Small-town newspaper group gets it right


By Kevin Slimp
Newspaper industry trainer

This morning I created a poll on my Facebook, which includes thousands of newspaper friends, and asked for help in deciding among three topics for this column.

• A few new tools out there to help newspaper folks get their jobs done.

• A previous Digital First column and the company’s announcement to close down their Thunderdome division.

• What I learned about running successful newspapers from six small papers in Nebraska.

I was a little surprised at the results. Almost 60 percent selected “Nebraska.”

I wasn’t surprised that the column on successful small newspapers was selected, but I didn’t expect a blowout.

Making the results even more surprising, it was clear that people at large dailies were just as interested in what papers in Nebraska are doing to be successful as are people at small papers.

So let me tell you a little about an operation in Nebraska. Rob Dump and his wife, Peggy, own six small papers in rural northeast Nebraska. The largest is the Cedar County News in Hartington. According to U.S. Census Bureau numbers, Hartington has dropped in population from 1,662 in 1990 to about 1,500 today.

The circulation of the Cedar County News is 2,000. The circulation of the five smaller papers averages 900 each, with the smallest, The Coleridge Blade, reporting a circulation of 312. Total circulation for all six papers is 6,500.

I spent two days training Rob’s impressive staff. Most seemed to be graduates of journalism schools in or near Nebraska. His daughter, Kalee, shared time between school at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and working with the paper in Hartington.

We spent most of the first day improving the photo editing process for the papers and training the staff in advanced skills using Adobe InDesign. We worked on improving their method of creating ads for their websites and making the printing process go more smoothly.

On Day 2, I worked individ­ually with staff members. Peggy and I created a new system for streamlining classifieds using nested styles in InDesign. Rob and I began the work to create a photo archiving system for the papers. I worked with other staff members to solve PDF problems and get all the fonts to work together in all six papers.

At the end of Day 2, it was my turn to ask questions. In a conversation with Rob I learned that all of his papers are written and designed in the communities they serve.

All six papers have editors who live in or near the towns they serve.

And get this: All are profit­able. I asked Rob how he could afford to have a paper with a circulation of 312.

“Well, people ask me that question a lot, and I look at it this way: We’re able to pay for our staff and to make a little profit,” he said. “And it’s good for the community to have its own newspaper.”

Rob summed up what I say are three qualities that exist in successful newspapers:

• Focus on local content, produced locally.

• Offer support and training for staff.

• Employ a quality sales staff that understands the role and benefits of newspaper advertising.

Kevin Slimp works as a newspaper industry trainer, speaker, writer and consultant.