July 28, 2013

If a big paper has little TV competition, it can be a community newspaper

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

When my former assistant Amy Wilson told me last year she was headed back to the Orange County Register, and informed me of the goings-on there, I said, "It sounds like America's largest community newspaper." A few days ago Rory Carroll of The Guardian wrote in his report on the Register, "Staff call it America's biggest community newspaper."

The reasons Rory suggested were different than mine, but they are complementary, and all may be necessary for our near-identical appellations to be true -- and for Aaron Kushner and Eric Spitz, owners of the Register for one year now, to be successful.

The staff's description of the paper was embedded in this Guardian passage: " . . . the key is local news, especially topics such as faith, schools, sports, food and crime. It has about 30 photographers, including trainees. . . . It runs 175 weekly reports, with colour photos, of high school sports – everything, girls and boys, football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis. A separate section covers high school arts. The paper also offered full subscribers a 'golden envelope' allowing them to donate $100 of advertising to their favourite charity."

My description of the Register (circulation 130,000, Sundays 300,000) is based not only on its local focus, but its strong grip on the local-news franchise in Orange County, a market of 4 million people that gets scant coverage from the Los Angeles TV stations and, probably, the Los Angeles Times. If people in Orange County want a lot of news about Orange County, they pretty much have to read the Register, one of its 28 geographic-based weeklies or, soon, the new daily paper that Kushner and Spitz are planning in Long Beach.

The Register's circumstances probably mean that its bold experiment (doubling the size of its news staff to 360, for example) can't be replicated at most metropolitan papers, but it does demonstrate that market-to-market differences provide opportunities for experimentation and exploitation -- and that the skills of community journalism can serve large newspapers, too. For the rest of Rory's story, click here.

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