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Newspaper keeps going with digital transition, staying hyperlocal

Man working at computer.
Photo provided by Ken Engelman.
Ken Engelman readies an edition of McKenzie River Reflections.

The publisher of a weekly local newspaper based in McKenzie Bridge said the shift from print to digital has paid off.

Ken Engelman has been with McKenzie River Reflections since it hit newsstands in 1978. He said three years before switching to mostly digital publication in August 2022, he collected email addresses from everyone he could, through events, direct mailings, and conversations.

Engelman told KLCC that this made a difference.

Man standing in vacant lot.
Brian Bull
Ken Engelman in Blue River, one of the communities his newspaper serves.

“You look around the country, you look around the state, and you hear all these stories about small local newspapers struggling.” Engelman said. “Well, we made the conversion from print to digital subscriptions, and 97% of our print subscribers are now digital subscribers. That’s unheard of.”

Last November, Northwestern University released a study showing that an average of 2.5 newspapers closed each week in 2023. That’s an increase from 2022, which averaged two closures a week. The same study said the U.S. has lost one-third of its newspapers since 2005. Most were weeklies, in areas with few or no sources of information, or “news deserts.”

Engelman said as part of his campaign, he also started sending sample full-color editions of his paper to selected people. After getting positive responses, he offered yearly subscriptions at the same rate as a mailed annual print subscription.

“Some couples had one spouse who wanted a hard copy while the other preferred the e-edition, so I offered a combined subscription for an additional $10 per year,” he added. “Both options were well received, generating about 200 subscriptions.”

Before the switch, McKenzie River Reflections had 725 mail subscribers. Now, there are 704 that have gone digital, said Engelman. While the number of print editions is still 100 a week (150 over the summer), he’s saving $750 per run because of the online format.

That’s roughly $40,000 saved over a year’s time.

Engelman said he hopes other weekly papers follow suit, and suggests they start sooner than later.

“I want everyone to know that success is something that pays off when you plan ahead,” he said.

McKenzie River Reflections is a one-person operation, “with decades in all aspects” according to Engelman. The paper provides local news across the McKenzie River Corridor, with everything from police and fire reports to local sports, history, and hyperlocal news that other outlets don’t cover. Engelman said the paper has become part of people’s lives, and no one wants to see it die.

Engelman has an 11x17 black-and-white and an 11x17 color printer, which lets him produce the print version, which in turn is sold at 16 newsstand locations between Cedar Flat and McKenzie Bridge.

“One customer recently told me he subscribed to the digital version to support the paper, even though he continues to buy one at a café,” Engelman wrote in an email. “Another guy occasionally puts a $20 bill in one of the coin boxes. He said he was doing that because he used to get it in the mail and didn't want me to stop printing the hard copy.”

Newspaper face.
Brian Bull
A recent printed edition of the McKenzie River Reflections weekly newspaper.

Engelman said he wishes other local newspapers would be more receptive to his example, but he’s received no positive responses from people he’s talked to.

“Most have said it's just more work, but my counterpoint is that they should see the savings as a bonus for their bottom line,” he said, “They need to start now, but it will take three years if I'm accurate in my assessment.”

Recently, Engelman added an audio option that reads Reflections articles. He said he’s found making these sorts of changes “invigorating.”

“Which is part of why I'm tired of reading about so many other local publishers calling it quits because they're burnt out,” he said.

As for next steps? Engelman said he plans on adding video.

Copyright 2024, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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