The Mississippi Press Association (MPA) met last week at its annual summer convention in Biloxi to discuss the challenges its newspaper members face in the current economy and marketplace; engage in workshops to improve content, design and revenue; and recognize staff in various award categories (photography, editorials, news, features, etc).

Owners and publishers displayed improved spirits over recent years. No one expects to return to the time when the advertising department "just picked up the ads" from businesses. But many shared the sentiment that the worst of the recession is behind the community newspaper industry. Meanwhile, the investment value into newspaper is growing again.

Over the past six months, seven Mississippi newspapers have changed hands. Tuscaloosa-based Boone Newspapers and Natchez affiliate Carpenter Media purchased The Brookhaven Daily Leader and Prentiss Headlight from Bill Jacobs whose family has owned and operated the Brookhaven paper since 1958. The group also acquired The Vicksburg Post from Pat Cashman whose family founded the publication in 1883. Boone owns and manages 45 newspapers in eight states including The Natchez Democrat.

Emmerich Newspapers bought Kosciusko's The Star Herald from CNHI which owns papers in 23 states and retains ownership in Mississippi of The Meridian Star, the Picayune Item and The Poplarville Democrat. Emmerich owns 23 newspapers in Mississippi as well as two in Louisiana and one in Arkansas.

John Keith sold the Carthaginian to longtime editor Ward Praither. Keith's family had owned the paper since 1909. Former Itawamba County Times publisher Ruby Del Harden recently purchased the Baldwyn News from John Haynes. And Casey Campbell acquired the Wilk-Amite Record from owner Davis Anders. Three more Mississippi weekly newspapers are currently for sale.

Newspapers changing hands can be as much about the personal decision of the owners as the economy, but what has publishers pleased are the going rates which are ticking back toward the higher prices of decades ago than the recent clearance levels from the dual storm of lower advertising revenue, declining subscriptions and poor economy.

While staff reductions and publication cut-backs are familiar stories at many of the nation's large daily newspapers, local papers providing unique content continue to be a source of news and profit, which explains the expanded interest of billionaire investor Warren Buffet into the newspaper industry. Over the past year and a half, Buffet's companies have acquired 29 daily newspapers. In his recent letter to shareholders, Buffet wrote, "Newspapers continue to reign supreme...in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what's going on in your town - whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football - there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job. A reader's eyes may glaze over after they take in a couple of paragraphs about Canadian tariffs or political developments in Pakistan; a story about the reader himself or his neighbors will be read to the end."

It is certainly true in Mississippi. A recent research survey conducted by the MPA found more than seven in 10 Mississippi adults read a printed newspaper each week. In the key "young adults" demographic (18-34), 72 percent read a printed or online newspaper weekly. Printed newspapers are the local advertising source 57 percent of Mississippians rely on most and are the most trusted source of advertising (more than double any other medium). Forty percent choose newspapers (tied with local television) as their top source of news (national television place third at 5 percent). Nearly half of Mississippi adults who use the Internet (76 percent) visit a local newspaper during an average month; 33 percent use their phone or tablet to access the newspaper, and a phone is the top method for young adults to access a newspaper web site.

Nationally, a lot of talk has gone into the transition of printed papers to online papers. All nineteen of MPA's daily newspaper members are online and 70 percent of the more than 80 non-daily members have some sort of web presence. The three division winners for best newspaper web site at this year's convention each have (Neshoba Democrat, Hattiesburg American, Clarion Ledger) some component of a paid online subscription, although like many in the newspaper industry, some stories or a number of stories are free before payment kicks in. According to Press Plus, digital subscription rates are rising nationwide by 39 percent in the past two years which shows people are willing to pay for their news online.

Nationally newspaper revenue dropped 2 percent last year against 2011 and ad avenue decreased by 9 percent, but circulation revenue (including digital subscriptions) grew by 5 percent. In Mississippi, a competitive marketplace, trust and use in advertising with readers willing to pay for unique, local content in the online world dominated by "free" demonstrates strength in the community newspaper industry.



Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.