Kansas Newspapers Are Going Weekly, And It’s Helping Them Survive
In many small towns throughout Kansas, community newspapers are often the only way to keep up with local government, read profiles of area residents and see photos of high school football games. But a decline in revenue, ushered in by easy access to free, online news has forced many local publications to scale down production. And in Kansas, that means weekly newspapers are the new normal.
Main Street, McPherson
Open a door at 101 N Main Street in McPherson, Kan., walk up a steep flight of stairs into cool air conditioning, and that’s where you'll find the headquarters of the McPherson News and Information.
Anne Hassler-Heidel is the publisher and the only full-time employee of this weekly newspaper, which is just two issues old. She says the focus of the paper is city and county government, which includes a front page story about the newly appointed McPherson County Attorney, who vows to shut down area methamphetamine operations.
She also wants to print feature stories, events and sports.
“I have a lot of help," Hassler-Heidel says. "My husband is an amazing photographer, so we use his photos a lot. I have other people who have volunteered their time to take photos, write sports stories and proofread. I've been amazed. I have a cheering section that’s really hoping this goes well.”
Hassler-Heidel previously wrote for the McPherson Sentinel—the city’s daily newspaper—before taking a job at the local visitor’s bureau.
But, she missed writing; and she wanted to be the boss. She knew she couldn’t afford to start a daily newspaper, so, she went with a weekly.
She says lot of people asked her, 'you're doing what?!' Others raised their eyebrows.
"Maybe it is a little bit crazy, but it's more than print," she says. "We have an active Facebook page, a website, Twitter and a PDF version that we'll send to people who live outside of (circulation)."
Instead of paid subscriptions, Hassler-Heidel distributes her newspaper via mail. It's free of charge for readers and is sent to every household in the 67460 zip code—reaching over 15,000 people. She says it’s the only way she can operate; managing subscriptions is a full-time job and for now, Hassler-Heidel is simply looking to break even by selling ads in her paper.
“If I can get 35 percent ads, we won't lose any money, and then we'll look after that to maybe get myself a paycheck," she says. "But that's not the reason why I'm here. Of course I need to cover my expenses, but you get so much out of a community newspaper other than the pay.”
She says she wants her job to feel as if she’s providing news to thousands of her friends.
Main Street, Newton
Another Main Street. But, this one is in Newton.
Joey Young is showing off the brand new offices of Newton NOW, a weekly newspaper he’s starting with friend and co-worker Bruce Behymer. Young says many newspapers in Kansas have been bought out by huge corporations, who fill pages with national and world news. He says the situation has left a gap in local coverage and has opened an opportunity for weekly, locally owned newspapers to swoop in.
“I bought my first community newspaper when I was 27," Young says. "I think there's still a very good market for what we do. While the national focus is on metro dailies that are struggling to adapt, community journalism and products like ours are doing very well.”
Young already owns two weekly newspapers, plus a monthly newspaper and a quarterly magazine. He says they’re filled with local content back to front. And that’s what he envisions for Newton NOW—covering issues like the city’s Amtrak connection, which could be lost if improvements to the station aren’t made.
He's also excited to cover athletics at Bethel College.
While weekly newspapers may seem as if readers are getting last week's news today, Young says their website will keep them timely.
“We’ll publish online pretty much constantly, and if you have a subscription to the paper, you'll get whatever you want in a daily fashion,” Young says.
Unlike Anne Hassler-Heidel with the McPherson News and Information, Young will sell subscriptions to Newton NOW, but he’ll still need advertising revenue to see a profit.
That's Bruce Behymer's job. He says being on Main Street in Newton is important. It's the place to be for small businesses, and he can reach potential clients just by stepping outside.
“I am out there talking with businesses every day and it's a little weird because we're promoting a product that doesn't exist yet," he says. "But, the business community is familiar enough with our [other publications]. So, there's some confidence and support there.”
Main Street, USA
According to a survey conducted by the University of Missouri in 2013, 67 percent of residents living in small towns across the country read a physical copy of their hometown newspaper at least once a week. That’s what local businesses want to hear when looking for places to advertise, according to Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association. He says community newspapers have a corner on the local news and advertising market.
“They're closer to their communities," Anstaett says. "They live there. They know everybody. They have a connection."
He says larger metropolitan newspapers struggle with this due to their wide and diversified audiences.
"In smaller communities, everybody knows who the newspaper publishers and editors are.”
Take, for example, the first edition of the McPherson News and Information, which detailed some of the longstanding Fourth of July parties in their community:
“What started out as a simple gesture to meet their neighbors has turned into an annual event that attracts friends and family, work colleagues and others. The annual event is an official block party, as many as 100 persons attend each year. This year’s guest list included individuals from Chicago, Texas, and West Virginia.”
While the Associated Press won’t be jumping on that story any time soon, it’s portraits like these that make small newspapers unique, and in some cases, still in business. Doug Anstaett says newspapers in Kansas aren’t going anywhere, but their status as a daily? That is disappearing.
"We've gone from 49 daily newspapers in the year 2000 to about 28 today," Anstaett says. "So it's been fairly significant. Most, if not all, of the papers still exist.”
But they exist only as weekly or non-daily papers. The decline in larger daily newspapers has slowed down, but their printed form is still struggling to compete with the instantaneous universe of online news.
Meanwhile, the down-home, weekly news-about-your-neighbors seems to have a small, but stable place in Kansas.