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Palm Coast Observer Bucks Bleaker Newspaper Trends As Weekly Nears 2-Year Mark

| November 21, 2011

Right brain left brain, or vice versa: John Walsh, left, publisher of the Palm Coast Observer and owner of FX Marketing, and Brian McMillan, the paper's managing editor. (© FlaglerLive)

The Palm Coast Observer is celebrating. The weekly newspaper started almost two years ago with a press run of 20,000, thick in the middle of Flagler County’s most severe recession in the last three generations, and in the midst of the worst newspaper crisis on record. Yet the Observer’s latest audit, for the six months ending Sept. 30, shows an average press run a few copies short of 25,000 for the period, with 20,565 of those dropped in driveways and 4,000 distributed at various rack locations, with a heavy concentration in Palm Coast.

There are 48,600 households  in Flagler County, 35,000 of them in Palm Coast, according to the latest Census figures. For the Observer, that means the weekly is directly reaching 42 percent of all county households, and 56 percent of households in Palm Coast, though the figure is likely above 60 percent when rack copies are included. Besides the boast factor, the numbers are relevant to advertisers, who look for mediums that have the broadest targeted reach. The audit also shows 805 copies delivered in Flagler Beach, and just 375 delivered in Bunnell, at racks (many of which at the county government’s main administration building). There are no home deliveries of the Observer in Bunnell.

The audit, by Larkspur-based Verified Audit Circulation, shows a higher household “penetration”—closer to 70 percent—but its demographics are a few years old. It has Palm Coast’s population at 63,446 and its household size at 27,000, considerably below the Census count. Either way, the Observer’s “penetration” numbers are far healthier than those of the Daytona Beach News-Journal, whose latest audit shows another in a succession of circulation declines dating back to the middle of the last decade. In Flagler County, the paper is home-delivering just 8,839 copies on weekdays, which means that it reaches just one in five households countywide.

“We’re optimistic, we think we’ll continue to increase market share next year and hopefully increase our staff by a couple of people,” John Walsh, the Palm Coast Observer publisher, said. The paper has 23 employees, 10 of them part-timers who deliver the paper once a week. Its newsroom includes Managing Editor Brian McMillan (who also reports, writes the paper’s editorials and a column), and three reporters. The News-Journal closed its Flagler County bureau on State Road 100 several years ago during its retrenchment. It has four reporters covering the county, including News-Tribune editor Aaron London, but their desks are on 6th Street in Daytona Beach.

The Observer’s success stands in contrast with the decline of metro newspapers across the nation, but the Observer is part of a larger trend favoring smaller, community newspapers. It’s one of 7,500 such papers in the country, with circulation below 35,000, most of whose readers have special affection for their community weeklies. When Verified Audit surveyed Observer readers about their reading habits, 90.2 percent of those who received it regularly said they either read it or look through it. In 2010, the University of Missouri at Columbia conducted a nationwide survey of community newspaper readers and found that more than 75 percent read most of their local paper every week. That survey included free and paid-for newspapers.

Brian McMillan in the Observer newsroom. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

“It is more than a little ironic that small-town papers have been thriving by practicing what the mainstream media are now preaching,” the broadcast journalist and USC professor Judy Muller writes in her new book, Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns (University of Nebraska Press).  “’Hyper-localism,’ ‘Citizen Journalism,’ ‘Advocacy Journalism’ — these are some of the latest buzzwords of the profession. But the concepts, without the fancy names, have been around for ages in small-town newspapers.” The citation is quoted in a long piece on community journalism published earlier this year by Stanford University’s Rural West Initiative, which also quotes from a speech by the publisher of a small paper in Oklahoma: “To our readers, we are not the newspaper, we are their newspaper. Down the block at Rogers Mini Stop, we sell more than a hundred papers every week. If our press run is late we get frantic calls from the Rogers family. They have a store full of irate customers who want their papers now…. We all know the traditional reasons — the little stories that never would be considered ‘news’ anyplace else. Our readers really care about those things.”

Words Walsh echoes today as he describes how the nature of the industry has come “full-circle from the wild west, when every small town published a community paper. The transition and evolution went to regional papers, national league dailies continue decline. Community papers nationally show an increase in readership and ad revenue because of the hype-local link.”

Hyper-local, and cheery, because it’s an indisputable characteristic of community journalism that likability and friendliness of coverage have precedence over the watchdog type. Barbara Revels, the county commissioner, summed it up to Walsh while she was interviewing him last month, when Walsh was a candidate for the county’s economic development council. “I don’t think that your guys, your reporters and your paper do hard-hitting, critical stuff, like, let me just say, the News-Journal used to do or when others would zero in on something and didn’t let it drop,” Relvels told Walsh. “So I think of you more as a community newspaper, where you’re reporting all the great things that are going on in the community, you’re a cheerleader of the community somewhat.”

