As small-town papers try to compete against the internet and the negative impacts of fake news, they’re looking for new ways to fight for their survival and the survival of their peers. Which is why Pennsylvania’s Observer Publishing Company is joining the News Media Alliance.
“We believe in the mission that the Alliance has and the work it’s doing on behalf of newspapers across the country, so of course we’re in,” says Thomas P. Northrop, president and publisher of the Observer.
“Joining the Alliance for us was, first and foremost, a statement of support for the mission,” agrees Matt Miller, the company’s vice president and chief revenue officer. “As an independent, family-owned news media company, we recognize there are many challenges facing us, and we cannot face them on our own. The Alliance advocates on the issues impacting our company and industry, allowing our company to focus on our core business goals.”
The company got its start in 1808, publishing Washington, Pennsylvania’s The Reporter for the first time on August 15 that year. The weekly newspaper became a daily in 1876, as The Daily Reporter. Later, in 1902, the newspaper was bought by John L. Stewart, who, along with E.F. Acheson, formed the Observer Publishing Company.
In 1967, the company merged its primary publications into the Observer-Reporter, which continues to inform readers in western Pennsylvania. The company also publishes Pittsburgh’s The Almanac, as well as a number of monthly magazines and special-interest publications.
Although the company has grown since its initial publication, it has been owned by the Stewart family since 1902. Current publisher and president Northrop is the great-grandson of John Stewart, and he maintains the company’s office in Washington, Pennsylvania, keeping the publication in the heart of the community it serves, even as it has grown significantly.
“I think it’s important that family newspapers survive,” Northrop says. “We’re a part of the community. We cover two counties that, combined, are about the size of Rhode Island and have 22 school districts.”
“I’ll take all the help I can get,” he adds, saying that he hopes to learn more about how other community papers continue to do such important work, even with shrinking staffs and budgets.
As the Observer Publishing Company has grown and added new and more diverse digital products to its stable, it has seen the good and bad that the 21st century has brought to publishers. “I think certainly the internet has had an adverse effect,” Northrop says. “We have more readers now than we ever did before, but fewer of them are paying for the news.” This, combined with the problem of fake news, is one of the biggest problems facing the Observer and other community newspapers just like it.
“I’m just a small voice in a small town in western Pennsylvania, and I don’t have a lot of sway in big national issues like these,” he adds, “so it’s nice to have a group like the Alliance fighting for the same goals and making sure journalism stays alive.”
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.