Metro Papers Hail Vibrant Community

Posted October 27, 2009 at 3:58pm

When Bruce Robey passed away in September, he left behind more than a legacy as a prominent Capitol Hill resident. He also left a vibrant and — more importantly — still-thriving community media scene.

The Voice of the Hill, a newspaper that he and his wife founded, and its competitor, the Hill Rag, are profitable community-oriented monthlies that are weathering the sea of change in journalism much better than big metropolitan dailies like the Washington Post and the New York Times.

That’s no surprise, according to Jeffrey Potts, principal of JP Media Partners, a firm that specializes in the business of newspaper mergers and acquisitions. Community-based newspapers, he says, “are by far the best source of credible local news and information for their respective community.—

“The big metro dailies have been very beholden to classified advertising, which has obviously gone to many sources online,— Potts says. Community newspapers “have a much lower percentage of classified revenue.—

In 2006, the Robeys sold the Voice of the Hill to Current Newspapers, a local company that produces three other neighborhood-focused publications for the Dupont Circle, Georgetown and Northwest neighborhoods. But nothing significant has changed since Current took over, Publisher Davis Kennedy insists.

“I think a community newspaper is the only source, generally speaking, of unbiased news of that community,— Kennedy says. “It’s broadly read so that everybody in the community at least has a chance to know what’s going on.—

Citing distribution figures, Kennedy notes that newspaper circulation experts cite a 90 percent readership rate in homes to which the Current and the Voice of the Hill are delivered. Furthermore, because the paper is automatically distributed to all single-family homes and townhouses that don’t opt out, the papers have a wide circulation.

“The paper’s main focus is Capitol Hill,— Kennedy says. “People on Capitol Hill have the strongest community focus of any community that we cover. People are interested in their immediate neighborhood, or their immediate community — more so than the city as a whole.—

That kind of strength of community is what seems to allow two small competing monthlies to coexist in a neighborhood of fewer than 40,000 residents. The Hill Rag has been published in some form since the 1970s, while Robey founded the Voice of the Hill in 1999 as an online publication that later expanded into print.

Hill Rag Managing Editor Andrew Lightman attributes some of the paper’s success to the loyalty of local advertisers. “Local businesses are still looking for customers, and we provide more value,— he says. “We don’t have customers; we have friends and partners. I have relationships with advertisers that go back to 1976.—

When asked about increased competition from hyperlocal independent neighborhood bloggers and citizen journalists, Lightman is dismissive. “The level of news that we cover is not something that you can Google on the Internet,— he says. Bloggers, he adds, are “not under any obligation to report the news in any balanced way, or consistently report it.—

Neither paper has yet expanded into the realm of professional blogging or other Internet publishing formats, but the Hill Rag is considering such a move. As for the Voice of the Hill, Kennedy is happy with its current Web arrangement of posting print stories on the Web two days after the print edition hits newsstands.

Still, despite a quaint and almost antiquated way of publishing, both papers remain profitable, according to their management. Neither paper has seen significant layoffs or cutbacks in staff or budget. Lightman says the Hill Rag and its sister publications have been profitable since their inception. Kennedy says this year has been tougher because of the recession, but he’s optimistic.

“Profits are suffering a little bit,— Kennedy says. “We have to see how we look at the end of the year. Last year, we were in the black.—