News Industry Summit

Keeping community newspapers relevant


Inventor Johannes Gutenberg failed 20 times when creating the printing press, but he saw its value. In comparison, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had followers within six hours because he understood social media's value.

The message that community newspapers also add great value to communities was one that presenter Penelope Muse Abernathy stressed during her "Thriving in a Networked Age" session at the 2016 News Industry Summit, held in September in Sarasota, Fla.

Abernathy holds the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

"It is important for community newspapers to survive," Abernathy said, "because community journalism is vital for our democracy."

She pointed out that community newspapers historically have set the agenda for public policy debates, encouraged economic growth and, most importantly, fostered geographic identity."

How to keep community newspapers relevant and profitable during the digital age is the key question, said Abernathy, who is also the author of "Saving Community Journalism: The Path to Profitability."

"Going digital is not about mobility, connectivity, or the cloud," she said. "It's about the changed expectations of your readers and advertisers."

Newspapers, she said, should be asking how readers' and advertisers' media habits are changing. They should also ask what is expected from newspapers.

"Current readers expect newspapers to identify main issues, help them live better, and give them a sense of social and political identity," she said. "Advertisers expect you to help them connect with customers."

It's important to know how many loyal fans the newspaper has. Ask readers and advertisers in a survey if they would recommend the newspaper to a friend or another business on a scale from 1 to 10.  Only those who say nine or 10 are really loyal.  Find out what makes them loyal. Also, ask what they care about in the community.

Abernathy said that successful newspapers also will ask themselves how they will look in five years to customers, employees and shareholders. They should also determine the processes and procedures where they will excel in the future.

"The average lifespan for a company used to be 50 years, now it's around 15," explained Abernathy. "Change should happen about every five years."

She said that community newspapers need to do the following to thrive in today's networked world:

  1. Organize for speed and agility.
  2.  Lead from the front – learn from mistakes of others.
  3. Bring in new talent. Companies are expecting 20 percent turnover in the next five years. The notion that people will stay somewhere for years is wrong. Give your employees the resources they need.
  4. Measure and remeasure often. Think about trend lines and where they are going. Advertisers want data about your market.
  5. Create a culture that nurtures innovation and entrepreneurship.
  6. Never stop thinking about tomorrow and never go into a situation without asking "what if."

For more information about community journalism, Abernathy recommended visiting and following her on Twitter at @businessofnews.


Mary Ann DeSantis is a former SNPA employee (1989-1998). She is now a Florida-based freelance writer and can be reached through her website at or via email at You may also follow her on Twitter @maryanndesantis.


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