Somewhere, they are still reading newspapers!

The National Newspaper Association (which generally represents weeklies and small dailies in the U.S.) claims that “community newspapers” are alive, well, and prospering. They’ve announced the results of a study done by the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute, which appears to indicate that in smaller markets, people are, possibly, actually increasing their newspaper reading.

NNA Executive Director Brian Steffens said that most of the news about the financial health of newspapers is coming from the largest 100 to 250 newspapers.

“That is just a small slice of the picture,” he said….

Steffens noted that in the most recent study, 77 percent of the respondents rated community newspaper local coverage good to excellent. Since 2005, NNA has had three studies done. Steffens said the results from all three are consistent….

The three studies sampled consecutively smaller markets. The first one tested markets with a population of 100,000, the second study sampled markets with a population of 50,000 and the third study looked at markets with a circulation of less than 25,000.

There’s a graph showing “very often” readership increasing from about 40 percent to nearly 70 percent over the three studies. But of course, these studies are not consistent in the types of markets they examined. Furthermore, the study’s details are not available to you and me; they’re hidden behind the organization’s membership firewall. (Although some details of the 2005 and 2007 studies are available at the Reynolds Institute site.)

It would be nice to look at those details, but I would suggest the reasons the graph trends upward over the three studies is simply that in the smallest markets, you find the oldest readers. If the NNA studied readership in the same markets over a period of time, they’d find the same overall readership decline the largest papers are seeing, especially among younger demographics.

Now (full disclosure here), I served briefly on the NNA board myself, and I know Brian Steffens and some of the current board members. In my interactions with the group, I often heard the mantra that “community newspapers” are doing quite well, thank you very much. And in fact, they probably are, because they tend to be more in tune with their communities and their readers than big dailies. It’s possible this lulls some of them into complacency, as well—in fact, many weeklies and small dailies are still resistant to the idea of offering all, or even any, of their content free online.

There may be a delayed effect, but I believe these newspapers are just as vulnerable to such problems as the inroads of Craiglist on classified advertising and the decline of readership among younger readers as the big boys are, and they should be urgently pursuing solutions by becoming online-driven news organizations.

The good news is their size: small means nimble, and with that comes the ability to innovate, launch quickly, keep a finger on the pulse of the market, react rapidly, and keep things simple. The dinosaurs in big markets tend to have a bit of trouble with those things.