceptible to chaos.

This is where strong moderation comes in. Disagreements are inevitable. In a weird way, they’re actually desirable: what else is a community for, if not to work through opposing viewpoints? But there is a big difference between an opinion—even an opinion that anyone might find offensively wrong—and a personal attack. Personal attacks should have no place in a healthy discussion.

When conversations are respectful, people feel more comfortable chiming in. People who might otherwise lurk at the conversation’s periphery feel suddenly emboldened to participate because they’re not worried that some bad actor is going to harass them.

Accordingly, high-quality moderation can help publishers build a real community. And when readers feel like they’re part of a community, they’re more likely to linger, and to come back, and to register and subscribe. The community becomes a home-away-from-home, filled with familiar names, where the conversation is centered on engaging content.

Community Is The Future Of Publishing

Beyond well-moderated conversation, there are a number of ways local publishers can foster that crucial sense of community. 

Take, for instance, OpenWeb’s AMA (or Ask Me Anything) feature. This allows readers to ask editors or special guests questions in real time. For a local news publisher, that might mean an exclusive session with someone running for local government, or with a popular local musician or newscaster. Live Blog, Reactions, and other products can dramatically enhance this connection and build the community, as well.

It would be hard to imagine saying this just a few years ago, but: local news publishers are lucky. We have entered a period in which a strong community is one of the best indicators of future growth—and local news publishers, more perhaps than most other publishers, are extraordinarily well-positioned when it comes to building community. With the right tools, local media stand to see even more dramatic growth in the coming years.

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