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Kevin Ashby has been in the newspaper business for 40 years, which means he’s seen his fair share of industry changes. He remembers when linotype machines were king and a journalist’s best friend was his typewriter. But just because some things have changed in the world of newspapers doesn’t mean everything has.
The common belief about newspapers is they’re a dying breed—and that may very well be true for dailies—but Ashby doesn’t believe this is true for small community and rural newspapers published bi-weekly or weekly. “The need, relevance and importance of newspapers has not changed, especially in the rural markets,” says Ashby, who currently serves as publisher of the Vernal Express in Vernal and the Uintah Basin Standard in Roosevelt. “People depend on these newspapers to get their news.”
That sentiment seems to be a popular one across Utah’s rural communities, where local newspapers are often the only way residents can learn about what’s happening in their neighborhood. While daily newspapers in Utah and across the country show signs of struggles—including multiple rounds of layoffs in recent years or completely shutting down altogether—small-town newspaper publishers and editors would argue their publications remain strong because they’re meeting a need, filling a niche that would otherwise be left unfulfilled.
The Internet Age
While Utah’s daily newspapers have boasted strong online presences for several years, websites for the state’s community newspapers are recent developments in most areas. The segue into using
the internet as a tool to increase readership has been beneficial for many rural papers, though they understand that increased readership online doesn’t necessarily mean increased profits for their papers.
Chuck Hawley, publisher of the once-a-week Richfield Reaper newspaper in Richfield, says having an online presence has helped the Reaper’s numbers by providing more of an offering to customers. “We probably raised a couple of hundred in circulation since a year ago,” he says. “That’s not a ton, but for us it’s quite a bit.” As of December 2014, the Reaper’s website was averaging around 32,000 visits a month—a feat, Hawley says, because the total population in Sevier County is only a little over 20,000. “We are probably the most visited website in the county,” he says.
The wider trend seems to be a move away from printed papers to a fully digital product, Hawley says, but the Reaper is doing just the opposite. “I don’t think anybody has really figured out how to make the digital products the principle product,” he says. “Within the next decade or two, someone might figure it out. But I believe we’ll still be printing long past when the dailies decide to give up. The papers that we’ve seen that dumped everything online, circulation suffered a lot.”
That’s why Tooele County’s Tooele Transcript-Bulletin’s website operates fully under paywall. Only those who subscribe are able to read stories in full. Ashby says he does something similar with his Uintah Basin newspapers—only a limited amount of content is up on the website, and readers can’t access everything unless they pay for a subscription.
Iron County Today in Cedar City and The Davis Clipper in Davis County provide all of their content online each week when the papers are published. Currently, The Davis Clipper’s website views sit between 25,000 and 30,000 a week, which publisher and owner Gail Stahle, who also owns Iron County Today, says has improved in recent months. “That’s great, but it doesn’t bring dollars into my pocket,” he says. “You may have good journalists out there, but you can’t pay them if you don’t have revenue, so I have to have print revenue. People ask why we don’t drop print and just do everything online, but then we wouldn’t have any journalists to report the news. We have to have something to pay the bills with. It’s a balancing act.”
Though publishers haven’t figured out a way to capitalize on their websites just yet, community papers welcome the added ways to increase readership, something Sandy Phillips, editor of The Richfield Reaper, says is a “vital component” in today’s market.
“The e-edition is part of the reason we grew this last year,” she says. “We hear back from people who as soon as the e-edition is uploaded, they go and quickly peruse it. The digital world [has] changed a lot in the way we do things. It opens up the communication with our community and readers in ways we never could have imagined a decade ago.”