Garrett, 45, launched the weekly San Clemente Times in the Southern California town in March 2006, funded in part by Miller Publishing, where Garrett works full time. The chatty "magapaper" puts a fresh spin on the community paper format, mixing in-depth reports and lifestyle features with popular items such as a weekly ranking of the five hottest local topics. "The idea is to make it fun and interesting, and a quality, journalistic and sound read," says Garrett.
Sensing the idea would be a hit, Garrett bought and reformatted another paper in nearby San Juan Capistrano, and last month he launched a third, the Dana Point Times, from scratch. Sustained by advertising revenue, the free papers have a combined circulation of 41,000, and Garrett projects revenue of $1.3 million by midyear.
Community papers have thrived in recent years, says Brian Steffens, executive director of the National Newspaper Association. A 2006 study conducted by the NNA and the University of Missouri School of Journalism showed that the number of daily papers has shrunk by more than 200 since 1950, while the number of nondaily papers has increased to about 8,000.
Steffens says hard data is difficult to come by, but industry estimates are that many community papers have profit margins above 20 percent. And Steffens estimates that only 40 percent of town papers are part of a larger chain.
Those fat profits have attracted buyers. Among the most active is deep-pocketed GateHouse Publishing Inc., which now owns roughly 200 community papers. The publicly traded company made more than $1 billion in acquisitions in 2007 and bought nearly 100 community papers in the Boston area in 2006.