There’s a conflict between what weekly newspaper publishers think are the most likely ways their businesses will generate money in the future and what their readers are most willing to pay for, according to a study conducted in four states in the northern Great Plains.
The research – which focused on weekly papers in Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota – found that publishers were more likely to bank on traditional sources of revenue like advertising and subscriptions. Readers, on the other hand, were more likely than publishers to say they were willing to pay for less traditional products and services such as events, memberships, and newsletters.
The study concludes that there is “a clear disconnect between what revenue streams publishers are willing to implement and what revenue streams readers are potentially willing to endorse.”
The research, written by scholars at public universities in Kansas, Colorado, and Missouri, has implications for small-town and rural media that are negotiating major changes in the news-industry economy.
In the last 20 years more than 500 rural newspapers have closed or merged, but little of the research on the journalism economy has focused on small-market media, said the study’s lead, Teri Finneman, associate professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. Dozens of papers closed during the pandemic alone, Finneman said.
“It really made me start thinking, ‘why is it that we don't yet have a solution for this business model problem?’ And frankly, I saw this as a failure of academia, like why in the last 20 years has there not been a solution found for the industry? And so this really motivated me to try to look into some solutions to this very serious problem.”
Together with two colleagues, Finneman researched the possible revenue streams, speakng with publishers and readers in the Heartland states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.
Not surprisingly, the publishers picked the model that has been around for hundreds of years: advertising and legal notices.
“They very much pitch the current model, which is concerning, because we know that legal notices are under attack at legislatures across the country,” said Finneman, publisher of The Eudora Times, a nationally recognized news desert publication that she runs with journalism students. “And so at any point, newspapers could see that revenue disappear, which is why we are arguing why it is so important to be proactive instead of reactive, so that there are more financial resources coming in.”
For readers, however, the study found that the top response for an additional revenue stream was events.
“The most common phrase in rural areas is there's nothing to do. So it makes a lot of sense that events would be very popular because they're looking for things to do,” said Finneman, who grew up and spent a large part of her life in rural North Dakota.
Another top option for readers was memberships, which was defined as a perk beyond subscription.
“We left it simple like that, because there's different ways to do membership programs,” she said. “And this was something that readers said that they were really interested in.”
Other myths that were busted about rural America include that older adults care more about the news and consuming it. The study found that residents ages 18 to 54 were more willing to financially help their newspaper than those over age 55.
“The industry has got to get past this myth that their older readers are the only base that they have to serve because they have a lot of younger people who would be willing to support them if they were given an opportunity,” Finneman said.
Still, for all the myth busting and hardships for rural news, Finneman believes there are a lot of good things happening.
“Rural journalism has more of a stability to it, when they aren't run through Wall Street, and when they care more about their communities and not just making money for shareholders,” she said. “So there are a lot of positives for rural journalism. And I emphasize that to my students a lot about how many opportunities that there really are in this field.”