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Buying a weekly

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by typefitter, Nov 21, 2012.

  1. typefitter

    typefitter Well-Known Member

    So, I'm thinking of buying at least a portion of the weekly newspaper in my small hometown. The first thing I ever had published was in it 20 years ago, and I fear I'm thinking a little too sentimentally. But another part of me thinks there's a real opportunity here. It is, to be kind, a piece of shit. Shoddy writing, terrible design... There would be high school papers that are far better. And yet it has a lot of community support and is full of ads. I can see it becoming a special little paper.

    Obviously, I understand that the newspaper industry has had its issues, but I'm wondering whether anyone here works at a small weekly (I would guess the circulation of this paper is around 1,000 copies; it has no online presence), and how they work as a business. This particular paper faces no competition. It has a monopoly on local news in a growing community. Again, there is no online alternative or anything like that.

    I'm fine with doing things just for reasons of the heart, but I'd like to think there are sound economic reasons to do this, too. Am I deluding myself?

  2. Songbird

    Songbird Well-Known Member

    I helped launch (well, replaced SE 9 months after launch) small weekly near Dartmouth in August 2003. Small dedicated staff built it from zero circ to just under 10K in 3 years, going head to head with the 50-year daily just down the street. An old farmer who bought the Claremont properties owned the weekly and other start-ups like it.

    We were guided by a very smart Editor. We told timely stories, edgy stories and provided everything on a hyperlocal level. I produced the best weekly sports section in New Hampshire, second-best in New England.

    It was a lot of hard work, and a lot of fun.

    Go for it. You'll love the challenge.

    A year after I left the weekly it closed.
  3. reformedhack

    reformedhack Active Member

    Do your due diligence and look at the books first (or hire a professional to do it for you). You don't want to buy into a business that looks good on the surface but is really about to go belly-up because of long-term debt that you might be acquiring. My initial thought is that there's gotta be a reason why it's (A) for sale and (B) a weak product, and I'm betting the financial ledger might shed some insight.

    If everything's on the up-and-up, go for it if (A) you think you can get a return on your investment in a reasonable amount of time (and only you know how long that is) and (B) if buying it will feed your soul in some way. Owning your own business is hard work and will cause you a lot of sleepless nights, but it's very satisfying when you're successful.
  4. LanceyHoward

    LanceyHoward Active Member

    Why would you advise buying a paper that closed? It might have been to fun to work at but it does not sound like a financial success.
  5. Songbird

    Songbird Well-Known Member

    I'm not advising that. I said that the weekly I worked for closed.
  6. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member

    I would ask someone how much money it would take up front and monthly to keep the website decent and respectable.

    Does the paper print its own paper or sub that out? Are presses part of the deal? How many inserts can you count on each week?

    Every town needs a way to get its own news. I would be worried about how decimated the current situation is at the paper.
  7. typefitter

    typefitter Well-Known Member

    Thanks for the replies so far.

    There's no debt. There also aren't presses or anything like that. Printing is farmed out. According to the books (which are of dubious quality), the paper turns a small profit, based mostly on advertising. (Subscriptions account for a small percentage of revenues.) It's for sale because it's owned and operated largely by an older husband and wife and the husband has had health issues and they want to retire. This is a really small paper. Since I posted I found out its circulation is 900 copies a week, 650 of those to subscribers.

    I guess I'm less worried that I'll take a big financial hit and more worried that it will become a massive time suck. It's the kind of thing I can see really enjoying later in life, but right now, I couldn't devote all that much energy to it. And yet I can see myself pouring all sorts of energy into it.
  8. Baron Scicluna

    Baron Scicluna Well-Known Member

    A business like that is going to take just about all of your time. I'm assuming there's only a few employees. Ad salesperson gets sick, you're out selling ads. Editor gets a vacation, you're editing the paper. Reporter moves on to greener pastures, you're out covering stuff. Maybe all in one week.

    Just be prepared for it.
  9. 93Devil

    93Devil Well-Known Member

    If you do take this on, I would remember that the people working for you will probably not be as talented as yourself. Don't expect the world as far as design and actual writing. Slowly make those two areas better with your guidance. Just be accurate with information and be caring to those who read the paper.

    I was told a long time ago that two grocery stores and two car dealerships are all a paper needs to stay open. I don't know how true that is now.
  10. JR

    JR Active Member


    Financial issues to one side, do you plan to put a lot of day-to-day time into this venture or would you see yourself more as a consultant?

    If it started to take a lot of your time, couldn't it be an energy drain on your writing?

    Just askin'
  11. wicked

    wicked Well-Known Member

    I guess it depends on what you want to do with it.

    Do you solely want to preserve it?

    Do you want to turn it into some sort of journalism lab?

    Do you want to use it as a spot for young, talented writers, where they can learn their craft from you?
  12. Frank_Ridgeway

    Frank_Ridgeway Well-Known Member

    No offense to any of us -- or to myself -- but I would be asking publishers I know, rather than editors. If it were me, I would start with an ex-publisher I know who briefly was a newspaper broker, although I would not rely on his judgment alone, he'd just be my starting point.

    A few random observations:

    1.) More than 10 years ago I interviewed to be editor of a daily in my hometown, and I sought advice from a wide range of people. One of them -- we had met at that newspaper in 1976 when we were both 16 -- told me that he knew me well enough to know that talent below a certain level would drive me right out of my mind and that the owner would only break my heart. Increasingly, I see that my friend's advice was sound. There is a point at which the potential payoff to my vanity comes at too high a cost to me as a human. And at this stage of my life, how bad of a product am I willing to be a part of? That may strike some here as egotistical -- because obviously someone must work for that paper, some people with less taste than I possess (LOL) -- but self-knowlege of one's shortcomings is part of being an adult, and I am acutely aware of mine. If I think something sucks, I am not very good at hiding my feelings. I am not very patient about making it unsuck. And while I think I am very good at teaching some professionals, I do not enjoy teaching people who lack even rudimentary skills. Other people may be good at developing a staff at that level, but it's not in my toolbox.

    2.) During the same process, I received some excellent overall advice from a small-town editor who had been my mentor at a paper a good deal larger than his current one. But good advice from afar goes only so far -- some issues in other markets simply do not translate to the market in question.

    3.) Same guy in No. 2 had a stint as interim publisher and not long ago I asked him what he'd learned. Quite a bit, it turns out, but the key thing is that what really hurts you are unexpected expenses that you could not have avoided, such as equipment breaking or the roof starting to leak.

    4.) My late father, a newspaper advertising manager, and a few of his colleagues regularly met in our dining room while they considered buying a local weekly together. I was only about 10 and was in the room only to fetch beer and food, so I wouldn't rely on my recollections, but my primary lessons were a.) they were producing a lot of paperwork, b.) they were doing this because they cared about more than money, c.) but they cared enough about money to walk away from the idea even after a lot of work toward it.

    5.) Nevertheless, I've indulged the thought, too. I have a few How To Buy/Start a Weekly books upstairs, but this week a visitor is sleeping in that room and I can't go in there tonight. They're all pretty much the same, though. Worth about what you paid for them to get a general idea. For a narrative on the topic, I like this one:

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