Whatever Happened to Email? That’s Why Local News Needs to Go Hybrid

February 14, 2010

At 7:30, this Sunday morning, I was begrudgingly awoken by a plaintive and incessant beeping coming from a distant room in my house. It turned out to be the very last of our land-line portable phones, the sole survivor of our family’s slow conversion to complete reliance on cellular. We hardly ever use it, and so it had been somehow knocked under a couch where it was left to languish until it had run almost completely out of batteries. And now, on its last leg, it had begun to make this horrid noise, a cry for help asking me to place it back on its charging base.

As I was placing the phone back on its base, I pressed the talk button—purely out of habit—to see if there were any voice mails. Perhaps Publisher’s Clearinghouse had called to let me know that I was a finalist in their ten million dollar sweepstakes. No, even they would have probably known to call me on my cell phone. There was just one message, left on Friday by the mother of one of my youngest son’s friends. She was calling to say that her son, Johnny had left his backpack at our house and wanted to ask if my son would call and make arrangements to return it, otherwise Johnny could expect to turn up at school on Monday with a truck-full of his homework missing, and hell to pay.

I try to respond to all of my messages as quickly as possible, so I was a bit anxious that two days had already lapsed. I took down the number and quickly ushered the phone over to my son’s room where I found him quadruple-tasking on Facebook, Skype, iTunes and homework (or so I’m told).

“Michael,” I said as I laid the number down by his keyboard, “Johnny’s mom called and left a message on Friday saying that he left his backpack here.”

My son didn’t look up from his computer or down at the phone number. The situation obviously didn’t seem all that urgent to him.

“Are you going to send him an email then?” I asked, assuming that this must be how kids communicate these days, since he didn’t really seem interested in using the phone.

Then Michael turned his face around towards me and I saw his eyebrows raise and his nose wrinkle in a look of bewilderment. I suddenly felt a tinge of generation gap syndrome coming on.

“Email?” he said, “Email? Who uses email any more? I’ll send him a message on Facebook chat!” and with this he turned back to his “homework.”

My son is fifteen years old, and he doesn’t even use email, a medium which I still think of as new and cutting edge. How are we going to market to, inform, educate, and entertain an entire community of people like my son, who are already using technology that is two steps ahead of the rest of us? If people in this generation no longer use email, what are the chances that they are going to subscribe to, much less even pick up a local newspaper?

Today, people of different ages access information in drastically different ways. People who are fifteen have different expectations from people who are thirty-five, who have different expectations from people who are fifty-five, and so on. While many people in the older generations still want to be able to hold a physical newspaper in their hands and would be greatly inconvenienced to get their news online, there are also many young people today who have never communicated using physical media and are therefore not even a viable market for printed local newspapers.

Our media culture is in a hybrid phase. So if we are to invent the local newspaper business today, we need to offer a hybrid product that appeals to all different age groups at once. There is still probably quite some time before print media goes totally digital, but there is no telling just how much time is left. By establishing a hybrid model now, the local newspaper industry will be ready to transition to an all digital model when the time comes, ensuring that local news will still be available to future generations.

Think Outside the Newsstand,

Joe

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