Community Newspapers in Fierce Competition

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Independents Survive Against Cox-Owned Papers, Upstart ‘Community Impact’ Carving a New Niche

At first glance, Austin seems the typical modern American two-newspaper town: a mid-sized city with a daily newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, and an alternative newsweekly, The Austin Chronicle. Focus more closely and a different newspaper landscape emerges.

The greater Austin area also boasts 15 community papers published from one to three times a week, and a five-year-old rapidly expanding chain of monthly papers, Community Impact Newspaper, that target seven local areas. Also in the mix are two weeklies for the African-American community, three Spanish-language weeklies, a South Asian community monthly, and a center city weekly, The Austin Times, that seems to largely fly under the radar.

Community Newspapers Map
In dire times of flagging circulation and sagging advertising dollars for print dailies, community newspapers remain one bright spot for print journalism. With 22 general audience community non-daily newspapers, and one small daily in Taylor, the Greater Austin area appears, by the numbers at least, to be rather well served by such publications.Nine of those papers are owned by the same Cox Media Group as the American-Statesman, a subsidiary of the Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises Inc. Operating these 10 Austin-area newspapers under the same corporate roof raises obvious questions the editorial independence and local commitment of the nine community papers. These concerns first surfaced in 2000 when Cox purchased six of them—the Bastrop Advertiser, Lake Travis View, North Lake Travis Log, Pflugerville Pflag, Smithville Times, and Westlake Picayune—from Westward Communications. Concerns were elevated when Cox’s Austin Community Newspapers Group later bought the Round Rock Leader and started the Leander Ledger and Cedar Park Citizen.

Any fears that the Cox community papers might eschew or significantly compromise their local news mission under the same corporate umbrella as the Statesman have proven largely unfounded, though some observers do say the news coverage provided may not be all it could be.

The acquisitions and launching of papers by Cox has not created a juggernaut to destroy the area’s community media. Independently owned papers include the Oak Hill Gazette and West Austin News, both weeklies, and the twice-weekly Williamson County Sun. Also on the list of community papers are the twice-weekly Hill Country News, which covers Cedar Park and Leander, its Four Points News edition for the Lake Travis area, the Hutto News, and Taylor Daily Press. All four of these are part of the Taylor-based Granite Publications chain of 22 Texas community papers.

Will Hampton
Will Hampton

In Williamson County, “The biggest change is not that Cox took over the Round Rock Leader but that Community Impact is now in the mix,” says Will Hampton, a former Round Rock Leader editor who has been communications director for the City of Round Rock since 1998. “That is much more significant than who owns the Leader these days.”

The fast growth of Community Impact certainly indicates a strong potential readership and perhaps a need for more news sources on the community level in the Austin area. It also indicates there is an advertising base to support existing community papers as well as a new and rapidly expanding entry into the market.

Tommy Thomason
Tommy Thomason

“In terms of journalism, community papers are probably the most successful area today,” says Tommy Thomason, director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism (TCCJ), part of Texas Christian University’s Schieffer School of Journalism. “If you look at what’s happening with TV news and journalism sites on the Internet, and certainly metro newspapers, community journalism is still successful and it’s still profitable.”

Where the media rubber meets the local road

One key factor that keeps community newspapers profitable is being a cost-effective venue for advertisers to reach a targeted and concentrated group of consumers. For smaller and local businesses that can’t afford such higher-profile media as dailies and TV, and don’t need the broader coverage, localized non-daily papers are an ideal fit.

Will Atkins
Will Atkins

“After 15 years we have a lot of advertisers who stick with us presumably because their ads work,” says Will Atkins, founding publisher of the Oak Hill Gazette, which distributes 5500 issues a week in its Southwest Austin quadrant through vending stands, subscriptions, and weekly free lawn tossing that rotates areas each week to hit all Oak Hill residences with one issue every month. The veteran newsman launched the Gazette after moving back to the Austin area from Vermont in the mid-1990s, and on attending a local business gathering, “was practically begged to start a paper.”

In the last five to six years, he’s gained another class of advertiser. “We actually started getting people who used to advertise in the Statesman: phone companies, banks, credit unions. And when I would talk to those people they would say that the latest thinking now is that they would rather put ads in a handful of community newspapers than pay a lot of money for a daily.”

Even in the current economic downturn, community newspapers nationwide “have taken less of a hit,” Tommy Thomason states, in a post on TCCJ’s website. “In the second quarter of 2009, metro ad sales dropped off a little more than 30 percent; ad sales in community papers dropped off just over 12 percent.”

