Oconee County lost another local news and information site on Friday with the closing of The Oconee Leader, the county’s largely free circulation weekly newspaper.
Publisher Rob Peecher announced the decision to close the newspaper in a front-page “note of thanks to our readers and advertisers” in Friday’s paper.
Peecher cited continued financial problems going back several years as the reason for the decision to close the paper. Friday’s was the last edition of the paper.
The statement by Peecher, which jumps from the front page and takes up almost all of page 7 of the paper, is very personal and detailed, with Peecher thanking staff and family members by name for their assistance since he founded the paper nine years ago.
The statement also appears on the publication’s web site.
This is the second local news outlet to close its operation in the last 16 months, reflecting the difficulty of making money on the production of local news and information in today’s competitive advertising market.
At the end of January of 2014, AOL sold its Patch hyperlocal news sites, including the one serving Oconee County, to a joint venture controlled by Hale Global, an investment company that specializes in turnarounds. AOL retained only a minority stake.
The Oconee Patch site still exists (and carries abstracts of this blog), but it is edited by Scott Bernarde out of Gwinnett County.
Stephanie Gross, who had built the Oconee Patch site from shortly after its launch in December of 2010, left the company in October of 2013, and the Oconee County site was being edited by Rebecca McCarthy out of Athens when responsibilities were shifted to Bernarde in 2014.
Peecher started the Leader in 2006 as a free, total market circulation product with an announced circulation of 12,500. He began selling subscriptions only a little more than a year ago.
In his statement, Peecher said that move was only “moderately effective.”
The strategy, Peecher said “dramatically increased the chores without enough of a corresponding increase in revenue to really justify the increased hassle.”
To reduce printing and mailing costs, Peecher stopped sending the paper to all postal addresses in the county and began mailing to only subscribers and targeted postal addresses, selected on a rotating basis.
The paper last year was telling advertisers it was printing 6,000 papers.
Change In Market
Peecher said the paper “weathered the 2008 economic collapse pretty well at first, but by 2011 it was a harder fight than ever to get advertising into the paper, in part because so many businesses had closed their doors.”
When news businesses opened, Peecher wrote, “we saw that a lot of their advertising efforts went to social media rather than the local newspaper.”
Peecher summarized the situation this way: “The money isn’t there in the way we need it to be and the real pleasure of owning and operating this newspaper has gone out of it. Life is too short to spend it doing something that doesn’t bring you joy.”
In an email message Peecher sent me yesterday, he added these reflections:
“(I)t's too much work for too little money to keep grinding along if I'm not enjoying it. That does not mean I'm not sad that it's over, but I'm also relieved. And I'm ready to try something different.”
He did not say what that would be.
The closing of the paper leaves the county with only one established news and information outlet, The Oconee Enterprise.
That paper claims a paid circulation of 4,300 and is the county’s legal organ, meaning it gets legal notices that the county is required to publish.
The Leader only occasionally had reporters at governmental meetings, but Mike Sprayberry did give an overview of local issues, usually from the perspective of Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis, in his City Desk column.
Mary Anne Carroll and, more recently, Johanna Gil-Arroyo, wrote about school and police issues and produced a variety of feature stories about public life in the county.
The closing of the Leader leaves editor Blake Giles and reporter Michael Prochaska of the Enterprise as the only professional journalists regularly covering issues in the county.
Both the Leader and the Enterprise have covered local sports extensively.
Peecher cited the changing media landscape as one of the challenges he had to face as publisher of the Leader, and those changes are dramatic almost everywhere in the country and around the world.
Not only can businesses use the social media to promote their products, but they also can place ads on the social media and in a variety of other places on the Internet and elsewhere.
The resulting competition holds down the rates that the media and these other advertising venues can charge, meaning that, in the case of the media, less money is available for producing news and other content.
Peecher said in his “note of thanks” that he had not increased advertising rates out of concern for the advertisers, but it also is unlikely he could have done so successfully.
The advertising rates of Oconee’s two weekly papers have been comparable during their period of competition, but the closing of the Leader will give the Enterprise the opportunity, in the short term, to raise those rates, probably modestly, for advertisers who want to see their messages on a printed page.
Selling Local Ads
To sell local advertising, a weekly newspaper needs a very dedicated and hard-working sales staff, Peecher said in his comments in the final issue of the paper.
Because the return on that investment is small, Patch has largely abandoned the effort in favor of regional and national advertising. By aggregating the users of its sites around the country, it can appeal to those large advertisers.
According to an article in Digiday in February, Patch was profitable in 2014 because it cut costs and abandoned "Selling ads to mom-and-pop businesses" because they were "too labor-intensive for the amount of revenue they generated."
A small, locally owned newspaper such as the Leader and the Enterprise can only sell its audience to advertisers.