04. Commit to print - Issue 140 - Magazine | Monocle

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If you’re holding this magazine then you probably agree that print is still a powerful way to tell tales. Print can be a haven for debate, stirring stories, deft design and telling photography. A place where actual, even-handed journalism can unfold beyond the confines of a backlit screen. All of which might encourage you to pick up a weekend paper. But why not go further? Could 2021 be the year that you became a mini media mogul? Or just commit your thoughts on baking, basket-weaving or business to paper?

The technical conundrum of how to print and distribute your newsletter can be solved by Screen Graphic Solutions. The Kyoto firm is a global leader in digital- printing technology, operating worldwide under the Screen Holdings umbrella. Founded in 1943, it has witnessed the shifting sands of print journalism. 

The future of media isn’t just on a server or in San Francisco but via the Truepress Jet 520 HD Series (pictured): a room-sized printer launched in 2015. The high speed allows high-quality prints to be produced in smaller quantities at realistic costs. “We live in an era where individuals can own their media,” says the company’s Michiko Nakatani. “It’s an age of diversity too. You might want to publish the same material in multiple languages in a small quantity; our printers can do that.” 

To facilitate getting your idea to the newsstand, Screen has paired with Shiga-based book-binders Horizon. “We can deliver an effective integrated system from printing to binding,” says Nakatani. “We’re always updating our technology. Print is not old. It never will be.”


Talk of the town

Why local news still matters

By Louis Harnett O’Meara

More than a forum for cat-stuck-up-a-tree tales or titbits of provincial gossip, a town’s newspaper serves as an essential bond for its community. It can provide jobs to the talented and inquisitive; recognise and celebrate the achievements of its locale; challenge institutions that have ceased to serve their population; and share information that’s important for people’s safety and wellbeing. In towns with their own papers, people are more likely to run for office and to vote, according to a 2019 report by Pen America. And, with the occasional parochial tale, a local paper can definitely make you smile.

This makes the sector’s current state all the more troubling. Dwindling ad revenues have led many profit-driven corporations to shirk their commitment to smaller papers. Though in some countries regional reporting remains strong (Germany is a common example, thanks to its historic commitment to stumping up for print), across much of the world the sector has been hard hit. In 2020, News Corp closed more than 100 local print operations in Australia following the seismic effects of the pandemic. Dozens of papers across the UK and Canada have shut up shop since 2019 and more than 200 counties in the US now have no papers at all. All of which begs the question: is this the death knell for community news? The answer, in short, is no. In fact, many believe that there is no better time than now to start a neighbourhood paper.

Michael Waite serves as the perfect example. After working in finance in the US for 20 years, Waite arrived back at his 3,500-person hometown in south Australia, Naracoorte, only to witness its paper fold. “My mum had worked there for 30 years and, just like that, it was gone,” he says of The Naracoorte Herald. Still, he felt that something could be done. He set to work over the next month devising a business plan for a title that would launch in its place, pulling together a core team of four journalists to report on the town’s goings-on. In May 2020, The Naracoorte Community News was born.

The News sold out its first full run of 1,700 papers in 36 hours, shifting even more copies than its predecessor by emphasising in-depth, community-led reporting. Waite has since shared his business model (which involves paying staff properly and keeping profit margins down) with some 50 would-be community news editors across the country, helping independents such as Murray Bridge News and The Ararat Advocate to step into the hole that big, margin-hungry corporations have left behind. “It’s about bringing journalism back to basics,” he says.

According to Damian Radcliffe, a professor in journalism who often focuses on community news at the University of Oregon, this is the right attitude for anyone starting a small paper today. By focusing on giving something to the town, rather than seeking to extract something from it, these papers can happily continue to exist. “We need to change our attitude to local media and accept that it won’t be bringing in big profits,” says Radcliffe. Instead, he presses, local papers should be run by people who are already dedicated to providing a service to their fellow residents.

Still, journalistic enterprises need to find a way to make ends meet – sometimes creatively. For one example, Radcliffe points to the hyperlocal London publication Kentish Towner, whose two-person team once dedicated mornings to editorial work and afternoons to commercial. Then there’s the issue of visibility: in Naracoorte, Waite courted the former subscribers of the town’s old newssheet by posting copies of his new paper through their doors. Others choose to organise events, hand out free issues on the street or strike up deals with various local businesses. But of course, “word of mouth remains the most effective marketing tool,” says Radcliffe. To achieve this, the best thing to do is establish a meaningful relationship with readers.