Jason Jarrett
Jason Jarrett

All newspapers have seen classified ad sales decimated by Craigslist. But for papers in outlying communities like those in Bastrop and Smithville, being the only game in town helps classifieds remain somewhat viable. “You have people out there who have to sell their tractor,” says Jason Jarrett, operations director for Cox’s Austin Community Newspapers Group (ACNG). Public notices required by law to be published in a newspaper also offer a steady classified income stream. As Hampton points out, the City of Round Rock places them in the Round Rock Leader.

What makes community papers so effective for advertisers is the nature of the editorial content: local news and information that directly affects the lives of area residents. It can range from harder news on civic affairs, schools, and crime, to high-school sports, to softer social and event reporting, depending on a paper’s particular mix. “You have to do two things really well: cover the city and the school district. That’s your backyard,” Hampton says. “And find the really good features.”

It’s a wide but always locally focused range, says Brad Stutzman, Round Rock Leader editor since 2005, and previously a reporter for the paper for most of the 1990s. “One time in my first tour of duty here I actually went from judging a grade school door decorating contest in the morning to covering a murder trial in the afternoon.”

Community paper consolidation around Austin

The classic local non-daily newspaper has traditionally been individually or family owned, often with its own printing press, and an integral part of its community. Austin Community Newspapers Group now owns what were two longtime examples of such: The Bastrop Advertiser, which was founded in 1853 and claims to be the oldest continuously published weekly in Texas before going twice weekly in 1977, and the Smithville Times, which is 117 years old. The twice-weekly Williamson County Sun started publishing in 1877 and has been owned by the same family for the last 62 years. (Publisher Clark Thurmond declined to be interviewed for this story).

The Oak Hill Gazette, West Austin News, and Williamson County Sun newspapers remain family-owned businesses. It should also be noted that Cox Enterprises Inc. is itself a large family-owned holding company held almost in full by the descendents of its founder, James Middleton Cox. After Cox bought the six Austin-area community newspapers from Westward 10 years ago, one fear was that the chain would continue to buy up area community papers and create a monopoly. But the Oak Hill Gazette and West Austin News owners both say they haven’t been approached for purchase by ACNG.

Area community newspapers were first consolidated some 20 years ago when the Bastrop Advertiser, Smithville Times, Westlake Picayune, Lake Travis View, North Lake Travis Log, and Pflugerville Pflag were bought by Westward Communications, a company started by veteran newspapermen Will Jarrett (father of Cox’s Jason Jarrett) and Ken Johnson. Their company eventually acquired two dailies, five semi-weeklies and 43 weeklies, all in Texas. In 1997 they sold Westward to Ohio-based Banc One Capital Partners for an estimated $80 million-plus, the American Journalism Review reported. Banc One retained the Westward company name after the buyout.

In late 2000, Westward sold its six Austin-area papers to Cox for an undisclosed amount. “I guess you could say they purchased us so they wouldn’t have to compete,” Jason Jarrett says. In 2006, Austin Community Newspaper Group purchased the Round Rock Leader from the Todd family for what sources say was close to $1 million. Two years later, ACNG launched its Cedar Park and Leander papers.

Steve Laukhuf
Steve Laukhuf

“We were making a ding in their readership, advertising base and presence up here,” says Steve Laukhuf, publisher of the Round Rock Leader from 2000 until the sale. “They bought the paper to control the ad revenue, and what puts ad revenue in a paper’s pocket is being relevant to the community.”

Today the nine Cox papers claim a total circulation of 61,000 copies, operations manager Jason Jarrett says. Current and former editors of ACNG papers all largely agree that what they cover hasn’t substantially changed from what they were under both permutations of Westward. “The Statesman has left us alone in any area editorially,” Jarrett says. “The former Statesman publisher, Mike Laosa, would tell us, ‘Why would we want to purchase and do what we’re doing here, and lose the flavor of what’s already being done there?’”

Stutzman confirms the hands-off approach with the Round Rock Leader. “When we got purchased by Cox, people said, ‘Oh, gosh, you’re going to be just like the Statesman now.’ And I’d say, no, they really don’t dictate editorial content. People were very skeptical about that. I would just say, no, wait and see. The content of what we cover is the same. It’s essentially the same people who were here before the 2006 acquisition with the same focus on community journalism. They don’t tell us what to cover or what not to cover or what editorial stances to take. Those concerns pretty much went away because the proof is in the pudding. It was a seamless transition.”

