Small is Beautiful – How to Succeed with a Local Newspaper?

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Dear Competitors or Collaborators?

Competition in the mediascape is bloodthirsty. There are basically two options to finance a publication: subscribers or advertisements (or the combination of these two). Either way, funding is limited. How is it then possible, that in northern Helsinki three viable local newspapers are being distributed in overlapping areas and they even have friendly relationships with each other?

The secret is in the content

Oulunkyläinen is distributed partly in the same area with two other local newspapers, Käpylä-lehti and Maunulan Sanomat. These two happen to be non-profit publications as well.

Is there fierce competition? Yes and no. All of these newspapers have their own main geographical area, on which they focus. The surrounding areas are needed, as one area would be too small to keep their heads above surface.  The contents are about the local area contributed by the local writers. This gives a definitive advantage in the eyes of the readers. In a local publication it is possible to take up issues that would never prove newsworthy in a regional newspaper.

The element of competition comes from the advertisement sales.  So far it seems the businesses understand the benefits of getting coverage among a broad local readership. In a smaller newspaper even a small advertisement is visible in a completely different way compared with a larger one in a major regional newspaper, where all ads are lost in the static.

Find your niche!

All three newspapers have distinct focus regarding their content. Oulunkyläinen actively takes up city planning issues and has expert contributors in that field. Oulunkyläinen is also regularly reporting on the local sports and arts scene. Käpylä-lehti focuses on local grass roots issues and culture and Maunulan Sanomat has outlined a clear goal to develop the local residential area in cooperation with the city.

For a local newspaper it is very important to be a platform of the local residents’ voice. Every geographical area has its own issues and that provides a possibility to create a unique image for the newspaper.

3 Styles of Production

I met the two other editors-in-chief, Eija Tuomela-Lehti from Käpylä-lehti and Hannu Kurki from Maunulan Sanomat, to join our forces and discuss about making non-profit magazines in Helsinki.

Käpylä-lehti is distributed in 12 different boroughs and produced by a graphic design company that publishes also other publications and takes care of the ad sales. Käpylä-lehti comes out 10 times a year. The publisher is Käpylä-Seura, a local residents’ association. The editor-in-chief and the producer are the only paid staff.

Maunulan Sanomat is a different type of local newspaper. It is published by a support association of the newspaper. This kind of arrangement grants it quite an independent status. Maunulan Sanomat is put together by voluntary efforts except for the graphic designer, and it is even supported financially by the publishers when necessary. Maunulan Sanomat comes out four times a year and is distributed to three boroughs.

Oulunkyläinen has yet another operating system: it is published by Oulunkylä-Seura (a residents’ association) and has an editor-in-chief and a graphic designer as paid staff. Oulunkyläinen is distributed to 11 boroughs and comes out six times a year.

Clearly there are several options to produce a local newspaper. Depending on the goals and scope of the publication, almost any arrangement seems possible. However, all editors-in-chief agree that the more often the newspaper is published the better. It is desirable for the advertisers and it gives better possibilities regarding the editorial content too.

Lone wolfs or team spirit?

Being an editor-in-chief is a position of responsibility, no matter what size or significance the publication has. There are legal responsibilities, but there are also ethical responsibilities and requirements for the goals of the publication. Because editor-in-chief is the person taking on her/his shoulders both the successes and the failures of the publication, she/he often also takes the full control of the reins of the production. This possibility is also one major factor in attracting editors to non-profit magazines. There is a lot of freedom. But there are also other ways to tackle editorship for the more team spirited.

Maunulan Sanomat has a truly communal production process to put together each issue. The newspaper holds several editorial meetings open to all residents in the area. The meetings are held at Maunulan Mediapaja, a space designated for open residents’ activities. There is a group of interested contributors, who write and photograph for the newspaper and design it together with the editor-in-chief.

Käpylä-lehti and Oulunkyläinen have a more editor-centered system. At Käpylä-lehti, editor-in-chief does the whole newspaper pretty much single handed, even making the first design for the layout. At Oulunkyläinen, the editor makes the decisions on the contents, but there is one editorial meeting before every issue to gather ideas and distribute writing responsibilities. The meetings are an important way to keep contributors motivated. The Oulunkyläinen editor also works in close contact with the Oulunkylä-Seura board.

Pay it forward

There are many different ways to make a non-profit publication. What works for one association, probably wouldn’t work for another, not directly at least. But good practices can always be adapted from those, who have created them. If you have found a good way to deal with challenges of non-profit publications, please tell about it! These publications have an important role in the community; they give a voice to residents and increase the sense of community.

The more the local newspapers are read and valued among the readers, the more advertisers they are bound to attract. And readers are interested in well made, relevant content. If we work together to improve our publications, it will pay off to all of us in the end.

3 Editors-in-chief
Hannu Kurki and Eija Tuomela-Lehti discussed with me the ins and outs of making local newspapers at Cactus restaurant in Käpylä. Photo by Ellinoora Kempe

It was very interesting to talk with the colleagues in the local media scene. Hopefully our discussion continues!

Susan

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