Wyoming small newspapers successful despite digital upheaval

Its called hyper-local community journalism, and three Wyoming publishers believe news coverage focused at the local scale holds the key to community newspapers successful future in Wyoming.

October 25, 20197 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

It’s called hyper-local community journalism, and three Wyoming publishers believe news coverage focused at the local scale holds the key to community newspapers’ successful future in Wyoming.

“People can get all the national news they want from a myriad of sources, but we’re covering the Lovell Bulldogs, Greybull Buffs, Rocky Mountain Grizzlies and Riverside Rebels, and we’re paying attention to the events and happenings right here in our communities,” said David Peck, publisher of the Lovell Chronicle, Greybull Standard and Basin Republican-Rustler newspapers.

Robb Hicks is the publisher-owner of the Buffalo Bulletin and owner of the Newcastle News Letter Journal. He equates success of community newspapers to the success of downtown businesses and main streets in the Wyoming small communities.

“I don’t believe it’s competition from digital or Facebook or other outside forces that’s impacting community newspapers,” Hicks said. “If small towns are going to survive, then newspapers will survive. Part of a town is the downtown. It’s commerce. If towns don’t have downtowns, they won’t have newspapers.”

Matt Adelman is the publisher of the Douglas Budget and Glenrock Independent newspapers, which are part of Sage Publishing (with newspapers also in Cody and Gillette). Adelman is also the new president of the National Newspaper Association, the national version of the Wyoming Press Association, the state association for 42 legal newspapers in Wyoming.

Adelman said community newspapers, overall, are not just surviving, but are doing well – and in some cases, thriving — in their communities.

“Community newspapers are really the only true news organization in their communities. We have radio stations and TV; many are reading press service stories or the local newspaper stories on the air,” he said.

Newspapers remain relevant, according to the publishers, because they are trusted as a local news source.

“It’s the trust factor. That’s what makes us different than larger dailies, and it makes us different than medium-sized dailies. People know us, and they trust us,” Adelman said. “Circulation has shifted some toward digital, but people still want the newspaper in print. They want it, period. That’s our secret.”

“We’re just covering the news, and we’re covering as much of it as we can,” Hicks said. “We keep trying to focus on our core product. Where we’ve seen success in Buffalo is when we’ve expanded our newsroom. Our newsroom makes up more than half of our staff.”

“In our papers,” Peck said, “we are using multiple platforms. We print the papers, have an e-edition, Facebook page and web site, and some newspapers are posting videos. We are the information providers in our communities. Right now, at least, print is still the foundation, because it’s a marvelous foundation for the advertiser. You can still open the newspaper and there’s a quarter-page advertisement for the local hardware store. You can’t beat it.”

Peck said there are many web sites, radio stations, and even TV stations billing themselves as local news sources in Wyoming small towns, “but, typically, there’s one newspaper in the community. It gets their attention, because when people are reading the paper, they are focusing on it.”

Adelman said community newspapers give readers “the ultimate” personal and interconnected experience. 

“You can’t get that digitally, or by watching TV news,” he said. “It’s a personal active commitment when reading the newspaper. You have to be engaged to read the newspaper. And the key is keeping everything hyper-local about the community.”

The three publishers each have almost three decades or more of experience in Wyoming community newspapering. They all have lived the highs and lows and the booms and busts in their towns, and all three remain committed to capturing new readers – younger people with young families who work the local jobs in their communities.

“One of the things we hear is the concern of the lack of young readers. My argument is that we’ve never really had the young readers, until they have a house, family, pay taxes … then, they care,” Adelman said. “When they’re buying groceries, taking the kids to the doctor, paying for daycare and trying to make ends meet from paycheck to paycheck, they care. We really never had the young readers anyways until we mattered to them.”

Hicks said community newspapers spend way too much time considering how to reach the 18- to 30-year-old demographic. 

“We fret about it, and we fret about it,” he said. “When these people grow up and they have kids, the news we cover becomes pretty important. It’s their kids’ pictures in the newspapers, and they’re paying taxes. We’ve got to stop worrying about that demographic.

“Instead, we must focus on our areas of strength, the age 35-plus demographic, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cover the things where young people are interested,” Hicks added. 

Peck said community newspapers must keep the hyper-local focus.

“You’ve got to focus on the local,” he said. “The integrity of the print journalist is also absolutely critical. Unbiased, fair reporting and finding the truth is so critical in this day and age of attack web sites and attack TV news.”

Peck said he “absolutely loves his job” at the ripe old age of 60. He followed in the footsteps of his dad, Roy Peck, who along with his brother, Bob Peck, launched many of Wyoming’s community newspapers.

“I can’t have imagined another career for myself. I love being part of my community in this way,” said Peck, who has launched dozens of young journalists’ careers at his community papers. “I don’t have trouble finding people with a passion for journalism. What I have trouble doing is finding people to come to my little bitty towns. Young people want life like it is in Bend, Oregon. They want all the bells and whistles.”

Hicks supports the work of Report For America, a national group attempting to train and place 1,000 journalists by 2025 at local media outlets to report on under-covered issues. Currently, one of his reporters is funded in part by Report For America (RFA), with RFA providing half (up to $20,000) of the reporter’s annual salary in the first year.  If the reporter continues working for Hicks for a second year, more of the salary would be covered by the Buffalo newspaper.

Adelman said more college students are taking an interest in journalism as a career “in all its forms and mediums, especially in the last five years.”

“These kids can write blogs all day long, and they’re finding that nobody reads them,” Adelman said. “Or, they can work in a community newspaper and get immediate feedback, good or bad. These young journalists are making an impact, and it’s through this hyper-local approach. It’s definitely not for the money.”

All three publishers believe the future is relatively bright for community newspapering in Wyoming and other rural western states, where community engagement remains high.

“It’s all about community identity and engagement, and keeping news coverage hyper-local,” Adelman said. 

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