Coverage of troops helps paper increase circulation

May 1, 2012

FALLON, NV—The Lahontan Valley News saw a spike in its single-copy sales and website visits after its editor, Steve Ranson, embedded with National Guard and Navy units in Afghanistan.

Ranson, who had been in the National Guard for 28 years before retiring two years ago, decided he wanted to embed with local Guard units that were deployed in active conflict zones overseas. He said it took him two years to save up enough to pay for his travel expenses, but he added, it was worth it. He also said he was grateful to his company for giving him the time off so that he could make the trip.

Last November, Ranson spent three weeks embedded with the Navy’s 5th Fleet aboard the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and with the Nevada Army National Guard’s 422nd Expeditionary Signal Battalion at Kandahar Air Field and also with the 485th Military Police Co. at Bagram Air Field. Ranson said he shared the articles he wrote with all the publications in the Sierra Nevada Media Group. He posted his stories online and on his paper’s Facebook page.

From December through January, he noted, the 4,000-circulation Lahontan Valley News saw a 6.3 percent rise in newspaper sales. The Nevada Daily Appeal, which is part of the newspaper group, saw a 4 percent to 5.2 percent increase in circulation during the four issues in which it ran Ranson’s stories.

During his long military career, Ranson said he was never deployed to a war zone. Before his retirement, he decided that when he got out he would find a way of getting over there as a civilian journalist. He said he wanted to cover how the training our military personnel received here at home was being used abroad.

Close to Fallon, NV, is the Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, made famous in the Tom Cruise movie “Top Gun.” Ranson wrote about the local operations and then followed the pilots to Bahrain and then aboard the Stennis, where he did daily updates.

The popularity of Ranson’s posts grew. The number of people who logged on to read his posts surprised him. He estimates between 15,000 and 25,000 people a day were checking in to see what he had written.

Those viewing his posts on Facebook would write back, telling Ranson to be safe.

“A few who knew people stationed over hear would ask if I had met that person. But Kandahar is the size of Texas,” he said.

Even the Navy began picking up Ranson’s stories and posting them with its daily list of military-related articles.

This was important for a small community newspaper, Ranson said. Other sites began posting his stories as well—ones in Bahrain, India, Germany, Britain as well as some others.

In his company’s newsletter, Ranson is quoted as saying: “It has been such a passion for me to tell their story, and because of that, I saved money for two years to pay for the trip,” Ranson said. “I flew civilian airplanes from Reno to Los Angeles and then to London and Bahrain. After five days in Bahrain, I flew to Kabul on civilian aircraft. Likewise, my return trip, which began in Kabul, was aboard a civilian airline.”

In fact, Ranson, who has been with the weekly in some capacity for 25 years, said he is still paying for the trip.

When he first arrived in Kabul, Ranson said it was a Muslim holiday. He was by himself and needed to find transportation to a hotel. At the airport he met some people with an engineering firm who invited him along to their hotel.

“I sat in the back of the car and was told not to look out the window,” he said, because of the possibility of being kidnapped.

Even so, now he is considering going back to cover an aviation unit already stationed there and a transportation company out of Kabul.

“I’ve already received the invite,” he said.

Now that he has the circulation numbers, Ranson said, he will use them to help boost the paper’s advertising sales if he is able to go back for more coverage.

Before, “we promoted the trip to the readers, but not the advertisers,” he said. “Now we can show the circulation increase and can capitalize on the trip to get more advertising.”

He also thought that the company would be able to ramp up single-copy sales of the paper to non-subscribers by using carriers to distribute copies of the issues that have the special military stories to homes not currently getting the weekly.