Don’t call it a comeback. The daily metro newspaper hit bottom in early 2009 when the Rocky Mountain News folded and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer went Web-only, but as online media tries to fill the void left by print’s retreat, is there room for newspapers to try again?
Jeff Mann, publisher and managing editor of the Greenpoint Gazette, a hyperlocal weekly geared toward Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, thinks so. Or at least hopes so. Rather than closing the ailing paper and taking it completely online, he’s giving the dead-tree edition a second chance at being “The Voice of Greenpoint.” And it’s working—kind of.
“One day, you’re waking up and saying, ‘I got it.’ And the next day, you’re waking up and you’re saying, ‘We’re dead,’” he says. He’ll be the first one to say print is dying, but also the first to say it can be revived.
Like most small business owners, Mann, 42, initially lost money on the paper when he bought it along with the Manhattan Avenue building it occupies in a six-figure deal back in June 2007. But now more than four years later, he’s evening out.
So what’s working, and why? Mann’s economics degree from Queens College and years on Wall Street helped him get comfortable with the business side of things. And his time dealing in Greenpoint real estate gave him a solid background about the neighborhood. But he knew little about newspapers and went into this blind with a main goal: to get to know the community better.
He began reading all the free local weeklies he could find to see what they covered and how they told stories. Then he started talking to his readers and, more importantly, listening to what they wanted to read about.
Now that he knew his audience, he focused the Gazette’s content strictly on Greenpoint—home to the city’s Little Poland—with only a few quick reads covering nearby Williamsburg and Bushwick. So he’s not trying to satisfy everyone, just those who want to be satisfied, he says. “It’s not that everybody in the community reads it. It’s [that] the people who do read it are big cheerleaders for the community—they tell everybody what’s going on.”
Over the years, Mann learned key editing principles, like keeping word counts low and using quotes to enhance the story rather than tell it. He manages the paper’s distribution and advertisement sales, too. The rest is up to a copy editor and a small army of paid freelancers, who start with eight articles and build up to roughly a dozen. The final draft of the 32 pages is printed on Wednesday nights and hits newsstands and front porches Thursday mornings, selling between 4,000 to 6,000 copies each week.
One of Mann’s largest struggles, though, has been moving the Gazette online. None of the owners of the paper, started in 1973, ever invested in Web production. So within six months of owning it, he bought greenpointnews.com and gradually built it up. The site averages between 12,000 to 15,000 weekly visitors—10,000 alone who are unique.
Aside from its most popular feature, the community calendar, the site is updated every Thursday. There’s just not enough people, time and money to do it more often, he says. But he pushes the content on Twitter and Facebook, where he says most of the site traffic comes from, and he uses Google Analytics to keep an eye on its growth.
It may be odd to see a newspaper with such a weak online presence, but he’s playing to the Gazette’s strengths. He knows his audience wants print so he throws his resources there instead of trying to grow too fast. And with so little of the Brooklyn press covering Greenpoint, there’s no rush.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and The Brooklyn Paper, whose parent company News Corp. owned the Greenpoint Courier before closing it in March 2009, are too broad to be competitors. Neither is Greenline, a monthly run by the community development organization St. Nicks Alliance, nor the Greenpoint Star, which Mann calls a Queens paper “wrapped in a Brooklyn label.”
Walter Sanchez, publisher of the Star and seven other publications in Brooklyn and Queens, doesn’t disagree. He’s not sure the Gazette’s business model is sustainable, but he appreciates Mann’s keeping the paper hyperlocal. “I think there’s a definite use for it. I think there’s a definite need for it. And Greenpoint’s lucky to have it.”
And maybe that’s why the paper has been sustainable: its focus is so refined that a loyal print readership keeps it a necessary information source in the neighborhood.
John Morton, a veteran newspaper analyst, links the rise of hyperlocal publications to the decline of the daily metro. “The traditional daily newspaper and even some of the traditional weeklies are essentially encouraging this to happen because they’ve been cutting on staff and space and they’re just covering less than they used to,” he says.
A recent study by Pew Internet & American Life Project highlight’s Morton’s point. Researchers found 69 percent of Americans say the shuttering of their local newspaper would have little to no impact on how they get community information. But the landscape is contradictory, as Pew also reported that people go to their local papers first for news about neighborhood events, local government activities and crime.
Those are three topics that the Gazette tends to cover. It helps that Mann has tailored the business model to reflect the climate of the industry, too. Half the paper is filled with original content while the other half is for the sole revenue stream: ads from local real estate businesses, banks and medical offices, as well as national phone and Internet companies.
He outsources the Gazette’s design and distribution, and readers only have two ways to buy the content: through an annual delivery subscription service, which costs $35, or by picking it up for 25 cents at bodegas around north Brooklyn. This essentially keeps overhead costs manageable enough to top.
And right now, that’s enough for Mann. It’s the community he wanted to engage with that kept him from killing the paper when he bought it, and it’s the bond he’s since forged there that’s motivated him to push on.
“It’s a matter of loving what you do as opposed to going for the money,” he says. “Nobody gets into this business or stays in this business for any reason other than because they want to support their community and they’re loving what they’re doing.”
Follow Andrew on Twitter: @katz