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Maybe the newspaper business is becoming fashionable again

The Claremont COURIER newspaper published 80 pages last week. That’s a lot for us. In fact, that’s a lot for any newspaper in a community the size of Claremont. We simply had a lot of news and advertising.

The COURIER website had a big bump in traffic, too. It was mostly due to our promotion of opening news page access to everyone. We will go back to having a paywall requiring a login for subscribers on June 15. Our goal for now is to let everyone see the great content on claremont-courier.com.

I say all this in light of recent news events wherein Warren Buffett and his company, Berkshire Hathaway, plan to buy 63 daily and weekly newspapers from Media General for $142 million. Mr. Buffett said he might even want to buy more local papers in cities with a strong sense of community (the COURIER is not for sale.)

So after years of doom and gloom, this is good news for the newspaper industry. Although newspaper owners still face many challenges, the point here is that someone who’s pretty good at investing thinks newspapers are a good bet.

Coverage of local news on the Internet is increasing too. Since anyone can be a publisher, there are many ideas floating around on what works best for local news coverage. The new hot term is “hyperlocal.”

The hip thing now is to focus on technology to interact with readers. The bad news is there’s less interest in content once you have reached them. Interacting with readers is a good thing, but they won’t stick around without strong content. That’s why it’s so important to hire good people who bring a strong expertise to reporting news and selling advertising. And unless I’m missing something, these fine people won’t work for free.

Here’s what my buddy Warren says on the subject: “The original instinct of newspapers was to offer free in digital form what they were charging for in print,” he said. “This is an unsustainable model.”

In other words, if you don’t charge for news, you won’t be around long. I’ll add to that by saying…you get what you pay for.

“It's your [newspaper staff’s] job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town,” Mr. Buffett said.

I’ll admit Mr. Buffett may be rich, but he probably doesn’t have much expertise in running a newspaper company. But his thinking is right on.

One thing that may interest Mr. Buffett is a newspaper’s ability to keep readers’ interest. Once someone puts eyes on a newspaper page, they tend to stay longer than other mediums. This is especially true when compared to the Internet, where readers tend to flip around and surf more often. People in the business fondly call this “retention.”

Retention is critical when assessing advertising buys. Advertisers pay a lot of money to have their ads seen by as many people as possible. But paying for advertising doesn’t necessarily mean people will see an ad.

The COURIER has exceptional reader retention. Once someone first opens our newspaper, the large majority will look through the entire issue. If a business advertises with us, over 90 percent of our readers will see that ad. Most newspapers would be very happy with a 30-40 percent retention rate.

As a supporter of Claremont business, what gives me pause is when I see local advertisers using direct mail to reach out to customers. This is the junk mail you get each day with numerous advertisements of all sizes and colors. Some advertisers get sold on junk (I’m sorry, direct) mail because the post office can quote big numbers on homes reached, at a discounted price. Advertising agencies working with big businesses like this medium because it looks great for clients. But how many people actually look through junk mail?

The answer is…not many. In fact, it’s about the opposite of the COURIER’s retention rate. There are a number of surveys stating that less than 10 percent of people sent direct mail advertising actually look at it. This means you have to deliver 9 times more direct mail pieces to equal one COURIER advertisement.

Just like newspapers, direct mail retention rates differ depending on many factors. But the fact remains there are still many advantages to advertising in a local newspaper. You may not see a lot of the big box advertisers, but inside these pages are success stories from businesses that understand how to best reach their community.

I think Warren Buffett understands that, too.

—Peter Weinberger

pweinberger@claremont-courier.com

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