It was a man-bites-dog story.
Young newspaper reporters have typically dreamed of working their way up from a small-town weekly to a big-city daily. The title of Washington bureau chief or foreign correspondent was the pinnacle of success.
Michael “M.E.” Sprengelmeyer had those dreams as early as age seven, when he decided he wanted to be a reporter. But something in the back of his mind drew him toward the small-town roots where he and thousands of other young journalists got their start.
Sprengelmeyer got to the summit, becoming a national reporter and foreign correspondent for the Rocky Mountain News. When the Rocky abruptly shut down nearly three years ago, he went searching for his childhood dream: To run a community weekly.
It seemed a strange quest for a reporter who had been near the top of his profession, but Sprengelmeyer had caught the community itch at a young age. “At 17 I saw a movie called Milagro Beanfield War,” he said. “There was a character who ran a small newspaper and I always wanted to see what a newspaper could be if I ran it.”
Sprengelmeyer’s career had been anything but small town to that point. A graduate of the prestigious Northwestern Univerity journalism program, he had worked at a variety of small- and medium-sized papers before landing at the Rocky in 1999, a month before the Columbine shootings. His career advanced quickly. Within two years he was sent to the paper’s Washington bureau, where he arrived just before the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon. That job morphed into a military beat, overseas assignments and a coveted job as a presidential campaign reporter.
But even as he was setting up the Des Moines, Iowa bureau for the Rocky to cover the 2008 presidential race, he kept searching for the opportunity to take over a small-town weekly. When the 149-year-old Rocky suddenly went up for sale in 2009, he was as surprised as anyone. But instead of wringing his hands, he stepped up his small-town search. “I was hunting for newspapers to buy within a week,” of the Rocky’s closure, he says.
The local Guadalupe County Communicator served up the usual local fare of local government meetings. The paper had a circulation of less than 2,000, but Sprengelmeyer saw potential. Despite its economic distress, Santa Rosa has a disproportionately large base of businesses on Rte. 66. Sprengelmeyer negotiated the purchase, leaving him with just $1,700 in the bank. He told the story of his quest on the blog of former Rocky publisher John Temple.
Changing the Model
Like many local weeklies, the Communicator served up coverage of local government meetings and photos of winning high-school football teams, but Sprengelmeyer wanted to take it to another level. “I kind of had a chip on my shoulder about the closure of the Rocky and I wanted to send a message about what a newspaper could be,” he says.
His first move was to shut down the paper’s website. “Community newspapers have a captive geography. As long as you can keep everyone within 10 miles reading your piece of paper, you can deliver value for your advertisers,” he says. “The Web gets people from all over the world, but you can’t tell an advertiser they’re going to walk in and buy avocados at his variety store.”
He then started investing. He hired a veteran daily photographer on a freelance basis, contracted with local stringers and engaged professional cartoonist Drew Litton. The first issue of the Communicator under Sprengelmeyer’s hand featured a giant photo from the county fair and the first editorial cartoon the paper had ever run. It was a shock to locals, but also a signal that the paper had turned a corner.
You can’t easily find high-resolution images of the Communicator online, but you can get a sense of the layout, story selection and headlines from thumbnails in the paper’s Facebook album. The look-and-feel is big-city all the way, with a clear emphasis on local government, citizen advocacy and people-oriented features. The headlines and story selection are cut from the major metro mold.
“The reaction has been incredible,” says Sprengelmeyer. While some residents miss the point-and-shoot photos of Little Leaguers on page one, most have responded positively to the tougher coverage of town government, crime and local regulations. The Communicator won seven state journalism awards its first year. Sprengelmeyer’s unusual odyssey has landed profiles in The New York Times, CNN and other national media outlets.
M.E. Sprengelmeyer on:
“I hate the word ‘hyperlocal’ when connected to journalism. Journalism is journalism. The term ‘hyperlocal’ has taken on a connotation that it’s something less when the community is involved. We might try to be very, very local, but it’s professional content.
“There are some things going on in California right now where they’re making their papers less relevant at a local level. They’re taking away the one franchise the newspapers have, which is being a trusted institution. The clock tower says ‘This town is owned by the Oakland Tribune.’ I wouldn’t have combined the Tribune into something bigger. I would have split it into four neighborhood papers.
“I’m not in an ivory tower. I’m in a dirt bunker. They need to look at the little guys and think of what they can learn from us, and we need to learn from them.”
“I do not understand why papers on a small scale are doing websites at all, and I don’t understand why a lot of metro papers believe it’s better to compete against the Internet when what they control is their geography. When newspapers were experimenting with their websites you could understand it. But now their click-through rates are going down because people can go directly to a pet store on the Web instead of the local pet store. Why would we want to go from monopoly status to competing with every pet blogger out there?”
The Role of the Local Publisher
“I came here with a mentality of showing the world what we can do with printed journalism. It’s evolved into realizing that this community has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, and the things I could do to shake the politicians into focusing on the right issues and helping the community are more important than that.”
Scrutiny of local officials has ruffled a few feathers, but the newcomer says his outsider status and commitment to fairness has kept the pushback to a minimum. “You smooth out the feathers when you write an accurate, fair story,“ he says. And the Little League photos still run in the Communicator, but no longer on page one.
More importantly, circulation has grown to more than 2,000, or nearly equal to the population of Santa Rosa. Its Facebook page, which was started by a local enthusiast and is now maintained as a joint effort, has been liked more than 1,100 times. Circulation growth has been largest among native Santa Rosans who now live elsewhere. “I’m real proud of that, because we’re a town in economic trouble, where kids grow up, go off to college and settle elsewhere” says Sprengelmeyer. “Now they’re re-connecting with their community.”
Advertising business has grown steadily, if not spectacularly. The publisher’s philosophy is to invest most of the profits back into the property. “When you start cutting expenses to match revenue, you’re on a backwards slide,” he says. A small staff handles advertising sales.
And each week, the new Communicator becomes more embedded in the community. Sprengelmeyer still works seven days a week, but the hourly load has gradually declined. “I’m not banking a lot, but each edition pays for itself and I have enough left to pay my rent and fix my car,” he says.
“I won’t become a millionaire, but that wasn’t the point. The first year was about surviving. The second year was about expanding. The coming year will be fun. This started as a fancy way to spend my life savings in six months, only we’ve gone on for two years. It’s the best thing I’ve done and it’s still left me excited about what we can do next.”
To subscribe to the Communicator, e-mail your info to firstname.lastname@example.org and cc: email@example.com. Order a full year’s subscription and send a check for $30 (U.S. delivery only) to The Communicator, P.O. Box 403, Santa Rosa, NM 88435.
Update 10/29/11: The Communicator won 26 awards and “Best of Show” among small weekly newspapers in the 2011 New Mexico Press Association/Associated Press Managing Editors’ awards.
This entry was posted on Monday, September 26th, 2011 at 2:26 am and is filed under BusinessModel, Local news, Newspapers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.