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Rochester’s City Newspaper Ducks the Trend

May 10, 2009

Brainfood,Brand Strategy,Insight,media,RAF,Rochester

The “newspaper deathwatch” tale must be the year’s best covered story. In last week’s installment, the Boston Globe faced extinction while Sen. John Kerry convened hearings to discuss how the industry might be preserved (surely a coincidence).

So when you find a newspaper succeeding, it’s worth investigating. Fortunately, we have a hometown example: City Newspaper. They’re pulling off the neat trick of growing total audience while keeping the print side steady at about 100k. In this market and era, that’s noteworthy.

I called up Bill Towler, City’s co-publisher to get the scoop. He and his wife Mary Anna (editor and co-publisher) were nice enough to provide insight on how they’re doing it:

1) Go deep, but selectively. City focuses on a few areas that readers want – politics, urban development, arts – and goes deep. Decades of coverage provide institutional knowledge and the credibility to partner with expert free lancers. Recently, David Cay Johnston reported on Monroe County finances. You know, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, local resident, and expert on tax code. Hard to pull off if you try to cover everything.
2) No shrinking violet. City has a point of view and it’s ok with them if you disagree (trust me). From restaurant reviews to city council coverage, they take a stand and do it with reason.
3) More why, less what. “What happened” has a lot of competition, from CNN to Twitter. With a weekly schedule, City can’t offer that via print. Instead, they do context and analysis.

Each point enables City to strengthen a bond with core readers and stand out from the competition. Yeah, I know. “Choosing to differentiate” is no revelation. But it’s a good reminder that differentiation is rarely one decision. It’s how you come down on thousands of tough choices over years. Shrink the page. Don’t tick off the advertiser with that story. Cut back a bit on local coverage. It all adds up, or detracts.

Resilience isn’t a popular branding concept, but it ought to be.

Matt Jones