Walt Potter and the Spaar family, owners of The Odessan

The Odessan keeps an eye on digital, but depends on print

Potter Listening Tour

When she was a girl, Betty Spaar slept on newsprint.

She found this was the best option when her parents brought her to the office at night. Her father was a linotype operator during the Great Depression.

Today, Betty is the owner of The Odessan, a weekly paper in Lafayette County, Missouri. She represents the middle generation of five in her family that toil in the printing and newspaper businesses.

Newsprint is still the lifeblood of The Odessan. However, several years ago they established a website to serve their readers’ digital needs. Only the first few paragraphs of stories appear online though. Digital readers are referred to the print product to read the rest of the story.

In fact, Betty’s son John Spaar, the paper’s co-publisher and advertising manager, wants the Potter Conferences to help him find ways to build print circulation.

Print circulation has held up at The Odessan (3,500 paid) until recently, says John’s sister-in-law, Renee Spaar, customer service/office manager. But it’s a different story 10 miles down the road at The Focus on Oak Grove (1,300 paid), another paper Betty owns. The Oak Grove paper has been losing readers as new families move into and around these Kansas City exurban towns. A recent subscription price increase to $40 per year from $34 also is a factor.

Meanwhile, John’s brother Joe Spaar, co-publisher and production manager, is skeptical that The Odessan’s audience in Lafayette County will rapidly turn to the Internet for news. “Print will be around in some form,” he predicts.

Still, the Spaars stay alert to changes. The entire family attended the inaugural Potter Conference in October 2011 to do just that. “We have to keep up,” says Betty.

John, for example, is intrigued by the possibilities the Internet offers in tracking what news and ads the nearly 33,000 people in Lafayette County are consuming and how they consume it. He’d like to hear more about Google Analytics for that purpose.

Betty remembers the benefits of earlier technological revolutions such as the move to cold type printing not too long after her family bought the Odessa paper in 1960.

“I don’t miss hot lead. It was so messy,” she says, recalling her experiences hand setting type for the Western Missouri paper.

The Odessan | Odessa, Missouri | Serving more residents than any other newspaper in Lafayette County | Odessa's only weekly newspaper

Mostly, though, the Spaars appreciate the cost savings and efficiency new technology can bring.

Joe, who proudly avoids owning a cell phone, nonetheless touts the improvement that pagination has brought to his newspaper’s production process.

These feelings about progress in the newspaper business come from a deep family history in the business. The first generation in the profession, Betty’s grandfather W.L. Simpson, worked for Walter Williams, the founder of the Missouri School of Journalism. 

News Editor Hannah Spaar, the fifth generation of the family to work at the paper, has brought back a cornucopia of new ideas from the Missouri School of Journalism — which publishes the Columbia Missourian — from which she graduated in 2013.

She longs to bring the Missourian’s advanced content management system to The Odessan, and she recently drove a redesign of the newspaper. Hannah has started a Twitter account for the paper.

Still, she agrees with her elders: “We dodged a bullet when we didn’t give our news away for free on the Internet.”

If The Odessan were ever to distribute full stories on the Internet, they would most likely use a pay model, but Joe says so far he doesn’t know of any metered approach that has worked well enough.

Meanwhile, Hannah would like to apply new technology to the “Wednesday night crowd” who come by The Odessan office each week asking whether the paper has arrived from the printer yet. She suggested, she says, that her dad post text alerts so those eager Odessan subscribers won’t have to keep calling the paper. But, of course, her dad doesn’t have a cell phone to help do that.

Her dad tells her he’ll have a cell phone when it can be used as a watch like police detective Dick Tracy’s.

It’s unclear what will happen now that the Apple Watch is available.


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