Newspapers are ailing, and the degenerative disease attacking our most historic and fundamental media outlets won’t be assuaged as quickly as the swine flu, either.
Across the United States, nearly every major daily newspaper has been forced to tighten their belts. Times, Chronicles, and Posts throughout the nation have been hit hard as subscriptions decrease, advertisers struggle through a down economy, and classified sales dry up.
Recently, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer went totally online after 146 years of daily printing. The San Francisco Chronicle lost over $1 million a week throughout 2008, and The Miami Herald and the Chicago Sun-Times are both up for sale. Many others are using bankruptcy to cope with insurmountable debt loads.
Feeling that heat in Charleston, The Post and Courier laid off 25 employees (a five percent reduction in staff) in February, after offering voluntarily buyouts to all employees last summer. The P&C eliminated some sections and cut their paper size in response to what publisher Larry Tarleton called “the sharpest revenue decline in our history.”
Regardless of the turbulent, chaotic waters enveloping major print news organizations, smaller, local newspapers seem to be thriving. The biweekly Folly Current published its first newspaper tailored to the Folly Beach community last October. A second paper, the monthly Folly Beach News, appeared in February. Across the bridge, the weekly James Island Messenger (JIM) debuted in March.
“There are just so many other ways to find your national news than to wait for tomorrow’s paper to come out,” says JIM publisher Lorne Chambers, who also distributes the West Ashley community paper West Of. “But when it comes to local community stuff, you’re not going to find that on CNN.com.”
That niche translates to revenue, as mom and pop businesses seek to advertise to their community. “Your neighbors really are your best customers,” adds Chambers, who once worked as a City Paper staff member.
When the James Island Journal was sold to the Evening Post empire, publisher of The Post and Courier, and then buried the Journal the folds of the daily, Chambers felt that James Island was again ripe for its own media outlet. After five years, West Of has proven itself a sustainable venture.
“I’m old school. I think a newspaper should be an independent voice and not part of the media giant,” he says.
Folly Current publisher Lynn Pierotti is also hoping to recreate the success of his coastal East Cooper paper, Island Eye News. Pierotti sees a need for community-driven, hyper-local papers. He points to recent special town council elections on Isle of Palms — an event the Island Eye covered in closer detail than any other news outlet. Localization and contributions from residents give the community a feeling of ownership, says Pierotti.
“Sixty percent of our editorial content is donated stories,” he says. “I don’t think (readers) feel like they can do that for The Post and Courier. They might not feel that kind of possession and ownership of it.”
Pierotti says he won’t accept everything — “It can’t just be a crackpot writing about how the South should have won the Civil War” — but the door is open for legitimate stories. Recent Folly Current stories range from a regular wrap-up of city council affairs and police incidents to fishing reports and coverage of new local restaurants.
The Current faced an unexpected competitor when Edisto News owners Tom Maguire and Jimmy King debuted their monthly Folly Beach News in February. Maguire says he was unaware of the Current when he and King began their business in the fall, and that they launched the paper with an expectation that people wanted something focused on their community.
Seana Flynn, the co-owner of Lil’ Mamas restaurant on Folly Beach, advertises with the Current, the News, and the City Paper.
“In a small population like Folly, it’s very important for us to support ourselves and each other because that’s all that makes this town work,” she says.
Flynn opted to up her advertising budget this spring, in part to publicize a new breakfast menu. “When you’re really small like we are, everything’s in proportion to how well you’re doing,” she says.
Folly Beach Mayor Carl Beckmann says he’s happy to have the two papers on the island. “I think when you have more local stuff, people are more interested in reading it,” he says. “I can read The Post and Courier in about 15 minutes, but the Folly Current and the Folly Beach News take about 30, because I’m reading every article to find out what’s going on. Each one has their own little quirkiness.”
Chambers has no doubt that JIM will thrive by focusing on local business.
“Our bread and butter has always been the mom-and-pop businesses that have to reach their community, and they need to do it more affordably than ever right now,” says Chambers. “It’s not just JIM or West Of or the Folly Current. It’s community newspapers as a model. Across the industry, we’re actually doing okay.”