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


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!



The Best Time to Publish



Non-profit Magazines: Pick Your Date!

Publishing non-profit magazines is bliss – there’s so much freedom! With freedom come choices. One major decision is to figure out when and how often to publish the magazine. It’s very easy to pick a traditional pattern and let the budget direct the choice. Common options for a traditional print magazine are monthly, six times a year or four times a year. All potentially good choices, depending on the purpose of the magazine and the way it is financed.

Two Main Financing Options

The main financing options for non-profit magazines are subscriptions or advertisements or the combination of these two. However, it seems that most often it’s either one or the other. Advertising option requires a lot of effort to sell advertising space, so if the subscription model is functioning, most publications tend to content themselves with it.

This also stems from the nature of many non-profit magazines as a mouthpiece of the association publishing them and the magazine being originally just a bonus for the members. However, many magazines have evolved far from that humble origin and could in fact start to consider themselves as independent publications.

Subscription Model: Reader is the King

In the case of subscriptions, consider the topics of the magazine and when they would be most valuable and entertaining for your readers.

Let’s take Maatiainen, one of the magazines I edit, as an example. It is published four times a year. The main topics of Maatiainen are gardening, animal husbandry and traditional landscapes. The magazine is financed entirely by subscriber income a.k.a. association membership fees. Its publisher is an association, whose purpose is to promote all these topics: Maatiainen ry.

Maatiainen comes out on February, May, October and December. There’s logic to these dates:

  • The first issue of the year is published in February together with a seed catalogue, the latter determining the publishing date for the magazine too. The seed sales are an important income source for the association, so this issue is very important.
  • Second issue comes out in May, just before the summer begins. This is a good time to escort readers to the delights of gardening and husbandry at the beginning of the peak season.
  • Third issue is published in October. It is the time of harvest, afterthought of summer’s activities and preparation to the autumn.
  • The fourth issue is published in December with Christmas theme.

This schedule has its pitfalls:

  • December and February issues are very close to each other, so in practice they’ve being made partly at the same time.
  • February is a bit late for seed orders, as other seed catalogues come out earlier. However, Maatiainen association gets its seeds in later. This is a bit of a problem.
  • There’s a very long pause between May and October issues. There are good reasons for it, though. For Maatiainen subscribers summer is an outdoor season, when reading is not the priority. It takes time after summer vacations to get in the articles from the contributors. And October is the natural harvest season, which gives a good theme for the autumn issue.

In other words there are quite a lot of external factors determining the publishing dates. How would you arrange Maatiainen’s publishing schedule? Let me know in the comments!

Advertising Model: Reader and Advertiser Both at the Throne

Are advertisers your financial backbone? In that case the needs of the businesses should be kept in mind, when planning the publishing schedule. This can be a difficult task in the withering ad markets of the print media.

Different types of businesses have very different needs regarding advertising. Supermarkets look for, if not daily, at least weekly publishing. Fortunately, the slower publishing rate works for the local small businesses. A plumber and a hairdresser are mostly looking for exposure, which suits perfectly for a magazine with more spread out publishing dates.

The other non-profit magazine I’m editing, Oulunkyläinen, is a good example of this.  Oulunkyläinen is a magazine published by Oulunkylä-Seura, a local residents’ association. The magazine is distributed in 11 boroughs and is an important platform for discussion on local issues. It is published as a tabloid newspaper and comes out six times a year.

The publishing months are February, March, May, September, October and late November. There’s a long pause in the summer with this magazine too. The reason for the pause is summer vacation, which keep both readers and voluntary contributors at bay. The publishing dates are set to precede major events: Valentine’s Day and the school winter break, Easter, the end of the school year and the start of the summer vacations, Halloween and the school autumn break, Christmas season. These are all also major commercial opportunities for businesses and thus interesting advertising seasons.

Would a different publishing schedule work better for this kind of magazine? The physical appearance of the magazine seems to arouse one recurring misunderstanding. A tabloid form being connected with daily newspapers, it is difficult for the readers and contributors to understand that the magazine is in fact a periodical. There are similar local magazines in Helsinki published by associations that come out monthly or even weekly.

Next year there will be an exception to the normal publishing schedule. Communal elections are being held in Finland on the 9th April and thus it is important to publish the second issue right before the elections. Why so? There are two main reasons: to have the opportunity to dwell in important community issues on the articles and to get the ever so important candidate advertisements in the magazine.

This brings us to the second main factor of magazines financed by advertisements. It is important to think businesses when planning the publishing schedule, but it is equally important to keep the readers in mind. Because ultimately, the magazine is interesting for the advertisers only, if it is interesting for the readers. With timely, discussion provoking content, which also the readers deem important, it is possible to create and maintain a broad readership.

What is your publications publishing schedule and what’s the logic behind it?