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Steve Mullen: Ugly babies have it tough

 

Steve Mullen

 

I came across news of a new medical study that compared mothers'' reactions to pictures of attractive babies vs. ugly ones. It turns out that unconditional love isn''t all it''s cracked up to be: Moms are quick to drop ugly babies in favor of pretty ones. 

 

Unconditional love, it seems, comes with conditions, especially if you have a face only Mom can love -- or at least one you thought she did.  

 

I thought about this while attending the Mississippi Press Association convention in Biloxi last weekend. Not because newspaper people are unattractive. We''re an oddly svelte, radiant, highly desirable bunch. Ask anyone. Think Heidi Klum feeding half-ton rolls of newsprint through a Goss Urbanite printing press. It''s a lot like that. 

 

But sometimes, especially lately, during the economic downturn, newspaper people are feeling like an ugly baby. The news comes crashing in from all sides, like tidal waves on the rocks. Circulation is down. The big newspaper conglomerates are selling off assets, going bankrupt, or worse. Folks are abandoning the ugly print baby for the pretty Internet one. Even Mom doesn''t want us anymore. 

 

At least, that''s the mind set I brought to the convention. I got my start at a very small Mississippi paper: The Oxford Eagle. From there, I worked at some big ones, or ones that acted big, including The Clarion-Ledger and The Bakersfield Californian. 

 

Bigger papers made lots of mistakes over the past several decades, more than I care to rehash here. Suffice to say, they got too big for their britches, and now they''re paying for it with lots of layoffs and cost cuts. Those who are left spend their time surrounded by empty cubicles, trying to figure out how they can be "more local." I was one of them. 

 

I attended a national editors'' convention shortly before coming back to Mississippi, dominated by these bigger papers. It felt like a wake. The speakers were like doctors giving advice to terminal cancer patients. 

 

So imagine my surprise when I sat down in Biloxi, and heard the first convention speaker say these words: "If newspapers nationwide were run like newspapers in Mississippi, they wouldn''t be in the situation they are today." 

 

Of course, he was speaking to a receptive crowd of owners and editors of these very papers. But it was a blatant, unabashed, positive-news comment -- something that I rarely heard elsewhere. 

 

Indeed, the convention had a business-as-usual tone, if not an upbeat one.  

 

Other speakers were sticking by print. Samir Husni, the Ole Miss professor and magazine expert, gave a talk on new technologies in the news industry. To make a long story short, he reminded us that print is a technology, and one with real lasting power. 

 

 

 

Dazed and confused 

 

I admittedly left Biloxi confused. All I''ve been hearing for the past several years is how print is dying, to the point that news organizations should consider abandoning print all together, in favor of the Web. (A few actually have, whether by independent decision or one demanded by bankruptcy). 

 

I felt as if I were waking from a dream -- one in which you halfway know you''re dreaming the whole time. Abandon print? That''s patently absurd. The Internet isn''t making money, at least not now, and newspapers are. 

 

In Mississippi, where access to broadband is low and community newspapers'' reach in their communities is high, it''s easy to see that print will be around for a while. But for how long? 

 

After getting back to Columbus, I dug out some circulation numbers for Mississippi''s roughly two dozen dailies. Of those, about a third actually had higher circulation going into last year than they did several years ago, and several others had decreases so small as to be considered negligible. The numbers are remarkably sturdy.  

 

Of course, the larger papers, including The Clarion-Ledger, have it tough.  

 

"Losses among our largest members are at such a rate that has dragged aggregate circulation of all members down in recent years," Mississippi Press Association executive director Layne Bruce e-mailed, when I queried him about circulation the other day. "When you separate the large dailies (above 20,000 in our book), the picture is much stronger for community papers. In fact, up until just the last 12-month period, gains at smaller papers were mitigating losses at the large. But we had a rough year in 2008 and our last collection of data indicated a 4 percent dip across the board." 

 

Despite that, print is strong. "Our last survey, conducted two years ago, indicated 81 percent of Mississippi adults sampled in the poll read a newspaper in the last week," Bruce said. 

 

And even though circulation might be down, especially at the bigger papers, more people are reading their news than ever before, when the Web comes into play. The Dispatch is among those papers enjoying tens of thousands of hits each month on its Web site. 

 

 

 

The meaning of ''local'' 

 

Another epiphany I had last weekend: You can''t get "more local" than a Mississippi community newspaper.  

 

Most of the people at the convention were publishers -- people who own their papers. At the convention I was happy to reconnect with Joel McNeece, publisher of the Calhoun County Journal in Bruce. (I graduated high school with Joel, and didn''t even realize he was in newspapers).  

 

When it came time for awards to be handed out, Joel''s paper won nine. I don''t think I''m wrong in saying Joel was directly responsible for all of them. He won awards for photos he took, for columns he wrote, for news stories he reported himself. 

 

The night before, he mentioned how he''d like to take a full week off, and ride his Harley across the country. But he can''t take a week off. He has to get the paper out. 

 

That''s about as "local" as you can get. Because of that, Joel''s paper means more to his community than any other news organization ever could. 

 

The bottom line? Know your customers, and give them a product they want.  

 

That''s a recipe for success, in any business. No matter how ugly you are.

 

Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment T Green commented at 6/26/2009 4:39:00 PM:

If you read one Gannet paper on any given day you have read them all.Big time consolidation has hurt newspapers most.

 

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