South Dakota is pretty great. Now, I am not sure how many people have written those words who weren’t from the Dakotas, but I am here to tell you, South Dakota is great.
That comes from a native Texan and an adopted Kansan. I love my homeland, but South Dakota was somewhere I could see myself living if we ever left the great State of Kansas.
I love newspapers, and South Dakota does, too. Both Dakotas are mostly comprised of family-owned newspapers that are strong pillars of their community. There aren’t a lot of hedge-fund-owned papers up north.
My wife, Lindsey, and I learned that when we made the 10-hour drive north on 81 Highway toward Aberdeen, S.D., for the Dakotas Press Conference, an every-other-year joint conference between North and South Dakota, last weekend.
Our company, Kansas Publishing Ventures, was set to present at the trade show for the first time. KPV sells a book platform to newspapers and self-publishers. We help papers go from start to finish with a community book project to help them develop an alternative revenue stream.
We have a ton of success stories, including our own, but this column isn’t a pitch, but rather a love affair with the Dakotas.
When we arrived, we were greeted with smiles. They even opened the night up with a trivia game that got the group loosened up and ready for the conference the following day.
I was especially excited to catch up with our International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE) friends Tim, Mary, and Jeremy Waltner, who I saw almost as soon as we got in the door (they do incredible work in Freeman, S.D. Tim was largely an inspiration to Lindsey and me to really develop our editorial and opinion sections early in my career. They rock.).
Catching up, I found that conversations were lively around me. People were happy. They seemed excited.
The excitement followed into the next day as the conference really got going. This wasn’t like what everyone says a conference of newspaper professionals should be.
Shouldn’t I be seeing frowns, tons of wrinkled old faces waiting to die, and hear nothing but complaints? Isn’t the newspaper craft dying and only for old people? I seem to read that all the time.
Not in North and South Dakota it isn’t. I am willing to bet many family-owned publishers and the journalists who work under them would agree.
The family-owned papers have their ups and downs. Not every year is amazing, but not every year is bad, either. Generally, they are happy and see a future in their business because they are allowed to guide it. They are involved.
I saw no grim faces in South Dakota. Huh…weird.
We had some success of our own at the trade show, and I felt it was worth it, but instead of packing up and going to see our friends in Minnesota when it ended, I wanted to stick around and hear the Saturday morning breakfast session they had planned—not as a trade show person but as a publisher and owner of community weekly papers.
The panel discussion was featuring four publishers from South and North Dakota newspapers and was titled: “Real news is our business. But will our business still be real in 10-years?”
The aforementioned Jeremy Waltner was one of the publishers on the panel, as were three others I didn’t know well.
I was surprised by the topic. Everyone seemed jovial, and I heard no real complaints about the future of journalism the whole time I was in South Dakota, up until then, of course, so the title seemed odd.
Things began to clear up once it started. The panel talked about loss in population in rural areas and the struggle maintaining circulation during that loss—a fair topic for anyone in a rural area. Not germane only to newspapers, either.
Struggles with digital growth was brought up, as was the constant struggle with rural postal service, but when the floor was opened up, my friend, Tim Waltner, raised his hand, looked at me, and told the crowd about me: a 32-year old who was intensely optimistic about the future of our industry.
He handed the mic to me and asked me to speak to them about some of what we were doing in Kansas.
Not prepared and recovering from a few too many pints the night before (I had some really great conversations that evening, and it might have lasted a little into the morning), I managed a few thoughts.
I said nothing all that interesting or groundbreaking. It wasn’t about me or what I said but about the reaction after I spoke that had me excited. In particular was another young publisher who talked about just buying up a paper and how she was excited for the future and the opportunities it holds. She was seeing growth in her market.
More followed, and the discussion ended very positively. There was discussion of non-traditional circulation growth efforts, ways to use social media to grow circulation and not leach it, and finally, the most important comment of the morning in my opinion.
Jeremy grabbed the mic—also a young publisher, by the way—and told the crowd what everyone should have been saying from the beginning.
I am paraphrasing, but he said the discussion was well and good, all important stuff, but the most important thing, and it isn’t said enough at these things, is that content will win eyeballs. Write really good content, package it in a pleasing way, and charge for it. If you do those things, people will pay for it, and it won’t matter if it is delivered digitally or in print. People want content they can’t get elsewhere, and they want it to be good—really good.
Jeremy hit it on the head. South Dakota is lucky to have such a bright dude.
The reason people from South Dakota were largely happy that weekend, despite a few things here and there they tried to help each other figure out, was they put out really good content, they package it in a pleasing way, and they charge for it. They do that through local owners, who are active in the communities they serve. That doesn’t seem like rocket science to me.
We will be back to set up shop in the Dakotas. If not to try to convince some publishers that book publishing is a great idea but to enjoy the many family publishers in the area. They get it and will continue to flourish, I would imagine.
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