No market for a mega-newspaper

Published 8:41 pm Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Jim Oliver, a thoughtful, passionate advocate of regionalism, charted a bold, specific course for Hampton Roads’ economic future in commentary published over the weekend.

His suggestions – ranging from high-speed rail to a university affiliation for Eastern Virginia Medical School – are mostly on point.

One is about two decades past its prime.


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Oliver, a former city manager in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Hampton who now serves on the board of the Hampton Roads Center for Civic Engagement, called for “creating a business plan for consolidating the daily newspapers that currently treat the Peninsula and Southside as if they are two distinctly different nations.”

For myriad reasons, a combined Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press serving all of Hampton Roads won’t happen – primarily because stockholders of each newspaper know that it would fail miserably if they were to try.

In fact, the trend in newspaper publishing is just the opposite. Big newspapers are pulling in, not expanding. The cost of newsprint and delivery make serving a large geographic area prohibitive, especially as subscriber density on delivery routes decreases. Whether a carrier delivers to one house on the block or every house on the block, he’s spending the same amount of money and same amount of time – and must be compensated. As subscriptions decrease, delivery quickly becomes an unsustainable drain on profits.

Also, the marketplace for news and information is increasingly local, which explains why community newspapers like ours have fared well in recent years while metro newspapers have struggled mightily with declining readership.

Warren Buffett, when he began buying newspapers a year or so ago, observed, astutely, that the key to profitability would be to run his acquisitions like community papers instead of big-city papers. He said he would only buy newspapers in communities with a strong sense of place and local identity.

Richmond met his criteria. Meantime, those of us in southeast Virginia can’t even agree on what to call ourselves. Tidewater? Hampton Roads? Coastal Virginia?

That lack of identity may explain why Buffett hasn’t yet bought the Pilot or Daily Press.

A consolidated regional newspaper would struggle even more to report news of common interest. Somebody in Williamsburg doesn’t give a flip about the latest Saturday night shooting in Virginia Beach. A reader in Hampton doesn’t care about squabbling on the Portsmouth City Council.

The enormous popularity of social media such as Facebook and Twitter is further evidence of people’s hyperlocal interests – i.e., the activities of their own circle of family and friends. Even a community newspaper like this one, focused entirely and unapologetically on Suffolk, is challenged to be local enough in our reporting.

That’s not to say newspapers shouldn’t be a key player in the worthy cause of regionalism, defined as the cooperation of all localities for the overall good of the area.

The News-Herald, for example, should continually look for opportunities, through meaningful reporting and commentary, to put in context for our readers Suffolk’s place in the broader region, how this community is affected by the region’s successes and failures, and, most important, how Suffolk can contribute to the region’s vitality.

It doesn’t take a mega-newspaper to advance Oliver’s ideal of a prosperous Hampton Roads.

Steve Stewart is publisher of the Suffolk News-Herald. His email address is