The Newberry News bucks industry trends

Rural newspapers are struggling across Michigan and nationwide.

More than 360 newspapers have shut down the presses for the final time since the start of the pandemic, according to the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism. That’s roughly two American publications ceasing operations a week, consistent with a trend that has existed nationally since 2005. 

It seems like a pretty bad time to buy a newspaper, but that’s exactly what Steve and Carol Stiffler did when they bought The Newberry News in November 2019.

“We purchased the Newberry News to save it from closing forever. It had been for sale for three years, and the owners really wanted to retire. We picked it up at the last minute, and the newspaper didn’t miss an issue,” said Carol Stiffler, editor and co-owner of The Newberry News.

For three-and-a-half years, Carol, her husband Steve and their staff of three have worked to update the newspaper. With new layouts, a new page design and a new lease on its business life, the News is attracting attention statewide – as it was named the Michigan Press Association Newspaper of the Year for 2022.

“I was recording a podcast and Carol was watching the Zoom (announcement) call and she said, 'We won,'” Steve said. “I thought it was a joke. I didn’t think we won and she showed me the results and, yeah, we won. I was completely surprised.” 

The Newberry News team of Dan Hardenbrook, Sterling McGinn, Carol Stiffler, Steve Stiffler and Lauren Burton.The Michigan Press Association awards come out in March, giving judges a chance to review the complete body of work for the year before. Awards are divided between daily and weekly publications and based on publication size.

The Newberry News falls into the smallest category. Regardless of size and schedule, the News was the first Upper Peninsula newspaper to be recognized as Newspaper of the Year since the awards were archived starting in 1994.

In addition to the overall title, The Newberry News won 13 individual awards, including sweeping the opinion and editorial category.

“I guess we’d see Escanaba pick up an award here or there, but never see anything from Iron Mountain or Marquette, so that made it a surprise even more,” Steve said.

The Newberry News also finds success in bucking a major problem for most weekly publications: social media. 

As most newspapers rely on a paywall system, the opportunity for posts to accrue interactions on Facebook and Twitter is low. However, the News uses a number of additional content structures like daily news videos, interviews with local coaches, streaming broadcasts of local sports and a podcast to continue to involve locals. 

Steve said it's a step that makes sense for local media.

“You just do a little research and you see these small mom-and-pops struggling and they're looking for new ways of generating revenue. You also see that very few are exploring the digital side of things. That’s where they struggle," he said. "When you're the only one doing it, there's a huge learning curve, but when they see the goal, the light bulb goes off."

Using multiple brands has also helped the Stifflers better discover how the community wants to receive its news.

First up was the M-123 internet radio stream. The EUP Sports Network was next, which consists of a set of Facebook and YouTube sister profiles to broadcast sports and special events. They also helped start up The Munising Beacon online newspaper during 2022 before selling that entity last Fall. With these options, the News is able to attract new advertisers and reach sister markets in St. Ignace, Engadine, Manistique and Munising, Steve said.

It hasn’t been easy for the Stifflers to focus on the news. Like most small towns, the pandemic hit financially and mentally on top of the health issues. Carol said that readers saw the risk her and her team took on to save the publication and helped as they could. 

“Stores and restaurants were closed, schools went virtual, sports completely ceased. Our ads dried up and the paper shrank to just one section at times,” she said. “That was terrifying, but the community supported us. Some gave donations. Some people bought subscriptions for everyone in their family. Readers sponsored pages — though not content — and made sure we could stay open. That was incredible, given that we were so new to the publication.”

Awards are nice, but not the focus of the publication. 

With Carol’s journalism background from her time at Northern Michigan University and Steve’s sales experience in Little Rock, they learned to put people first. Staffing issues were cited as the main issue in the closing of numerous newspapers from bigger cities to other small towns in the Upper Peninsula, but the staff and contributors said that the owners value those behind the scene and help to avoid employee burnout.

For the Stifflers, it’s just another part of giving back to a neighborly community. 

“We still receive notes of thanks and praise with subscription renewals that come by mail, and I save every one of them. Even community journalism can be heartbreaking at times, and my drawer full of encouraging notes breathe comfort into difficult days at the news office,” Carol said.

Brice Burge is a regular contributor to UPword.
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