How to Start a Small Newspaper Business

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I moved from Houston, Texas to western Montana in 1992.  That was quite a culture shock for me.  Houston has millions of people and who knows how many businesses, and many billions of dollars flowing through the local economy.  Even in hard times, Houston always has some kind of work to offer.  Montana, on the other hand, has few people, and not so many jobs.

I managed to get by for a couple of years, doing odd jobs and keeping my expenses very low.  Then I decided to strike out on my own.  I had no money saved up, and I had the usual monthly bills every else has to pay.  So any business I might start would have to be “shoestring-friendly,” if you know what I mean.  After doing some research, I decided to start a small newspaper to serve my area.

I checked out, as best I could, the rates being charged by the large daily newspaper that served our region.  I looked into all the businesses in my own community and in the small communities nearby.  There were quite a few very small businesses because the towns and local markets were very small, and the area sparsely populated.  I got printing quotes from the printers within driving distance that could produce a tabloid-sized paper.  I got prices and requirements from the local post office on nearby routes and boxes.  I bought a bulk mailing permit number (now called Standard Rate mailing) and paid the fee for the first year of use.

In those days, digital cameras were only a dream.  None of them took a picture worth keeping.  So I went out and got a decent 35mm camera from a local pawn shop.  Since my only vehicle was a Ford pickup, I went and got a nice, dry, cap for the bed.  it was used, but in very good condition.  I made sure it had a working lock and that the side windows would seal out the rain.

I knew I would need a light table, so I built one using a few flat boards and an inexpensive pane of glass.  I placed a small fluorescent fixture inside for the light source.  I learned how to use my little laser printer to print “tiled” 11×17 pages.  I registered the name of my newspaper with the state as a new business. There were no special permits or license or bonds to apply for. I went and got some business cards that had the name of the paper.  And I was basically set.

I already owned a tiny computer, the little laser printer, a scanner, and small tape recorder.  I had a desk I could use as a work station in the corner of a bedroom.  That became my office.  I already owned an old version of CorelDraw that i could use to build ads.  I also had the photo editing software that comes in the Corel package.  And I had an outdated PageMaker version that would work just fine for building my pages on the computer.

These days, everything is so much easier.  Digital cameras and photos save a lot of time and money that I used to spend on processing and scanning. (Then the printer would have to make halftone negatives, as well.)  And the common use of Adobe PDF files among printers and designers means that paper mechanicals of the newspaper no longer need to be built.  Just put everything on file and email it.  No light tables, no pasting up, no last minute driving in all kinds of weather through mountain passes to the printer.

My routine from the very first week was simple.  I would go out and sell ads to business people who wanted to reach potential customers in the area served by our paper.  I would spend about half a week doing this, in between interviews, changing ads, building new ads, sports coverage (local games in high schools), and other news gathering.  As the end of each week drew near, my wife and I would be typing away, producing articles.  As we went along, I would begin to arrange the material on the pages, placing articles, ads, photos, comics, puzzles, and other items of interest. 

Usually, we would have at least one all-night crunch time per week.  And then we would make the 40-mile-plus trip over mountains and along the valleys to the printer.  A few hours later, we would load our papers — that had been printed, folded and labeled — into the back of the truck and head for home.  Along the way, we would stop and drop off small stacks of papers in stores that had agreed to give us space.  Back in our own small town, we went to the post office, where I sacked up the papers, bundled per route, and paid the mailing fee for that week.  We would then take copies to the rest of the area stores and businesses where readers could find them, and we were done.

Depending on the kind of area a paper serves, the routine may differ.  Some papers travel by bus from the printer to the publisher or mailing service for final distribution.  Some community papers are not mailed at all, except for distant subscribers.  The publisher distributes papers door-to-door or pays a crew to handle that task.  Some papers are almost entirely given out at local retail businesses, office entranceways, and so on.

Our paper was distributed free to the people of our area.  We did eventually begin offering subscriptions to local readers, but I would not do that again.  For a small paper, subscriptions complicate things and add costs.  by keeping a business simple as possible, everyone is better served.  But that is just my own opinion, based on my own way of doing business.

I have no college degree, no special training in journalism, no previous experience as a news publisher.  I began with an idea and a desire to serve the area and its people.  I believe anyone can do the same, and that many will be able to do better.  In fact, many have done both. 

I am retired from publishing now, and only build a few ads and special graphics for others on occasion.  But I am still part of the newspaper adventure in America (both the U.S. and Canada).  A few years ago I set up a website where I go into more detail about various aspects of starting and running a small paper.  All the information on the site is free of charge. Every so often I get word from another successful publisher that started their own newspaper after using our site to help formulate a basic idea and business plan.

If this kind of publishing from home sounds like it might be what you are looking for, feel free to visit my site and learn more.

Jim Sutton lives in Montana with his wife Becky. Jim writes and illustrates for a living.

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