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‘Still eating’ good advice for newspapers confronting challenges

By Rob Carrigan

His answer was always the same: “Still eating.”

Rain or shine, good times or bad, my grandfather always answered that way when anybody asked him, “How is it going?” or “How are you?” or “How do you do?”

He had other little endearing comments and sayings of course (for example, calling black table pepper the Sioux word for fly poop).

But “Still eating,” was his trademark and it reflected his hardscrabble existence as a homestead rancher on the Western Slope of Colorado.


After years in the community newspaper business, I have adopted a similar stance. Today, circulation is harder to keep up. Advertising is more difficult to find, and it often has to be shared with others. Nobody respects us. And the margins seem thinner than the air at 14,000 feet.

Still, it is a fun business. Something new every day, plenty of interaction in the thick of things and a newspaper knows what’s going on around town. These all are definite benefits. However, we need to turn a profit — or do we?


Another view

Maybe not. Consider media critic Mark Glaser of MediaShift, who makes a case for citizen ownership of the Los Angeles Times.

“Already, a handful of newspapers have survived and thrived owned by charitable trusts as non-profits. These include the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times (owned by the Poynter Institute) and the Union Leader in Manchester, N.H. (owned by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications).

“They’re not setting the business world on fire, but that’s not the point. The idea is for the newspaper to make enough money to continue serving the public, without the pressures of more, more, more profits from Wall Street,” writes Glaser.

As readers take greater control in other ways like helping to create transparent and inclusive newsrooms and becoming more interested in the news gathering process as citizen journalists, it is only a wee leap to run the business-side of things, he contends.

At a smaller scale, it might even be more conceivable.


Serving a need

Jordan Moss, editor of the non-profit Norwood News in the Bronx, N.Y., says non-profit newspapers can be powerful tools that unite communities and shed light on issues overlooked by the mainstream press.

“As media companies continue to merge and grow, the news gets further and further away from ordinary people’s lives and concerns,” wrote Moss in 2002. “Neighborhoods without their own newspapers have little access to local news and information. At a time when urban issues have faded from state and national political agendas, the absence of a widely read record of the issues confronting urban communities is even more serious.”

Personally, I have competed against strong not-for-profit papers and it is an interesting exercise.

Volunteer workforces, inexpensive advertising and far-reaching circulation efforts that were never designed to make money can be tough competition in comparison to charging ad rates that need to keep up with industry norms.

In many cases, these “philanthropic” papers appear because a need exists and the private sector is not paying close enough attention or providing an adequate outlet.


Stymied by MSM

In short, organizers created the papers because they felt roadblocked by traditional media.

Market forces were ignored. The readers, or advertisers, or others, asked for something and when they didn’t get it, somebody figured out a way. Thus, non-profit becomes a viable option.

Maybe the non-profit model is not that far-fetched.

After all, circulation might not be as challenging to maintain. Advertising support might be less difficult to find. If our focus was “philanthropic,” readers could find it in their hearts to respect us. And we wouldn’t have to worry about thinner margins.

We would likely have to slim down a bit.

But as my grandfather was prone to say, we would be “Still eating.”


Rob Carrigan is in the sales and business development group of weekly newspaper publisher Colorado Publishing Co., a Dolan Media Co. unit based in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at