Ed Allen
Ed Allen

“It’s the best of all possible worlds,” says Ed Allen, editor of the Westlake Picayune for the past 15 years. “You get to do your job, and there’s no obstacles in the way. And when you have troubles someone helps you.”

Allen also cites such advantages provided by Cox, including upgraded computer equipment plus support from the IT staff at the Statesman’s South Congress headquarters. The ACNG papers have also undergone a website upgrade in recent years that gives them all—except for, currently, the Round Rock Leader—a similar template. The redesign won the Picayune a third-place website award in the Texas Newspaper Association’s 2010 Better Newspaper contest.

Stutzman also cites the employee benefit package Cox offers (the same enjoyed by Statesman employees). “They can provide some things that a smaller family owned paper wouldn’t be able to,” he says.

Davis McAuley
Davis McAuley

But Davis McAuley, who edited the Bastrop Advertiser for 20 years until he retired in 2008, says, “There’s been some serious retrenchments since I left.” The Bastrop Advertiser and the Smithville Times now share the same publisher and editor, based in Bastrop, with two editorial staffers in the Smithville office. He believes that works against the locality that is at the heart of a community paper, and it negatively affects news coverage. “It’s a direct blow at how much reporting you can get done in a week to fill up the newspaper. It shows in their reporting.”

To address that situation, McAuley started a local news website, “I no longer trust the Advertiser to get in front of all the stories the public needs to know. They consider it competition, and they are faithful readers,” he contends. “I can tell in the next edition which stories they pick up.”

But former Bastrop Mayor Tom Scott stresses how the Advertiser remains vital to that city. “It serves a very useful function in our community. It’s always been a good source of information about what’s going on here.”

Similar staff consolidation has happened at the other Cox papers as well. The Round Rock Leader and Pflugerville Pflag share a publisher, as do the Westlake Picayune and Lake Travis View. The Leander Ledger, Cedar Park Citizen and North Lake Travis Log also have the same publisher, and all are headquartered in Cedar Park. These are economies of scale made possible by common ownership that increase profitability. But at what price to editorial quality?

Steve Laukhuf, former Round Rock Leader publisher, voices concerns similar to McAuley’s. “I was entrenched in the community and people would share stuff with me that they probably don’t get anymore.” He feels that the slimmer staffing affects the depth of editorial coverage, which is further exacerbated by the paper’s unusual three-times-a-week publishing schedule.

“They’ve got some great staff, but they’re taxed and don’t have time to ask the questions that need to be asked because they are always racing on a deadline. I’m a believer that you have the time and resources to develop stories that they don’t do.”

Another person in the local community newspaper business has heard rumblings about the Cox papers being less than what they were in the past. “A number of people have told me they think the Westlake Picayune is a shadow of its former self,” he said.

But that criticism seems weak in light of the Picayune’s record of winning top marks in journalism contests. Editor Ed Allen shared an item published in the paper’s June 25, 2009, edition: “Westlake Picayune staff members won 11 awards at the Texas Press Association’s annual Better Newspaper Contest last weekend in Austin, which netted the newspaper the Sweepstakes Award as the top winner among medium-large weekly newspapers statewide.” The Picayune has won the TPA’s Sweepstakes Award two out of the last three years, Publisher Jay Plotkin said in that story.

The Lake Travis Log has yet to impress a relatively new Jonestown resident with its coverage. “If I find two minutes worth of reading it’s considered a jam-packed edition,” says former Central Austin resident Jeff Tartakov, who moved to the north shore of Lake Travis three years ago. On the other hand, the paper is doing part of its job with him. “I do find myself looking at the Log’s advertisements, which is some measure of success.”

New kid in the towns, neighborhoods

John Garrett
John Garrett

“At the end of the day I wasn’t happy with what Cox was providing me for local community news, so I started my own newspaper,” says John Garrett, owner and publisher of the Community Impact monthly papers. The former ad director for the Austin Business Journal launched his self-funded paper in 2005 in the Round Rock-Pflugerville area, where he and his wife live. He says he launched this venture with a $40,000 loan from a low-interest credit card.

Today he has seven local editions that he says reaches 450,000 homes and businesses and employs 65 people. Last September he launched a suburban monthly in Northwest Houston and plans to expand further there, and Garrett says he isn’t done expanding his operations in and around Austin. He won’t reveal specifics, but says, “We still want to expand in Central Texas. There are some areas we’d like to go into, and people have asked us, and we’re looking at possibilities.”

