Help journalism. Help yourself. Buy a weekly newspaper.By Helen Sosniecki
You work for one of the many newspaper ownership groups that have been merging or closing papers right and left across the country.
You’ve been bought out at one location, gone through a layoff at another and you just aren’t sure you want to continue on that treadmill any longer as you anticipate the possibility of another.
If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, maybe now is the time to consider buying a weekly newspaper or starting one in a “news desert,” a community that no longer has a newspaper. It won’t be all fun and games. The hours are long. The financial payback may be less than your corporate salary. But the rewards in your accomplishments as a community newspaper owner can overshadow those drawbacks.
Groups buy, sell and trade publications with nothing more than a check of the financials. No one from corporate ever sets foot in most of the communities involved.
You need to approach a potential purchase in much broader terms, because you aren’t just buying a weekly newspaper; you are buying into a community and a lifestyle.
You won’t be off the clock just because you are out for dinner. At the next table might be the guy who you photographed earlier in the day being taken away in handcuffs in a drug raid. Or an old farmer may ask if you could put a classified ad in the paper to sell his gun, which later turns out to be the murder weapon in the death of his neighbor. Or you might leave the office late at night and have your car stopped and surrounded by deputies on a dark country road by a cemetery after you’ve written a story about the sheriff’s alleged misdeeds. (All true stories.) But the rewards can be great.
So, how do you start if you’re an individual or couple ready to make the plunge – or at least explore the option of newspaper ownership?
First, find a newspaper broker who has experience selling weeklies and, better yet, one who has worked at or owned a newspaper. And, contact the state press association(s) in areas where you want to consider buying. Some of the smallest papers may not be listed with a broker but may provide opportunities for seller financing or training with a sweat-equity option.
If you aren’t comfortable with financial reports, find someone you trust who can walk you through the process and analyze the P&Ls with you. Look for oddities that could benefit a new buyer. For instance, is the owner paying non-business expenses from the company account? Is the circulation income too low based on the circulation numbers you were provided?
My business partner and husband, Gary, and I always looked at the financials from the standpoint of growth potential. We did not want to buy a paper that was at its peak potential. Financials were only a small part of the decision for us.
Take an objective look at the content of the newspaper. Strong? Weak? Coming from the news side, we always knew we could improve the news product. And, we always operated on the belief that content drives weekly-newspaper revenue. We were local, local, local.
We wanted content that had readers buying at the newsstand rather than by subscription, because they didn’t want to wait to get their paper in the mail. We wanted them waiting outside the office on “newspaper day” for the papers to get back from the printer. And, they did. At one location, we even put a bench outside for them.
Does the newspaper have a web presence? If so, is the current owner generating revenue from it?
You’ve seen the financials. You’ve checked out sample copies. Now what? For us, with the three times we bought, the next step involved scouting the community both as a potential business location and as our new home. Living there is why individual owners have a chance of succeeding in a community where corporate may claim ownership isn’t worth their effort.
You’ll have more at stake than just the dollars.
So what did Gary and I look for when we scouted out a community?
One of our first stops was the post-office lobby, where we would check the wastebasket. It helped identify the newspaper’s direct-mail competition – shopping guides and store flyers – and whether they were popular enough that recipients took them home.
Take a hard look at the storefronts. Are most of them filled? Are they businesses that are – or should be – advertising with the newspaper? Are they well-kept or run down? Are the streets in good shape or crumbling? In other words, is there pride in the business district?
And, a big one: Is there a Walmart in town? A Walmart means the town is a trade center. But if the town doesn’t have a Walmart, it’s best if one isn’t closer than a 30-minute drive.
Do some research on the business owners. Are the majority nearing retirement? (That could mean future sales or closures.) A mix of young, older and middle-age owners is good, because you have both experience and new enthusiasm in the district.
Does the community have an annual festival that brings its citizens -- young and old -- together to volunteer and celebrate something that connects them?
Are K-12 schools within the city limits? A consolidated district with the school out in the middle of a field miles from town diminishes the community spirit. Look for evidence of school pride around town. If you’re in town on a ballgame night, check the parking lot. If it isn’t almost full, either the team is having a horrible season or the town doesn’t feel connected to the school.
Do the school administrators live in the community? Do the majority of teachers live in the school district?
What’s the bank situation? A locally owned bank is ideal both for a newspaper and the community, but fewer of those now exist.
Find the coffee shop where the locals hang out. Eavesdrop. If it’s the day the paper hit the streets, are they talking about “did you see ------ in the paper?” Better yet, are they calling it “our paper,” showing they feel close enough to it share a sense of ownership.
Are people talking from table to table, or is it like a room full of strangers who just happen to behaving coffee at the same location? The latter isn’t a good sign.
And, when scouting the town, check for news racks – both inside and outside. Do the inside racks look like the papers are selling that week?
When you are to the point of visiting the newspaper itself, check the equipment. It may be “working,” but is it up-to-date? Or will new equipment be necessary fairly soon?
Check the circulation numbers through ownership statements for at least the last three to five years. (And, if they are rounded off on all the forms, odds are pretty good they are not accurate.)
When you buy that first weekly newspaper, go into it knowing that one week you’ll be loved for what’s in the paper and the next week you’ll be despised by the same or other readers. You’ll have immediate market feedback – both good and bad. You’ll have people curse you and threaten you in the morning. Then another reader will drop by with some tomatoes from their garden for you that afternoon.
You live there. You chronicle the town’s history. But you’re also one of them. It’s your town, too. It will fill you with pride when the school basketball team wins that first state championship. It will bring you to tears when you and your neighbors bury that young volunteer fireman with the pregnant wife who died along with another volunteer on the way to a brush fire.
It will be your job, your business and your life – and you’ll likely love it more than anything you’ve ever done.
Helen and Gary Sosniecki of Lebanon, Missouri, are retired from 43-year careers that included owning three weeklies, publishing a small-town daily and serving as vendors to the newspaper industry. They may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.