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Weekly Papers Delivering In The Suburbs

Two Mecklenburg County suburban weekly newspapers.

This week, some 30,000 Lake Norman-area residents will go to their mailboxes and pick up a newspaper. But this paper isn't one they subscribe to. It's actually free. And that speaks to the health of suburban weekly newspapers all over the country. The Lake Norman Citizen is a paper with a motto: Your Town, Your Newspaper. Except this publication boasts coverage of four towns: Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville. The paper is a year old. That means it was born in one of the worst periods in newspaper history. The industry's financial problems spurred talk of whether newspapers would even continue to exist. Editor Any Warfield laughs about it. "Yeah we got the memo and we ignored it," he jokes. Warfield's paper includes school news, a section for church information - even a list of everyone who got arrested in the past week. "We can provide what you can't get anywhere else," he says. "You're not gonna get track results from Hopewell High School anywhere else but in our paper. We try to get as many local people in the paper as we possibly can. And I think that's important and people like that." Nancy Lane is the president of Suburban Newspapers of America, an industry trade group. "We continue to say that the community papers are the sweet spot of the industry," she says. She says papers like The Citizen popped up left and right over the last 30 years. Some owners had profit margins of 40 percent. "What was behind it was the growth of the suburbs," Lane says. "Lots of new construction. Lots of new communities. And the metro daily was not able to effectively expand with the growing suburbs." As the suburbs have grown, so has the competition. While it's rare to have competing metro dailies, it's not uncommon at all to have two papers covering one suburb. Lane says that's another sign of how well community newspapers are doing. Huntersville gained two weekly papers in seven years. Tucker Mitchell started The Huntersville Herald eight years ago. He saw an opportunity in what had become a thriving suburb. Right away, The Herald included things like honor rolls, vacation Bible school news, even a pet of the week section. "One big difference is that you're generally reporting about things in suburban papers that are not reported anywhere else," Mitchell says. "So that's an exclusive source and people have to go there to find out anything that goes on around them." The papers give local businesses the chance to target nearby residents without having to waste money reaching far away people who'll never use their services. John Ballas owns a chiropractic clinic in Huntersville. For the past seven years, he's spent about $200 a week to advertise in The Herald or The Citizen. "We get about 80 percent of our business within about a five mile radius of our office," Ballas says. "So it really wouldn't be smart dollars spent to advertise on something that is being sent out 40 miles from here." Suburban weeklies differ in several ways from daily papers. Staffs are a lot smaller so workloads can be bigger. It's not uncommon for reporters to write a story, take pictures and assemble pages. Suburban weeklies are usually mailed or hand delivered to every home. And the papers are almost always free, which means a bigger reliance on advertising. But when the recession hit daily papers suffered more. Online outlets like Craigslist hurt the big papers. And Lane, with the suburban paper trade group, says the type of businesses that usually advertise in big metro dailies were the first to cut spending. "Those big, full page ads that come in from the department stores or the national advertisers. . . our community papers were never getting those ads to begin with," Lane says. Lane says community papers were hurt when local car dealers and realtors cut advertising. But on average, community papers weathered the economic storm better than their daily counterparts. Lane estimates that if a city's daily paper saw ad revenue decline by 25 percent, a paper in the suburbs may have only seen a 15 percent decline. But that's not to say community newspapers don't have some challenges. Many are behind the times when it comes to using the Web and mobile technology. And getting up to speed on those things will take significant investments in money and manpower.