Clearly there is still ample room and money to be made within the community newspaper game in the greater Austin area. Garrett created a different model from the other papers he shares markets with, like the Cox publications and the Williamson County Sun, by having his monthly papers saturation-mailed to every home and apartment in targeted zip codes.

“We subscribed to the Pflugerville Pflag and Round Rock Leader. We felt like something was missing,” Garrett says. “It’s one thing to report about Johnny kicking the winning field goal and when the toll roads are being built, and not really understanding where the toll roads are going. They do ‘refrigerator journalism,’ where you take a picture of a kid who made the honor roll, and we don’t do that. And they do that well, and people love it.

“What we want to do is produce news that’s useful and helps people understand their community better.” In addition to longer deadline news stories and features, the Impact papers stress coverage of local business and development. “We created this publication to be a business journal for the average Joe,” Garrett says. The papers also boast a lively web presence, regularly posting breaking news, reports on local government meetings, short versions of upcoming major print stories, and updates on stories being followed.

In its initial launch area of Round Rock, Community Impact has lived up to its name. In the past two biennial community surveys the city conducts, 60 percent of this year’s respondents cited the monthly as their main source of information about the city (earning it a third place ranking behind local TV news and the inserts in the city utility bill). In 2008 Community Impact netted 73 percent (second after TV). The Round Rock Leader came in at 34 percent (eighth) in the 2010 survey and 49 percent (sixth) two years earlier, descending from its highest ranking in the first 1998 survey of 68 percent (fourth). Community Impact’s showing in Round Rock is all the more remarkable for being a relative newcomer monthly competing against an entrenched paper publishing three times a week.

A story on the Community Impact chain published April 7 on the Neiman Journalism Lab website at Harvard University was titled, “Print ain’t dead.” In it Garrett stresses both the focus of Impact’s content as well as its distribution model—as opposed to the rack sales and free, lawn-tossed delivery to residences that some other area community newspapers utilize along with subscriptions—as the secrets to its success. Two large advertisers quoted in the piece attest to the chain’s effectiveness. And Thomason notes, “There are a lot of people around the country looking very closely at what they are doing.”

Cox’s Jason Jarrett downplays any effects Community Impact may have on ACNG’s community papers. “Whenever competition comes in you take notice. They’ve carved out a little niche for themselves. Anytime anybody opens up a publication it takes advertising dollars out of the market. Our niche is still the community newspaper: what’s going on at the football game, what’s going on at the field day at the elementary school, who was at the big social event last night. Hyper-local, but focusing more on the life of the residents out there.”

The Cedar Park-based Hill Country News shares circulation areas with both Community Impact and three Cox weeklies. At press time it had recently hired both a new publisher and editor. Publisher Alan Todd (no relation to the Todd family that formerly owned the Round Rock Leader) says that after only a month on the job he wasn’t qualified to assess the competitive outlook. He did tell The Austin Bulldog that the new hires reflects owner Granite Publications’ commitment to staying strong in the most competitive market in its chain. “We are not going to do things the way we have always done them up here, and we’re looking for new ways and new opportunities,” he says. “We are Cedar Park’s oldest business—which is a nice thing to be able to roll off your tongue—and we just want to make sure that the oldest business in Cedar Park is defining itself in the newest ways.”

In the Neiman Journalism Lab story, Community Impact advertiser Ken Moncebaiz, owner of K&M Steam Cleaning carpet service, says. “What our customers…all say is they read the newspaper from cover to cover. ‘It’s free, it tells me all about my area.’ That’s why they love it. The reason I love it is everyone reads it cover to cover.”

And he finds it to be an advertising venue well worth the $10,000 of K&M’s $36,000 monthly ad budget that he spends on the Impact papers. He credits the chain for its part in doubling his business since 2005 and says advertising there accounts for a quarter of his customers.

Are there perceptible differences in editorial quality between Community Impact and the Cox-owned and other community papers? Will Hampton, former Round Rock Leader editor, says that in Round Rock, “The quality of the coverage is more dependent on the reporter than who they work for, and that’s the case with print and TV news.” But he also notices how Community Impact is winning readers. “Anecdotally people tell me how much they like that publication.”

Garrett cites how Community Impact broke the story of Austin Community College opening a Round Rock campus as a sign of how well his paper is covering that community. Plus, “I can confidently say that we are the only news organization in Austin that is at every city council meeting in the areas we serve.”

