The Digital Gap and Weekly Newspapers

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So you’re a weekly newspaper publisher and you produce a quality newspaper product with original local news and a vibrant editorial page. Your ongoing efforts and commitment have allowed you to control your local news market.  Readers respect you and look to you for the facts – they want you to act as a watchdog on local government, but also to tell them unique and interesting stories about their neighbors. Your subscribers are committed enough to your product that they block off a segment of time on one day each week to read your newspaper when they receive it in the mail. All is blissful in newspaperland.

Then it happens. An energetic and articulate resident of your community has some extra time on his or her hands and starts a local blog that occasionally covers topics of local newsworthy nature.

Soon, instead of the coffee drinkers at the local convenience store buzzing about your most recent editorial, they are talking about a blog post on a specific action taken by the city council and the thread of anonymous but pointed comments about the council that followed.

You thought things in newspaperland were going along just fine and that printing stories and pictures on several big sheets of paper once a week was the best way to distribute the news and bam… it’s like you’ve suddenly been Rickrolled. (But since you aren’t Web 2.0 savvy, you have no idea what being Rickrolled means.)

A digital divide is forming in the weekly newspaper industry and it seems many small town publishers, formerly the movers and shakers of their communities, will not only sit idly by and watch a technology gap form, if recent history says anything about it, they will likely refuse to do anything about the growing chasm. The Web 2.0 is a serious threat to small newspapers that are unwilling or unable to change and those newspapers may soon find themselves branded as irrelevant or out of business.

The early signs are not good for small newspapers. A survey of weeklies in Kansas showed that there were only three weeklies that have blogs and two were actively using Twitter. A real sign of the times was a survey response received from a college town free weekly newspaper publisher – “What is blogging and what is Twitter?”

At a weekly newspaper roundtable discussion during the 2008 Kansas Press Association annual convention, the question of web sites and online news was discussed by the attendees – generally a gray-haired group of news veterans. Many knew they should probably create an online presence for their newspaper, but many also claimed the printed newspaper was a hill on which to die – any online efforts should only be accessories to the print edition.

With that as the baseline, to discuss and promote the potential news applications of the Web 2.0 could be a David vs. Goliath effort. (Though a panel discussion on blogging and news is scheduled for the 2009 convention in April.)

But it is a worthwhile effort. Like a circuit rider crossing the high plains, going from territorial village to village, all we need is a little fervor and an audience and I believe we can get converts to our message.

The opportunities for small town journalism are amazing. A recent blog project on my backroadsnewsroom.com site used a Yahoo Pipes mashup created by the NewsTechZilla gurus that allowed my blog readers to follow the progress of a small group of high schoolers who toured Washington, D.C. and attended the presidential inauguration through a feed on my blog. They tweeted about their adventures and posted video to YouTube. This concept inspired the next online mashup project which will follow another local high schooler on a mission trip to Japan for a week. He wants to tweet about his trip and send Twitpics and video for folks back home to see.

The tweeting of the high schoolers encouraged many local residents to sign up for Twitter accounts (around 35 new rural Kansas Twitter users in just a few days), which has developed new avenues of information sharing among them. Now I’m considering the possibility of trying the first ever Twitter only interview/story for a Kansas weekly. The possibilities are endless and encouraging. The news media will not be killed by the internet, but the way news is dispersed certainly will, because consumers are demanding change. All forms of media will have to evolve to survive.

There are challenges. With the majority of small newspapers being owned by veteran newspapermen or by conglomerate publishing companies, change does not come quickly to either venue. Even learning the lingo of the Web 2.0 can be a daunting task, let alone figuring out how to use everything to its utmost capacity. Add to that the constantly changing nature of the social web and hot new developments within it (Twitter is not even three years old yet and in my opinion makes blogging look old school)… the learning curve could be too overwhelming and real comprehension could be unattainable.

As a result of the Web 2.0, many newspapers will print their last issue within the next decade and be relegated to the microfilm shelves at the local museum. Others will find opportunities to continue their coverage of the news and their dispersal of opinion, just in a new, possibly yet to be invented online format. And some communities will find new frontier bloggers ready to fill the news gap with a responsible rendition of the local news.

The digital gap is a huge canyon for small newspapers, but at least the Web 2.0 offers a bridge to the other side.

Dan Thalmann is owner/publisher of the Washington County News, a 3,000 circulation weekly newspaper in rural north central Kansas. He administers the www.backroadsnewsroom.com blog and can be found on Twitter as @backroadsnews where he tweets about the newspaper, new media and politics.

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2 Comments

  1. Dave Barnes said January 28, 2009 | Permalink

    Wow!

    If true, this “many small town publishers…will…sit idly by and watch a technology gap form…they will likely refuse to do anything about the growing chasm.” is UNbelievable to me.

    Can these owners/publishers be that retarded?

  2. newscoma said January 29, 2009 | Permalink

    Dan, this is a great column and thanks.
    Many folks all around the country are going through this as I have sat through a very similar meeting at the Tennessee Press Association.
    I was at a conference two years ago and many of the publishers/owners were saying the same things about having their online presence enhance their print product.
    I believe that technology just scares the pants off of them, and on a secondary note, they just don’t understand it. The recent ice storm in this area did open a lot of people’s eyes as they realized they could communicate instantly instead of waiting for the deadwood edition comes out.
    I think it’s a process for some of the old schoolers.
    It depends on who will open their minds to the technology available to them.
    Once again, Dan, great post and I love what you are doing with the high school kids.

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