Walsh didn’t dispute Revels’s assessment. He wasn’t chosen for the council: Revels herself worried about the potential for conflicts in Walsh’s dual role, though it may come as a surprise to many readers or people familiar with the paper that Walsh isn’t directly involved in the editorial process. The Observer is part of The Observer Group, a Sarasota-based corporation owned by John’s brother Matt, who runs four  community newspapers in addition to the Palm Coast Observer with his wife Lisa–the Sarasota Observer, the Longboat Observer, the East County Observer in Manatee County and the Gulf Coast Business Review. The template for each is a mirror of the other (the Longboat and Sarasota paper’s combined website, for example, is a virtual replica of the Palm Coast Observer’s but for the content), with the same emphasis on neighborhood news. McMillan actually reports editorially to Lisa Walsh, the group’s executive editor in Sarasota, where Palm Coast Observer content is edited and vetted. (Lisa bought the Longboat paper 21 years ago.)

“In our company, I have the least amount of journalism and publishing experience on the entire staff, including the seven 20-somethings that we’ve hired,” Walsh said, in an interview earlier this year, of employees he watched grow up and were on his first little league soccer team. “My skill set is sales and marketing, entrepreneur, start-up businesses. This is my third start-up. The other two are still operating.” Walsh owns Special FX Marketing, whose offices are adjacent to the Observer’s in the Sunrise Plaza on Florida Park Drive. “My role as publisher and my primary function is to sell the Palm Coast Observer, sell advertising for the Palm Coast Observer, and three is to make sure we’re delivering a quality product.”

Walsh likes to tell the story of a voicemail he received from a reader, Pat Rosenthal, who told him he’d “learned more from the Observer in the last four months than in the last four years from the News-Journal.” That’s not entirely surprising, considering the anorexic look of the News-Journal, and particularly its niggardly coverage of Flagler. Walsh also refers to a letter to the editor in his paper where a reader said the Observer had to be doing something right: the paper had gotten soaked in the driveway from a drench, and the reader had spent 15 minutes blow-drying it with a hair-dryer.

“We’re in a unique space compared to the News-Journal. The space that they’re in serves a different need,” Walsh said. “They’re swimming upstream. The dailies will continue to decline. The maturation of our community is another one of their concerns. They’re approaching us from the outside, whereas the Observer is from the inside.”

“For us, we hear a lot of good things. Sometimes I wonder,” McMillan had said during that same interview. “It’s more likely that people are going to come up and talk to us if they like it, but we hear almost everything positive about the paper. It’s interesting because if you look at the content that’s in the News-Journal, they do have a lot of content that’s related to Flagler County. There’s no doubt about that.” But, he continues, “If I pick up the News-Journal, I see Palm Coast and Flagler County headlines, and I want to read them. If I see a sensational headline from a guy that, a Deltona story, as soon as I see the word Deltona, I turn the page, because it has nothing to do with me and Palm Coast. If you have a publication that everything is about you and Palm Coast, everything is about you, your neighbors, your neighborhood, you feel like that’s your paper.”

(© FlaglerLive)

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24 Responses for “Palm Coast Observer Bucks Bleaker Newspaper Trends As Weekly Nears 2-Year Mark”

  1. Jim Guines says:

    I still get a little upset over the Observer not endorsing Raven Sword when she ran for the school board! I will always believe they made a poor choice I still feel she was the best of the lot, that is why I sponsored her.

  2. George Bowman says:

    I think that the Osberver is just like all other news papers and there life span is going to be short liveded as with all news papers, the problem is these guys are just copying what the News-Journal prints, it is so bad i am glad they stoped leaving them in my driveway just for that reason.i will stay with the News-Journal at least they get the news when it happens. i have spoke with all the people on my street in the W section and they tell people they leave the paper in your driveway and guess what they DO NOT that is some BS they are feeding people they are trying to sell Advertising to Just a ploy to sell ads…


  3. jc says:

    I feel that the Observer is doing a great job as a community newspaper. They are not in the hard news business George, for that matter neither is the News Journal. Most of their articles are copied from other sources around the country. Lets hope the Observer sticks around for a long time.

  4. Craig Cavaliere says:

    Congratulations to the Observer and its staff. The PCO is giving its writers a chance to hone their skills and move on to bigger and better jobs. For selfish reasons, I’d love for them to stay here because it would help keep my softball team (which you may have read about a few times) in tact.

  5. Kip Durocher says:

    I am glad I live in Flagler Beach ~ they quit throwing this junk in my driveway. Now just get that orange thing to follow suit. And the 57 different phone books that I have to throw away.

  6. George Bowman says:

    It was tried by others before did not work then and wont work now, They are making little money off ads printing less and trying to stay alive, the boxes are always empty no more driveway delivery, no a good story for the Oserver!!! not a small town gossip reader

  7. tulip says:

    I like the fact that it is a community newspaper in that we can read bout all the various things going on in our own back yard that would not be otherwise publishes.

    I woudn’t like it much it they started to put in “serious news”, as we can get that from the tv, internet, radio and newspapers.

  8. roco says:

    I look forward to the Observer each week . To me it’s imformative and I hope it continues..

