September 17, 2020

A mini-trend has been brewing for the last year or so: Publications like The Boston Globe, The Star Tribune in Minneapolis and The Post and Courier of Charleston have started launching news reports for markets outside their core cities.

The Globe opened a three-person bureau in Providence, Rhode Island, in mid-2019; The Star Tribune established a beachhead in Duluth last November; and The Post and Courier will add an edition serving Columbia on Oct. 1, to accompany two others launched earlier this year in Greenville and Myrtle Beach.

That represents a 180-degree turn from decades of industry contraction. Papers that once covered entire states like The Des Moines Register or a broad territory like The News & Observer in eastern North Carolina pulled back. A shrinking news staff was needed closer to home, and delivering papers to distant towns, remote from local advertisers, did not offer a business payoff.

Times change and so do business models. It is hardly coincidental that the three most ambitious papers branching out are also top regional performers at building a paid digital subscription base. The Globe has nearly 225,000 paid digital-only subscribers, The Star Tribune has 100,000.

Reaching a new audience with newsletters and possibly a digital subscription fits that forward-looking strategy.

Also, The Globe, The Star Tribune and The Post and Courier are all independent and locally owned.

The Globe was first out of the gate a year ago in June in moving into the turf long served by The Providence Journal. The Journal had seen cuts under ownership by A.H. Belo and then deeper ones since becoming part of the GateHouse/Gannett chain. Only 50 miles from Boston, Providence was ripe territory for expansion.

Rather than dispatching reporters from Boston, The Globe opted to hire three high-profile journalists from within the Providence market.

The experiment has gone well enough, Globe editor Brian McGrory told me in an email, that he is about to “more than double down” with an additional four journalists and a Rhode Island-based marketer.

“We’ve had some notable successes there so far,” McGrory said. “Our daily Rhode Map newsletter by Dan McGowan has tens of thousands of readers and a high open rate. We’ve routinely broken significant education and political stories. And we’ve published investigations by reporter Amanda Milkovits into a well-known local official accused of child sex abuse and a late mayor of Providence, Buddy Cianci, accused of spousal abuse. Pre-pandemic events that we held in Providence brought packed houses.”

Digital subscriptions in Rhode Island have tripled over the last year, he added, and the strongest Providence stories round out a regional report for the rest of the Globe’s readership.

“We hope to drive more growth in RI,” McGrory said, “and consider whether that model can be replicated in other parts of New England that have seen their local news organizations slashed and would benefit from more journalism. But we’re taking it one step at a time.”

The Post and Courier’s push is taking on a broad swath of South Carolina all at once. As I wrote in May, the Charleston paper went to the far end of the state to Greenville, and to golfing mecca Myrtle Beach. President and publisher P.J. Browning said that a staff of five — plus freelancers — was being hired at each place and that The Post and Courier already had 11 in the state capital of Columbia.

That goes a long way toward establishing a statewide presence, but editor Mitch Pugh told me in an email that stories covering all of South Carolina is secondary. “These community newsrooms exist primarily to write local news for local audiences with locally based reporters. So while we will take advantage of synergies as we naturally should, a Post and Courier Greenville reporter is first and foremost focused on providing Greenville news.”

The newsrooms are not producing a complete paper of record, Pugh said so they can be “focused on in-depth, exclusive watchdog journalism.” He offered as examples a Greenville story on cursory attention to detail in many grand jury indictments and one from Myrtle Beach about a speedway gathering that violated the state limit on crowds.

Since August, digital subscriptions have roughly doubled in each market, he said.

The Star Tribune initiative is very similar (editors of the three papers compared notes). The Minneapolis-based paper created a four-person bureau in Duluth, 150 miles away and the anchor city of northern Minnesota, late last year. While it does deliver a print paper in Duluth, The Star Tribune’s emphasis is on a newsletter and building paid digital subscriptions, Steve Yaeger, chief circulation and marketing officer, told me.

The structure allows for cherry-picking high impact stories, he wrote in an email. Particularly notable, Yaeger said, has been “detailed coverage of Mark Pavelich, a local hockey hero who suffered a brain injury (and) experienced legal troubles, over many months.”