The Round Rock Leader’s Stutzman doesn’t deny feeling some heat from Community Impact. “We definitely have noticed them as competition. They’re very good at what they do. We do something different and I think something more,” he insists, noting that the Impact papers don’t cover sports or run editorials.

Northern Travis County and southern Williamson County span one of this region’s fastest growing areas, and is certainly the locus to watch for competition and possible change on the local community paper scene. With five Cox papers, two Community Impact editions, the Hill Country News and the Williamson County Sun, the area is all but super-served by non-dailies. The obvious question is whether all of them can survive, if not thrive. And how will a competitive market affect the reporting across the board?

Reports of the death of newspapers may be exaggerated

When most people think of newspapers, their first thought is usually the local major metro daily and alternative newsweekly. But as TCCJ’s Tommy Thomason points out, “Most of the journalism in Texas is community journalism.” Still, he compares community journalism to an iceberg in terms of visibility. “Less than a fifth of it showing.” Of the approximately 500 general audience newspapers in the state, some 460 qualify as community newspapers.

These papers can make a difference in the communities they serve through their reporting and editorials, says Oak Hill Gazette Publisher Atkins. He points to the Gazette’s articles on how Oak Hill had fared since its annexation by the City of Austin in late 1985, a decade before he launched the Gazette. “One of the first series of stories we did was about unkept promises from the city. I’d like to think that had something to do with getting a swimming pool, Dick Nichols Park, a local library, and some other things.”

As dailies grow slimmer in size and staff to remain financially viable, the community newspapers in a region like this fill in what the daily can’t cover. “We cover the news that the Statesman, by the way that it’s structured, can’t,” Cox’s Jason Jarrett points out. “It would be cost prohibitive to do so.”

He says that ACNG remains profitable but won’t put an adjective on it. A June 18 Austin Business Journal story reported that Statesman Publisher Michael Vivio said the nine papers gross some $6 million annually. He said the Cedar Park and Leander start-ups have enjoyed an average annual growth of 105 percent to earn $1 million most recently.

Yes, there is gold in them there hills and prairies around Austin for community papers. But can they continue to prosper and fulfill a credible news mission within the changing news media environment?

“Community papers used to think that, yeah, young people may not read newspapers,” Thomason says. “But they’re going to grow up, get married, have kids, get a mortgage, and then they’ll start reading the paper.

“What we’re finding out is that’s not true. We’re getting some, but we’re not getting enough. The circulation base is changing. And we’re going to have to come up with not just what the newspaper is going to be, but the newspaper plus what we’re doing online, plus what we’re doing with mobile, and a bunch of new media alternatives that may not even all be in place right now.

“We realize that the new is out there, and it’s going to be important, and we know we need to be in it. But we’re still not making money out of it,” Thomason adds. Like all papers, non-dailies have yet to crack the code for monetizing the Internet.

Which is why Clark Thurmond, publisher of the Williamson County Sun, posts no news content on the paper’s minimalist website, which serves primarily as a vehicle for real estate advertising. In April, he told The Austin Bulldog that the people who want to read the Sun for free don’t live in the Georgetown area the paper focuses on. The people who do live there are far more likely to need—rather than want—to read the paper, and they must pay to get it.

The Cox consolidation offers one example of successful survival tactics. “The community papers have always been profitable and continue to be profitable just because of the business model we employ,” Jarrett says.

Bart Stephens
Bart Stephens

The individually owned papers can also slim down if needed. “Because we’re small we can pay really close attention to our overhead,” says West Austin News owner Bart Stephens. “You can do it as cheap as you can possibly do it.”

Atkins in Oak Hill makes a similar observation. “We can downsize and do a lot more of the work ourselves.”

And unlike dailies, the proliferation of news sites on the Web isn’t a threat to non-dailies. Stephens says, “The value of this content is so specific and so targeted—frankly, it’s a small amount of people when you think about—that nobody’s going to duplicate it on the Internet because it just doesn’t have that much value.”

Yet it does have enough to generate significant income for Cox, support the launch and expansion of Community Impact, and keep the other individually owned community papers going. And the local appeal of such papers is what should sustain them in the foreseeable future, barring new disruptive technologies that find a footing in the local media ecosystem.

“The goals are always the same: To build a product that people want to read, that advertisers want to be in, and just to keep it stable.” Community Impact’s Garrett says.

As former Bastrop Advertiser Editor Davis McCauley concludes, “There’s always going to be a market there if real community reporting is going on—real news that affects people’s lives and business.”

Next: Hays County newspapers

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