On the Future of the Greenbelt News Review

| December 11, 2013 | 1 Comment

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Soon after I moved to Greenbelt I realized how important the venerable News Review is to life here, especially compared to the role played by the Takoma and Silver Spring Voice newspapers, for which I wrote when I lived in that area.  Like the GNR, the Voice was free, but just monthly, and it always came out a week to 10 days into the next month.  Residents loved the features but learned not to count on the Voice for news.

But in Greenbelt you commonly hear references to “Did you see it in the News Review?” or “We’ve got to get it in the News Review” because it’s THE announcement platform for everything.  Plus, it’s steeped in history, having published weekly for 76 years without missing a deadline, with a primarily volunteer staff.  But like probably all newspapers in the U.S. (and possibly worldwide), its advertising income is down, and it suffered a $23,000 net loss in 2012, despite its new fund-raising campaign.  So in 2013 the GNR cut salaries almost in half, raised advertising rates, and they now have a tiny positive balance (about $1,000).

But going forward, even with reduced staff expenses and  more donations, the reduced ad income means the paper can’t afford to publish 12 pages, much less the 16 that the staff (and all of us) would prefer.

I and many of Greenbelt’s most concerned residents learned all this at an event held at the New Deal in support of the paper, where again I was impressed with how much people care about the paper, as evidenced by the turn-out and expressions of support and concern.  We also heard from editor Mary Lou Williamson the wonderful story of the paper’s winning case before the Supreme Court, and from Marat Moore what it takes to produce one issue:  109 people and 223 hours of labor.  Marat, who has volunteered for the paper for 12 years now and knows of what she speaks, said “It’s tiring, exhaustive and laborious” work putting out a weekly paper, “late at night, day after day, week after week,” but “the GNR preserves our culture”.  Indeed it does.

The meat of the event was fascinating – suggestions from the attendees for solving the paper’s problems.  Marat Moore did a great job summarizing them in her article on page 9 of this issue so I won’t repeat, except to say that by my count, more than half the commenters asked for more online content – both on the website and via social media.  Several people also requested a full online calendar of Greenbelt events, something that was mentioned frequently by Council candidate Susan Stewart in her recent campaign.  Lots of heads nodded at the idea of such a service, either provided by the GNR or by the city.  (The weekly Going out in Greenbelt on this site covers just a portion of what a full calendar would include.  With the right software, people could add items themselves without staff or volunteer time being consumed by the job.)

What Would a Modern, Fully Digitized GNR Look Like?

A fully functioning online New Review could have that do-it-yourself calendar, with tabs for meetings, entertainment, kids, et cetera, something that Tom Jones said he’d actually created with a grant from the Community Foundation.  (It just needs a home!)  Most importantly, the online GNR would have individual links to every article, which could then be passed around, as news stories are routinely spread by email and myriad forms of social media.  Young readers especially receive and pass along news that way, and Boomers are now the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook.   Articles could also contain external links to stories on the paper itself or elsewhere that broaden the scope of the original story.  (For example, click herehere, and here to read Cindy Henneberg’s terrific three-part history of the News Review.)  And since space is no issue online, stories could be enlivened by countless photos and even videos.

There could be forums, and comment-enabled articles.  As Jeff Lemieux suggested at the public event, there could be blogs!  (I’d be happy to fold this one into such an endeavor, as well as helping produce the paper itself online.)  Of course all the content would be searchable, and easily browsable long after initial publication.  And so on.

All those features would surely help the paper attract more and younger writers.

New Sources of Income?
I did some research to see if a full online presence could increase advertising income for the GNR, and the answer is that maybe advertisers would be more attracted to a modernized paper, but that couldn’t be determined without asking them, and maybe even showing them what it actually looks like and its traffic statistics.  And the suggestion that online advertising itself could bring in much money was not supported by my research, I’m sorry to say.  The consensus seems to be that online ads for papers have come nowhere near making up for the lost print advertising income – and not because advertisers aren’t online.  The problem is that they’re using megasites like Facebook and Google to place their highly targeted ads, rather than buying ads in digital newspapers.

The one bright spot might be charging for local businesses to be included in a Directory within the paper’s website.  This is a successful money-raiser for the Voice newspapers – here’s the main page.   And click here to learn more, including the rates.warren_buffett

In other modern democracies, especially in Europe, newspapers are so valued that they’re being subsidized with public funds, just as the arts are publicly funded there.  Some papers in the U.S. are receiving support from very wealthy donors, or bought outright by one in particular – Warren Buffett.  His company recently acquired 28 daily local newspapers, not as acts of charity but because he believes they’re important and will succeed.  He thinks they’ll succeed if they manage the move to digital correctly – by having both print and online, of course, but charging for both, using the paywall concept first proven successful by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.  Buffett explains in his letter to shareholders that “I believe that papers delivering comprehensive and reliable information to tightly-bound communities and having a sensible Internet strategy will remain viable for a long time.”

dundalk
After the GNR meeting I explained the dilemma to a dear friend who teaches journalism at colleges throughout the region as an adjunct, after a long career as a business journalist. Did he know of any local papers doing well in this horrible age for journalism?  To which he offered one inspiring example – the Dundalk Eagle, a family-owned paper that’s every bit as important to Dundalk as the GNR is to Greenbelt, and it’s on sound footing financially.  They’re surviving by doing exactly what Buffett mentioned – covering local news extensively while using a smart Internet strategy that includes a paywall.  The yearly subscription is $16.98 for print or digital versions.  The website has some content that’s available without subscription, but lots more behind the paywall.  I would totally pay that much a year for the News Review!

 

New Ways to Reduce Expenses?

As an almost completely volunteer operation, it’s no surprise that at least 2/3 of the paper’s expenses are from printing and distributing (at about $124,000/year for printing and about $23,000/year for circulation).  So one possible road to solvency even without charging for the paper would be to print and distribute fewer copies.  We were told at the public meeting about whole bundles of papers that are delivered to apartment buildings being tossed in the trash – ouch!

So one way to reduce expenses would be adopting the method used by other free papers like The Voice and the Beacon – distributing stacks of papers to newspaper-boxes at prominent locations like grocery stores, rather than delivering them door-to-door.  Thus, delivery expenses are lower and fewer copies need to be printed, since only people actually interested in reading the paper take them.

News Coming Soon

We’ll know next month, after the GNR’s board meets to discuss the suggestions made at the public event, how the paper will respond.  Whatever the outcome, Greenbelters are grateful for the enormous public service performed by the incredibly hard-working volunteers, and wish them well in their efforts to ensure the paper’s viability for the next 76 years, at least.

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About the Author ()

Susan Harris has been writing online since 2005 - about gardening. (E.g., Garden Rant, Lawn Reform Coalition, and Behnkes Nursery.) In 2012 she started this community blog for and about her adopted hometown. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland Youtube Channel and does digital promotion for several Greenbelt organizations.

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  1. Kristin E. says:

    Excellent article and good ideas Susan- thank you.

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