  9. PalmCoastPioneers says:

    Dr. Guines – Yes, we concur, Ms. Raven Swords’ Knowledge , Skills, and Abilities would have been excellent for the School Board.

  10. localguy says:

    I still get the news journal, but i always log on first to Flaglerlive where i get much more analytical coverage of local news. The observer doesnt analyse anything, just prints stuff copied from press releases and other sources, and they dont seem to do any fact checking

  11. Jojo says:

    I’ll stick with Flagler Live any day. You get the news a lot faster than the News Journal and the Observer that’s for sure, sometimes when it’s happening.

    Take for instance the wild fires this past summer, Flagler Live was on top of that pretty dam quick and keeping us informed as to the direction of the winds Can the News Journal and The Observer do that? Sure, but we may have evacuated and what good is those papers sitting on our driveway.

    It’s sad that newspapers are becoming a dieing breed by way of the electronic age.

  12. Craig Cavaliere says:

    I wonder why people are complaining so much about a paper that is free.

  13. Craig Cavaliere says:


    You can get your analyzed news from Flagler Live, if you like the spin put on it. And that’s their choice to mix opinion in with news.

    Brian give his opinion of the news, and they take letters from the residents. Maybe peoples’ expectations are a bit inflated for a once-a-week community paper. Also, Andrew and Mike are in their 20s. I wouldn’t expect highly analyzed pieces from them, nor or they attempting to. Instead, you get a young man’s perspective of sports and the feature pieces from Mike that aren’t found in the News Journal or on Flagler Live.

    Sorry, but I felt the need to step in and defend people I’m related to and have known since they were little kids. How about congratulatory words for a few local people who have done well, not unlike what we would see in the comments section on Flagler Live?

  14. Joann says:

    Contrary to the comments above, I absolutely look forward to the publications from the Observer, both in print and on Facebook. It is informational and interesting, especially for those of us who prefer to read about our own city as opposed to every other state and nation. Excellent job, Observer staff, please keep up the wonderful work!

  15. Lin says:

    Both the Palm Coast Observer and FlaglerLive filled a big void in Flagler County news coverage. I still read the D B N-J but there just isn’t enough there locally. But whenever I read ALL media, I’m conscious of the “analysis” vs. what is news. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference. The “being there now” of FlaglerLive is invaluable but I do try to filter out the analysis. Same with PCO. But thanks for the coverage — truly I know alot more about Palm Coast and Flagler because of PCO & FlaglerLive.

  16. George Bowman says:

    I have been in flagler for over 20 years and i think it is a shame to waste paper on this garbage, Like i said before glad they stopped leaving it on my street and from what i can find out A lot of other streets also.
    I feel bad for the people paying there money to advertise in this paper, before they stopped throwing them in driveways on my street people just picked them up and put them in the trash. I watched this before with the Flagler Times and how they screwed the people advertising in that paper and watching it happen all over again. they are telling you how there #s are up, only a ploy to get people advertising to pay more and get less.

    I say Boycott The Observer dont let this garbage fill our streets Or take money from people for advertising.

  17. Art says:

    If you just want the good news, stick with the Palm Coast Observer. If you want all the news go with FlaglerLive.

  18. George Bowman says:

    I second Flagler Live!!!!!

  19. palmcoaster says:

    So do I.

  20. palmcoaster says:

    To any local business that creates jobs in this county, I wish best success and will support as well.

  21. Layla says:

    I’d have to agree with Art. Flagler Live is the best source for news. The Observer is ok for community stuff and ads. Guess we’re lucky to have both and should support them in any way we can.

    Good thing to remember. The key is support from the community. No business can exist without it.

  22. dealingwithidiots1 says:

    I can’t wait till friday’s when I pick up my copy at the UPS store in Palm Harbor…I love it…I get the news/news from the TV and radio….but the Oberver provides a refreshing take on local news….keep up the good work!

  23. Barbara says:

    Love the Observer, have since it first started publishing here, still get the News Journal but in all honesty its for the adds, then it lines the litter box. Use to get just the Tribune for PC news, I don’t live in Volusia County and am not concerned with what is happening there, but can’t get one without the other so we are captive subscribers.
    Also enjoy FOL because they have info sooner, it’s faster to put something on line than print it and have it delivered. Would be quite pleased if the Observer would become PC’s daily paper we would be happy to pay for a subscription to it (in a community of over 70,000 people, seems off that we have no daily paper of our own, just a section in a nearby County) if that were to happen we would drop the NJ in a heartbeat.
    FYI if you would rather not received the free paper or the orange thing, call them, tell them and they will stop delivery afterall they aren’t aware you don’t want it if you don’t say so.

  24. Agnese says:

    The Observer has more real news twice a week than the “big” papers. I look forward to my observer every tuesday and saturday. Keep up the great work and Thanks !! Also Kudos to Flagler live, also very informative and no fluff, I look forward to the comment section. It’s a great way to know what the community thinks, great job to Flagler live aswell.

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