Saturday, December 20, 2008

Small Weeklies Not So Weak

In this season of “still printing is the new up,” can there really be a part of the ink-on-paper publishing business that is actually growing? Yes, small weekly newspapers are apparently experiencing healthy circulation growth.

The number of “in-county” Periodicals pieces mailed from October 2007 to September 2008 increased 12.8% over the previous 12-month period, says a Postal Regulatory Commission report released this week, while their weight was up 8.4%. Even the July-September period was strong despite the weakening economy – up 11.8% in pieces and 7.4% in weight.

By contrast, other Periodicals (“Outside County”) were down for the fiscal year, 3.5% in number of pieces and 6.6% by weight. Standard flats, the sub-category dominated by catalogs, probably declined even more, but the statistics do not clearly delineate those flats from other kinds of Standard mail, such as letters.

In-county periodicals receive preferential rates in comparison with their nationally distributed cousins. Postal regulations require that they have at least half their circulation within their county of publication and have total paid or requested circulation of less than 10,000. They are typically non-daily newspapers serving small towns or suburbs.

Some of the increases may be from postal-classification changes rather than from actual growth in such publications. The big rate increases of 2007 may have spurred publishers to shift Standard-class publications to the cheaper Periodicals class or to drop enough out-of-town circulation so that they could claim in-county status. It may also indicate a shift toward greater reliance on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver such papers, especially in response to spiking gasoline prices.

Still, local coverage seems to be the last bastion of ink-on-paper news coverage, especially in small towns. The Web has done little to replace small-town newspapers, and broadcast journalism (pardon the oxymoron) has never been up to the job.

So are we going to see members of the recently formed American Society of Shit-canned Media Elites abandoning Manhattan to run weekly papers in places Bug Tussle, Arkansas and East Marrycousin, West Virginia? Yeah, just as soon as they're done with the big George W. Bush Fan Club dinner.

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