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Small US Newspapers Look for Ways to Survive

The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, all are major U.S. newspapers in financial trouble. The owners of two of those big dailies have threatened to close down, as happened to newspapers this year in Denver and Seattle. As big city newspapers struggle to survive, industry experts say many small community newspapers around the country are doing fine.

As large city newspapers across the U.S. continue to lose money, smaller community-based newspapers are surviving. The larger papers blame their troubles on a loss readership and advertising revenue as more people rely on free news content on the Internet.

Brian Karem, managing editor of the Sentinel, a weekly newspaper serving Montgomery County, Maryland, holds a daily morning editorial meeting to discuss newsworthy topics affecting the area.

Karem disagrees with the theory that the Internet is to blame. He says the larger papers have lost their focus. "It boils down to this. If you are not putting something out there that people want to read, you are going to go away," he said. "So, quit covering press releases, quit pandering to the lowest common denominator, go out and dig up news that nobody else has."

The Sentinel was first published in 1855. Today, it serves almost one million residents in suburban Washington D.C. Montgomery County is a mix of old, new, suburban and rural communities.

Gone are the days when newspapers were set for print by pasting stories and photographs on a board.

Everything now is done on computer. The Sentinel prints 10,000 copies every week. Recently, the paper has started publishing online. Karem says the 21st century media environment has forced the Sentinel to change its business model. "You know, things in this day and age happen like this [Snaps his fingers]. So, you have to have an online presence, you have to update it, you have to be there all the time," he asserts.

Karem says the mistake many larger papers make is trying to be all things to all people. He says the key to success is knowing what your audience wants and focusing on it.

"I aspire to be, in Montgomery County, the one-stop-shop [the place for readers to go] for information in Montgomery County. You want to know what is going on crime-wise, click the Montgomery County Sentinel. I want to go out to eat tonight, the Montgomery County Sentinel. But instead of picking it up in our newspaper, go to our Web site," he said.

Mark Jurkowitz with the Project for Excellence in Journalism agrees. "They are pretty well positioned," Jurkowitz said. "I mean, the idea of having a specialized niche, of providing a specialized product, news product that other people don't provide is going to be very much important and very much a precious commodity."

Karem says online readership is steadily increasing. The Sentinel is still financially dependent on advertising in the print version. He is looking for new online advertisers. "I think there is growth in this industry and I think there is room in this industry. And I think this industry will survive," he said.