An upstart newssheet can be very effective at connecting with its audience. In Barcelona, major new regional daily Ara proved as much in 2010. The team behind the paper were experienced, committed and, like their financial backers, born and based in Barcelona. They could have worked at bigger outlets but they had a commitment to their hometown. They felt that there was room for a smartly reported paper with a cosmopolitan outlook and strong editorial design, published entirely in Catalan. “It’s always been about listening to our community to bring them the best-quality product,” says Esther Vera, the paper’s editor-in-chief. Its first print run of 120,000 issues sold out.

By tapping into a regional, deeply held sense of identity, Ara bucked industry trends. It has managed to convince people to pay for its writing, with 64 per cent of Ara’s revenue coming from subscriptions and sales. This has meant that it has avoided the over-dependence on advertising income that has sunk other publications. Between 2016 and 2018, as news publishing in Catalonia contracted 22 per cent, the paper enjoyed year-on-year growth of as much as 15 per cent. It has also set up separate editions with on-the-ground reporting for Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Andorra and beyond.

All of this tells us that if the reporting is strong, the community will support the paper in return: just because a title’s beat is smaller, it doesn’t mean that its features need to be of lower quality than those of its big-name counterparts. In fact, a more specific focus can mean that stories go into greater depth.

The Storm Lake Times’s editor Art Cullen can testify to this. His brother John founded his paper in rural Iowa in 1990 and Cullen has edited it ever since. Though his publication is small (printing about 2,800 issues twice a week) Cullen has been recognised as one of the best journalists in the US; in 2017 he won the Pulitzer prize for editorial writing thanks to reporting that challenged powerful agricultural corporations polluting Iowa’s waters. Cullen stresses that the best thing that a small-town reporter can do is “go straight to the schools, go straight to the council meetings” and write about the things that affect the most people, most directly.

Cullen knows that by doing this, even a small title will be able to survive. And that’s what he’s found: during some of the darkest months of 2020, The Storm Lake Times’s circulation jumped by as much as 50 per cent year on year. “People were looking for straight, credible sources of information,” he says. “It’s the chain papers that are bleeding readership.”

The trend can be seen everywhere: a recent Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report found that most small newsrooms around the world have actually seen big jumps in engagement. Papers that can translate those readers into revenue might just find themselves counterintuitively bolstered by the disruption of last year.

It’s clear enough that not all is lost for local reporting: an exciting new future could well be just around the corner. “Now’s the time to go out and launch a paper,” says Cullen. “People want their reliable news sources back. For every news desert out there, that’s another opportunity.”

How to press ahead

Follow these 10 essential steps to making your community newspaper a going concern.

step 1.

Balance the books

If you’re looking to make a sizeable profit, community news publishing is not for you. Nonetheless, a paper needs money to get by. Consider how to weigh up your newsstand sales, subscription services, community donations and advertising revenue.

step 2.

Write what matters

When considering your beat, make sure you report on the things that people want to know about – not the things you want them to know. Transport infrastructure projects, school developments and council meetings are good places to start.

step 3.

Be seen

Go out there and make yourself known: start by handing out issues on the street, posting them through letterboxes and getting your front page displayed in the neighbourhood shops.

step 4.

Make time for revenue

There’s always another story you could be covering but don’t let it get in your way. Consider how you divide your time between business planning and journalism.

step 5.

Make it special

Print can feel unique in a way that digital news can’t. Consider running themed releases for events that connect a community.

step 6.

Sell yourself

Go to the businesses and big players in town and make yourself heard – find investment opportunities, sell advertisements and earn their trust. Think about how you can strike advertising deals and develop relationships with other businesses so you can support one another.

step 7.

Grow up

If all goes to plan, your paper won’t be printing runs in the hundreds forever. Think about how you can open up your beat to find new readers and grow your circulation.

step 8.

Reflect your world

A newspaper should represent the place that it covers. Think about how your paper can showcase its identity to the people out there who relate to it, whether that’s through the language it’s published in or the reporters it uses.

step 9.

Get help

Times might get tough but there are hundreds of institutions devoted to supporting regional news: try Project Oasis in the US, get government grants from the Public Interest News Gathering programme in Australia or ask the European Journalism Centre for help.

step 10.

Be precise

If your news stories aren’t accurate, people lose trust in your journalism. Ultimately, that’s going to hit your pocket – so check, check and check again.

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