Free print media publishers resist digital switchover
Reports of print’s impending death may be greatly exaggerated if the accounts of several local publishers whose products are distributed in grocery stores, gas stations and libraries are accurate.
These publications have seen a drop in ad revenue as people stayed home and stopped spending money – in the short term from the COVID-19 pandemic, in the long term from the movement of news and information to the digital world. But they find other ways to keep printing their products. Publishers were reluctant to reveal too many details about their audiences or revenue. They said, however, that revenue comes from many sources, including memberships, events, sponsored content and, yes, digital extensions of their print publications.
And although they all have their feet in line, they mostly believe that printing is always their first priority.
“We never felt like the sky was falling on us,” said Brad Mitchell, whose Mitchell Media LLC in Hudson publishes three nifty magazines. “There is still a need, and people respect print in our market.”
Mitchell Media, with a group of approximately 18 entrepreneurs, publishes Northeast Ohio Parent, Northeast Ohio Boomer and Beyond, and Walden Life.
Mitchell started Northeast Ohio Parent in 2014 and followed Northeast Ohio Boomer in 2015. Walden Life came in 2021.
Publications, like others covered here, are aimed at niche markets. The first two are for audiences in Cuyahoga County and just beyond, while the third is distributed to 600 homes in Walden of Aurora, a residential community in Portage County. The topics of their articles range from children and schools they might attend or want to attend to where to tackle family health issues or finding events and places to go – all while putting focus on targeted readers, but perhaps not a general audience.
Because the content is so close to home, according to Magazine Media Factbook 2021, their readers are more likely to pay attention to advertisements and believe that the products being advertised are of high quality and relevant to their interests. And their audience prefers print to small screens.
Craig Brooks Sr., publisher of Triumph, which targets the region’s African-American community, agreed.
“I mean, it’s about grabbing something and holding it in your hands,” he said. “Of course, everyone is on social media and plays with their phone. But how many people actually use it? Are you going to read a (long) article on your phone?”
Brooks said he distributed 15,000 copies of Triumph in Cleveland and surrounding suburbs.
“I started the business in 2008 and of course at that time everyone was saying print was dead,” he said. “I mean, here we are, we’re in 2022 now, and nothing has really changed for us.”
The Heights Observer, like Walden Life, is considered a hyperlocal publication because it targets residents of Cleveland Heights and University Heights, two eastern suburbs with a combined population of 64,400 people living in 18,000 households. The Observer deposits 8,200 articles, up from 9,000 before the pandemic, in 250 locations per month. It is part of Future Heights, a nonprofit community organization that serves both suburbs.
Due to its small geography, its advertiser base is close to home. So the publication seems to be working for readers and advertisers.
“It’s fascinating to me that when we get our delivery of the Heights Observer to our library branches, they go crazy,” said Sheryl Banks, marketing and community relations manager for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library. “I just know, for the record, people take it. People read it.”
Banks said the library had been advertising in the Observer for about three years. Nothing else reaches their target audience as effectively, she said.
“Their price is really hard to beat,” she said. “We get this big, beautiful ad for just $450 a month, which isn’t that expensive. If I was trying to advertise in a glossy magazine or one of the bigger newspapers, it there’s no way I’m getting that kind of advertising rate.”
Robert Rosenbaum, co-chair of the Observer Project in Future Heights, said area churches make up a significant portion of Observer advertisers, along with community schools and other nonprofits.
“We also do pretty well in home services, like construction, landscaping, that sort of thing,” he said. “These guys are looking for local markets, and a lot of these types of operators are a bit old-fashioned in the way they operate.”
The Observer also has an online presence, but Rosenbaum thinks the print product will make sense to advertisers at least for the foreseeable future.
“It is cheaper for (advertisers) to run an ad in a print newspaper than to run an ad segmented by postcode on a large online website, whether local or national,” he said. .
Additionally, Rosenbaum added, online is labor intensive for a publication.
“Going online doubles your work and doesn’t double your income, so it’s not an easy equation to just pick up and go online,” he said. “There’s a heavy, heavy capital investment that depreciates faster than a car. Whatever system you put in place today will be obsolete in six months. And you get pennies on every dollar for your ad.”
Scene is one of those larger newspapers that the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Library cannot afford. But the 50-year-old alternative newspaper has also struggled, said publisher Andrew Zelman.
“We weathered the pandemic as best we could while having to make changes and take steps to adapt to it,” Zelman said. “But things are going well overall, both at Scene and at Euclid Media Group.”
Euclid Media Group was formed in 2013 to buy Scene and three other similar publications. It now has nine publications; Zelman is the CEO of the group.
Scene discontinued print publication in March 2020 and returned three months later as a bi-weekly. At the same time that she was shutting down the print publication, she was laying off five employees. The remaining employees have taken pay cuts and all staff have started working remotely.
Zelman said Scene has turned to memberships and sponsored content to boost revenue. Additionally, Zelman told Editor & Publisher, a national publication that tracks media, that Euclid Media Group took out two rounds of federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to help keep staff on the job. and bring back laid-off workers.
It has also strengthened its online presence.
“Over the past 10 years or so, we’ve moved more and more towards an online presence with social media, website and newsletters, and since the onset of COVID, it’s accelerated even further,” a- he declared. “When you have to, you have to adapt.”
The Real Deal Press adapted even before the pandemic hit.
The newsprint monthly that targets the African-American community in Cleveland and inner suburbs went fully online in January 2020, publisher Richard Andrews said. The publication was first published in 1991, although Andrews said it only lasted two years and was dormant until he resurrected it in 2014.
“Going online is great from a traffic and expense perspective; I wish we had done it a lot sooner,” he said. “When we made the switch (online) completely in January last year, we had 23,000 page views that month. As of (January 13 this year), it’s 31,000.”
While other publishers may not be ready to leave print behind, Andrews felt comfortable after talking to a friend who had moved to North Carolina but said he reconnected with Cleveland when he received the Real Deal Press in his mailbox each month.
What struck Andrews was a phrase he used: “platform.”
“You know, you think to yourself, if you’ve been publishing or writing for a long time, you consider yourself a newspaper,” he said. “Then (I told people) we’re a digital news site. But when he said platform, it took me to another level, a community platform.”