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Hometown news delivered family style by the Miles brothers

By Adam Pribil
University of Nebraska- Lincoln

After a lucky run in an Old West high-stakes poker game, George A. Miles became a newspaper owner.

Terry Miles puts together a booklet with a mechanical stapler while surrounded his children, nieces, and nephews at The Frontier and Holt County Independent in O'Neill, Nebraska.

Terry Miles puts together a booklet with a mechanical stapler while surrounded by his: children, nieces, and nephews at The Frontier and Holt County Independent in O’Neill, Neb. (photo courtesy of Terry Miles)

Since that fateful game, the Miles family has operated three different newspapers in northeast Nebraska, finally resting in O’Neill with the acquisition of The Holt County Independent in 1904.

At that time The Independent was operated in the basement of the First National Bank on Main Street in O’Neill.  The Independent had competition in O’Neill, the Frontier, until Miles acquired that paper in exchange for a property on Main Street.  Miles consolidated the two papers and start running The Frontier and Holt County Independent out of the former Frontier building.

The Independent was passed down through the family and is run by brothers Terry and Tom Miles who took over after their father George (Shorty) Miles died in 2007.

Growing up, Terry Miles was expected to lend a hand in the operation of the newspapers.  He remembers fondly spending his Saturdays folding inserts and taking photos for the paper.  When Miles was 18 he studied printing processes at Central Community College in Hastings, Neb., so he could use his skills at the paper he would own someday.

The Independent is a three-person operation with a tasking list that is quite different from bigger newspapers.  “In a small town newspaper …  you are the photographer, you are the reporter, you are the editor,”  Terry Miles said.

Tom and Terry Miles also split the workload of selling advertising and designing the pages with staff writer Amanda Greger handling the lion’s share of writing and editing copy.

Like newspapers big and small, The Independent has seen revenues drop in recent years.  However, unlike other news organizations, Miles doesn’t attribute this drop in revenues to people switching to online news.  “It’s death,” Miles said.  “My best customer demographic is dying off.”  Miles explains that his more faithful subscribers are senior citizens. And O’Neill’s older population has contracted in the last 10 to 15 years.

As revenues from traditional paper sales have been harder and harder to come by, Miles has had to come up with innovative ways to attract readers.  “You always got to keep your game face on, how can I get new customers.”

One of those innovative ways is that The Independent has started charging for running engagement announcements.  With the charge, however, is a free one-year subscription to The Independent.  This is to try and attract younger families around the community to become faithful subscribers.

Further financial burden on small town newspapers have been caused by advancements in printing technology.  A huge part of a small town newspapers income is contracting printing services.  Printing businesses now offer processed color printing cheaper than the newspaper can. A lot of small town newspapers, including The Independent, contract out their printing to third parties.

Terry Miles sees the future offering challenges and opportunities.  “I think the next 10 years are going to be huge in forms of changes,” Miles said.  The main challenge as Miles sees it is “how do you attract younger readers to your product?”  Miles believes one exciting opportunity is a hunger for well-produced multimedia stories on the Web.  “Imagine actually seeing little Johnny scoring the touchdown instead of reading about it.”

This conversion would be an expensive endeavor offering no certainty of success.  It comes at a time when the Miles brothers contemplate whether the current business model can or should support two owners.

What becomes of The Frontier and Holt County Independent only time will tell.  Sometimes you just have to let the chips fall where they may.

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