There may be more such expansion in the works, Yaeger added. The Star Tribune is eying Rochester (home of the Mayo Clinic) and could expand its presence in next door St. Paul, the other half of the Twin Cities.

Each is served by a hometown paper, he said, but with a depleted staff and news report compared with what long-time readers remember.

A statewide presence has also been a fit for Walter Hussman Jr.’s bold moves with his Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. For two years he has been handing out free iPads loaded with paid digital/e-replica subscriptions, while producing a print paper only on Sundays.

From a Little Rock base, The Democrat-Gazette already had a separate edition covering northwest Arkansas. At the end of August, Hussman’s WEHCO Media, parent company to The Democrat-Gazette, bought the Pine Bluff Commercial from Gannett. It will retain a local emphasis while drawing on The Democrat-Gazette’s coverage of the rest of the state and adopting the predominantly digital publishing schedule.

I am doubtless missing some parallel moves at other papers. (Send me an email tip if so).

Another growing trend is that publications that once competed are now looking for content beyond what local staffing provides by forming statewide or regional reporting collectives. Examples include the 22-member North Carolina News Collaborative organized early this year by The News & Observer and one covering shared climate change issues across Florida.

Sister Louisiana papers in Baton Rouge and Lafayette helped The Advocate in its successful multi-year push to establish a New Orleans base and ultimately buy the rival Times-Picayune.

Advance Local brands its newspaper sites within a given state with names like MLive in Michigan or nj.com in New Jersey. Al.com and its related video and podcast arm Reckon unite Advance outlets in Alabama and cover a wide swath of the South beyond the state.

From a business perspective, I see the recent moves as distinct. The expanding companies are well down the transformation road to digital self-sufficiency. Expenses are relatively modest because a cadre of reporters in a new city can be supported by story editing and digital production capacity at the mothership.

Plus the longer game surely includes a calculation that small and mid-sized chain papers, burdened by high profit expectations and, in some instances heavy debt, are far likelier to cut more from undernourished newsrooms than to build them back.

That’s a definition of an opportunity in which good journalism can open a door.

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

Correction: The Boston Globe has nearly 225,000 paid digital subscribers. An earlier version of this article cut them short by 75,000.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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  • Beachead in Duluth

    Poynter, thanks for covering our industry and giving us an inside-baseball look.

    I am the fifth generation CEO of Forum Communications Company, a family owned newspaper and media company. The Duluth News Tribune and Rochester Post Bulletin are part of our network that covers Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Wisconsin. I wanted to provide some perspective on the market from the vantage point of the local paper.

    Your Sept 23rd story about metro papers expanding, by Rick Edmonds uses the term ‘Beachhead’ in describing how the Star Tribune has ‘invaded’ Duluth. I don’t know if 4 people compared to a newsroom of 35 is a beachhead. I couldn’t even find the startribs home page for Duluth until I went to Google. It appears that they are updating 1 or 2 stories a day that apparently reflect what an editor sitting in a glass skyscraper, deems are important to people having a beer at the Anchor Bar in Superior. In contrast, as the hometown paper, we cover hockey games, local politicians, the school board and what’s the best place to get a burger and a beer.

    The story mentions depleted staff. Our company covers the state of Minnesota; we have a full scale news service adding to our proud newsroom guild, 37002 in Duluth. At 400 dedicated people providing content and news to our audience, they are far from depleted.

    So, is my point here to disparage the StarTribune? No, they are a damn good newspaper and I hope that they continue to succeed, just as we are building for the future by selling print subscriptions alongside digital. We have over 100,000 people paying for digital and we started a little over a year ago. Outside of our home communities, Minneapolis is where most of our traffic comes from. I get it why the Star Tribune is coming into Duluth and Rochester. We love these communities and call them home. And we do not see our home towns as undernourished as the story states. The Duluth News Tribune celebrated its 150th anniversary a year ago and we plan to continue for a long long time to come, providing the breadth and depth of local coverage that the community deserves.

    Bill Marcil Jr
    President
    Chief Executive Officer
    Forum Communications Company