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April 7, 2010, 10 a.m.

Print ain’t dead: How an ad-man-turned publisher is building a local news empire profitably in Texas

John P. Garrett says he worries he sounds like someone from the early 1990s who predicted there would never be a computer in every home. Garrett’s the Texas publisher of seven neighborhood editions of a monthly newspaper called Community Impact Newspaper. And he’s not looking online to grow his business. The difference between him and the Luddite computer naysayer is that, so far at least, he’s been right. His business is profitable, and he’s expanding. His secret to success: attract local advertisers by giving readers relevant content through targeted distribution. And that content is often focused on the sort of local government coverage that newspaper doomsayers say is at the greatest risk.

Garrett left his job as advertising director at the Austin Business Journal in July 2005 after he was inspired by the toll road coverage, or lack of it, in his local newspaper. North Austin is a fast-growing, suburban part of the city, ripe for development. In 2005, the city of Austin had started massive construction on these roads (“they looked like Stonehenge”), but when Garrett turned to his local newspaper he couldn’t find stories on where they were going, or how North Austin residents might use them. “The local papers were very much [covering] ‘the local chess team has made it to state.’ Not that that stuff’s not relevant, but for most people it just isn’t,” Garrett said. His idea: Take the community feel of a local paper, cover neighborhood news the big papers won’t, and focus on business and development stories relevant to a typical resident.

“We write a lot about local government, local development, city business,” he told me. “In the greater Austin area, there’s probably ten different cities. We’re the only news organization that has a reporter at every city council meeting.”

Garrett started his business out of his house, with a $40,000 loan from a low-interest credit card. He hired an editor and writers to take care of the content side; he’d focus on the business end. He’s paid off the debt and now turns a profit. He employs 63 people, including reporters, editors, designers, managers, and ad sales reps. The staff is broken up into teams by location, including at least one reporter, editor, and sales person per area; larger regions get more resources. Three top editors oversee editorial quality across all eight publications.

Direct mail distribution

Garrett says a smart distribution strategy is at least as important as smart content to his success. When we talked, Garrett noted he was on Twitter at that very moment, engaged in a small tiff with Jeff Jarvis, whom he said argues relevant content is the key. “There is talk about hyperlocal content — buzzword, got it. But there’s not enough talk about the distribution of it. [Jarvis] is saying it’s not about the distribution anymore, it’s about relevant content. I’m saying it’s about both.”

When Garrett was preparing to launch Community Impact, he knew he wanted to use direct mail to distribute his product. He’d create targeted editions of his newspapers, print them on high-quality, stitched and trimmed paper, and mail them to everyone in the area. (You can see a copy of the print edition here.) Why not just toss them in driveways? “The Average Joe really hates that,” he told me, and his business is all about reaching the Average Joe (or Jane). He’s skeptical about online ever becoming his primary distribution outlet. “I hope I’m wrong,” he says, pointing out it is cheaper to publish online than mail content. Garrett points to the Huffington Post, which was still not profitable as of a few months ago, as an example of his problem. “If anyone’s made it, it’s the Huffington Post with 9 million in page views. How in the world is going to do it?”

This recipe — relevant content, wide distribution, and local targeting — has turned out to be attractive to local businesses looking to advertise. “We’re winning the local battle and we aren’t the least expensive,” Garrett said. Small ads run $350 to $400 per paper, which he says could buy more than a monthly run in a local paper.

Advertising success

I talked with one of Garrett’s long-time clients, the Austin Regional Clinic, which has locations throughout the Austin area and buys ads in all of the newspaper’s editions every month. Heidi Shalev, marketing communications manager, told me she likes being able to customize ads by community, including a map to the closest location. “We decided it would be better to pull out of the Austin American-Statesman. We can drill down into the niche area community [with Community Impact]. With the Statesman, we can’t speak on a more personal level.” (The Statesman does offer zoned advertising, but in fewer zones and lower distribution in those zones.)

Ken Moncebaiz, owner of K&M Steam Cleaning, a carpet cleaning service in Austin, says about a fourth of his business comes from the full-page ad he buys on the back inside cover of the Community Newspaper editions in his area. Since he started advertising in the paper in 2005, he said his business has doubled from five trucks to ten, and he said Garrett deserves some of that credit. He spends $10,000 a month on the print cover ad and an online ad. In all, he spends $36,000 a month on six or seven forms of advertising, like radio ads, online search ads, and other forms of direct mailing like ValPak. He does about $2.5 million a year in business.

“In Austin, there’s like ten different sub-cities inside of it. That newspaper is so neat because it actually gets to the different subdivision in that area,” Moncebaiz explained. “What our customers love, what they all say is they read the newspaper from cover to cover. ‘It’s free, it tells me all about my area.’ That’s why they love it. The reason I love it is everyone reads it cover to cover. I anchor the inside back cover, no one else is allowed to have it. It’s all mine.”

The original version of this story incorrectly reported the number of employees at Community Impact Newspaper. The correct figure is 63. We regret the error.

POSTED     April 7, 2010, 10 a.m.
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