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Print is dead? Not at The Villages Daily Sun

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The Villages Daily Sun, with its large and growing editorial staff of approximately 50, has a weekday circulation of 55,700 - up 169 per cent since 2003.

BT_20180904_KELPRINT4HYZG_3550422.jpg
The Villages Daily Sun, with its large and growing editorial staff of approximately 50, has a weekday circulation of 55,700 - up 169 per cent since 2003.

The Villages, Florida

PRACTICALLY every morning begins with a thud on the driveways of the roughly 50,000 homes here. The newspaper has arrived.

That newspaper, The Villages Daily Sun, which exhaustively covers this rapidly growing retirement community in Central Florida, is in the midst of a boom that few other papers can even imagine. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, The Villages Daily Sun's weekday circulation of 55,700 is up 169 per cent since 2003. Over the same time, weekday newspaper circulation across the United States has dropped 43 per cent. (The Orlando Sentinel, the region's largest newspaper, is down 53 per cent.) And The Villages Daily Sun boasts an enviable 92 per cent market penetration, a figure that is even higher during the winter months, when the community is at peak capacity.

Elsewhere around the country, the industry continues to cough and wheeze its way from print to digital, with layoffs and closings in its wake. Just this week, Pittsburgh became the largest city in the United States without a daily print paper when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced it was cutting its print distribution to five days a week, ending a nearly 100-year history of seven-day-a-week publication.

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What began in the mid-1980s as a 400-unit mobile-home park now has more than 120,000 residents, and many of the newer arrivals say the presence of a robust daily paper is one of the attractions of The Villages.

"The newspaper is one of the things that is promoted when people come to decide if they want to buy a house here," said Millard Johnson, a retired library executive from Indianapolis who moved to The Villages in 2010. "They see this big newspaper - The Villages Daily Sun is three times the thickness of The Indianapolis Star - so it looks like a real paper, like papers used to look. When you see it in The Villages, the newspaper is one of the things that is an attraction."

While the rest of the newspaper industry has spent the past few years trying to figure out how to move readers from paper to screens - and to make money on both digital subscribers and advertisers - The Villages Daily Sun is proudly, defiantly, a print-first publication.

Its marketing materials are written to sway prospective advertisers towards the benefits of reaching their readers through paper. Subscription and newsstand prices are kept exceedingly low. (A seven-day, 52-week subscription is US$76. A similar package for the Orlando Sentinel costs US$312 plus tax.) A recent issue of The Villages Daily Sun included 48 pages of editorial content, 14 more of classified ads, and a 36-page insert that listed the schedules of hundreds of clubs and recreation centres - information that virtually all newspapers now publish only online. The pages were packed with display ads for banks, golf courses, doctors, real estate, restaurants and myriad other retail outlets.

Advertisements for reporter and editor positions boast that new hires will be given the "rare opportunity to focus on journalistic quality without the distraction of digital workflow". With its large and growing editorial staff of approximately 50, the newsroom operates in ways that most newspaper journalists can only dream of anymore.

The paper has a special-projects team, and reporters and editors work on in-depth news articles that may take up to a year to complete. In 2016, a five-person investigative team worked for months examining Florida's death-penalty sentencing policies. The resulting series claimed multiple awards. In addition to reporting, the paper puts considerable resources into design. Last year, The Villages Daily Sun was one of 12 finalists in a competition to be the world's best-designed newspaper, as chosen by the Society of Newspaper Design.

But the investigative powers of the newspaper have their limits; they are unlikely to be unleashed on The Villages itself. The Villages Daily Sun is published by The Villages Operating Co.

Both the paper's publisher, Phil Markward, and the executive editor, Bonita Burton, declined to be interviewed for this article, or to comment on its editorial policies.

It may be a thriving example of what a community newspaper can be, but many of the newspaper's employees cannot live where they work.

Many new reporters are hired directly out of college, and the staff has a large proportion of reporters and editors in their 20s or 30s. Since residents of The Villages must be 55 or older in most circumstances, the younger staff members usually live in nearby towns, and drive to Ocala or Orlando for night life and to interact with people in their own age groups.

Though the paper sees considerable turnover, The Villages Daily Sun is likely to continue to find willing journalists as long as The Villages is developing new swaths of Florida real estate and more retirees are buying in.

"It's a different vibe, way more positive," Nicole Deck, a former reporter for The Villages Daily Sun, said of working at the paper. Ms Deck, now a communications assistant in North Carolina, worked at other newspapers after she left The Villages Daily Sun in 2014 and suffered through the downsizing now common across the industry.

"You feel more comfortable," she said. "You know the paper is doing well, so you're not always worried about getting laid off." NYTIMES