Ten years ago this week we published the first issue of the Free Press, embarking on a path that has been filled with more highs and lows than the sum of the Flint Hills. When we started, free saturation community newspapers were all but nonexistent in rural Kansas. That’s still true today, but the trend toward free is growing nationwide.
As trail blazers, we’ve learned a lot in these 10 years. Not all of the lessons have been pleasant, but the journey has been worthwhile. As a way to reflect on that path, we’ve pulled together a Top 10 list of lessons we’ve learned in our first 10 years.
10. A free, saturation newspaper has been the best strategy for reaching readers and potential customers in this geographic market. We have the unbiased research data to prove it.
9. Newspapers are quick to trumpet the values of free enterprise and competition—until someone starts a new newspaper in “their” marketplace. We launched this enterprise to fill a journalistic void, and we survive today because we continue to meet a need.
8. It disappointed us to discover that the journalistic ideals of truth, accuracy and fairness often don’t apply when a newspaper’s economic self-interest is threatened.
7. Paid newspapers have an entrenched advantage in the marketplace, thanks to lobbying efforts of the industry over the years. One is that Kansas law defines a “legal newspaper” by whether it charges a subscription or not. Editorial content and circulation coverage essentially are non-factors. A newspaper must be “legal” to publish those required paid notices of public policy changes.
6. When you can get a good newspaper for free, it’s hard to sell a paid one. We learned that for ourselves when we published the Free Press Extra for several years to meet the letter of the law so we could qualify for legal notices. The principle of fair competition was important to us, but it turned out to be an expensive lesson—for us while we published the Extra and for the taxpayers after we stopped.
5. Publishing a free newspaper naturally lends itself to a user-friendly online version. Most paid-circulation papers either charge a subscription for their Web edition or limit the editorial content they upload—or both—to guard the subscription base of the print version. Because we’re free to start with, we can offer total editorial access at no charge. It’s been fun.
4. Publishing a weekly community newspaper is a humbling enterprise. The pressure of unrelenting deadlines is a breeding ground for errors. The adage, though crude, is true: “Farmers can plow under their mistakes and doctors can bury theirs, but journalists publish their mistakes for all the world to see.”
3. The hardest personal challenge in this business is learning to live with the inherent limitations of time, human resources and finances. When excellence is the goal, “room for improvement” is your constant and sometimes oppressive companion.
2. A newspaper is only as good as its staff. If we have achieved anything approaching excellence in these 10 years, it’s because we’ve been blessed with amazing team members who “have it” (solid skills and character) and “get it” (a shared sense of purpose).
1. It is an undeserved privilege to serve the good people of greater Marion County. Our greatest compensation has been the satisfaction that comes with spreading the word of your accomplishments, informing you of news and consumer opportunities, telling the stories of your lives and addressing the challenges we face together. —DR