By Dave Stancliff
My first job as an editor of a weekly newspaper, The Desert Trail in Twentynine Palms, gave me the opportunity to meet Bill Underhill, an old-time newspaper publisher, and one of the first homesteaders in the area in1928.
Bill Underhill established The Desert Trail in 1935 and sold it many years later when he retired. It’s now owned by Brehm Communications, Inc. Bill still lived in Twentynine Palms when I arrived in 1981. I got to talk with him and his wonderful wife Prudie, who was still very active in the community, many times.
Their mom-and-pop business thrived for so many years that they became a rich part of the town’s history. His wife Prudie did everything from writing articles to selling ads, and they used a Linotype machine to prepare their weekly product for the press.
The Desert Trail had modernized long before I arrived, but I learned a lot from the Underhills that would be good advice today. For starters, focus on what you do best. In order to compete with television, radio, magazines and other newspapers, you have to carve out a niche.
The Underhills also built the first indoor movie theater, drive-in theater and roller rink in Twentynine Palms. When I look at what they did back then, I see things that make sense in today’s tough economy.
Businessman ’s “Blog Maverick” has an article that illustrates my point. Attract more readers by offering the readers more. I quote, “Here is a hard cold fact of the internet age. Any content creator whose sole business is selling their content al a carte will have a hard time surviving. In a world of unlimited digital choice, the cost of creating and marketing content that generates a profit is expensive and difficult. Which is exactly why the successful sites have been aggregators.”
Translated, that means you need to offer the customer more than one reason to buy your product. The Underhills were ahead of their time if this is considered the new business model. They offered several kinds of entertainment.
Politizine supports this multi-offer approach by asking “Why can’t dailies have radio stations?” In an article titled, “Ways the Newspaper Business Can Save Itself,” Politizine offers a new business model for newspapers. “First hybrids and diversification where platforms can work together is the way to go.”
These are hard times for the newspapers, and everyone searches for a model that will give CPR to the gasping industry. Some newspapers charge for their Online content (if they have an Online edition), but from everything I’ve read on the subject, that doesn’t seem to be the answer. Very few newspapers have made that a profit mechanism. The Wall Street Journal is an exception.
The idea of newspapers seeking out cable or satellite providers as partners makes sense to me. They could offer their customers exclusive access to the Online versions of their newspapers. This recurring source of revenue could help both sides of the partnership.
A newspaper needs to reflect the community it serves to build loyal readership. Local content, local editors and writers who are involved in the community are the strength of many dailies under a 100,000 circulation.
Larger newspapers that serve millions are another story. Historical newspapers are closing their doors in record numbers, because they can’t compete with the immediacy of television, radio or the Web when it comes to state, national and international news.
The Wall Street Journal Online cites another factor those newspapers contend with. “The reason most newspaper companies have gone bankrupt or appear perilously close to it is they have too much debt, not that they have stopped being profitable.”
I get the impression corporate people are ready to give up printed editions, and that’s sad.
A generation of eager journalism students may never work in the field of their dreams. We can’t afford to lose the reporter’s ears and eyes on government corruption, crime, and other activities that newspapers have brought to the table since we became a country.
. One other possibility for newspapers is the concept of operating as non-profits. A bill has been introduced on in the U.S. Senate by Senator Benjamin Cardon (D-MS.), called the “Newspaper Revitalization Act” which would allow newspapers to operate as non-profits, under the same 501(c)(3) status now granted to charitable organizations.
Critics of this idea say the newspapers would lose their independence because non-profits have certain restrictions. They cannot endorse political candidates for example. Large endowments could also come with conditions and restrictions, skeptics point out.
The Underhills kept their businesses profitable during hard times by focusing locally and giving their customers choices.
As it stands, I believe this strategy would still work today.