Can Local Newspapers Afford to Report in Real Time?

May 19, 2010

Or rather, can they afford not to? People in the digital world expect information to be delivered right away, as soon as events happen. But local news papers are too strapped for resources to make this happen. What’s the solution?

In order to deepen my understanding of the issues that we’re trying to tackle here at CivicEdition, I decided to perform interviews with editors at a few local newspapers. I purposely chose local newspapers that were in different stages of the process of opening up an online edition. Some were simply thinking about going online, while others were in the middle of the process, and a few had actually just begun publishing an online edition.

Here is what I learned:

Most local newspapers service very small communities–generally between 6,500 and 30,000 people–and they usually only have a small handful of full time employees to take care of the load of news that they need to deliver, although they may also hire editors and reporters on a per job basis. The most important thing however, that I noticed was that most of these local newspapers did not have the resources to take on additional staff for the transition to online news. They had to share the burden among their small teams of employees, usually without hiring even one extra person.

On top of this, these local news organizations are now expected to deliver information in real time, rather than once a week. Hence, they’re under more pressure than ever before. Compound this with the fact that many of the stories that they report on happen in the evening–when news workers expect to have their time to themselves–and you can begin to see how overloaded with work local newsrooms are becoming in the digital age.

For example, take a local high school baseball game. It used to be that reporters would publish the results of any big games in the weekly edition of the local newspaper, and this was considered reasonable by the citizens of the town or borough. But now, people expect information to be delivered in real time; they want the results of the game to be posted as soon as it’s over. The problem is that journalists are people who have lives and families just like anyone else. They can’t be available to attend every event that happens off hours during the week, such as a high school baseball game that doesn’t end until 9:30 or 10:00 at night. This is just too much pressure on these very small news teams.

I heard variations on this story from each of the local news editors that I talked to. As soon as they’d finished, I would ask, “But what about having community journalists take care of reporting on these kinds of things?” Not too surprisingly, this question earned an uncomfortable look accompanied by the retort, “Well, I don’t think that you would take your car to a community mechanic or want to be served by a community chef, would you?”

It seemed like they felt like I was suggesting that volunteers could successfully take over their jobs, which isn’t at all what I meant. So I went on to explain that what I’m suggesting is not to have volunteer reporters but to have members of the community who serve as information gatherers on the most basic level. For example, the coach of the baseball team could upload the score from the game herself onto the news website along with pictures if appropriate. These information gatherers would simply upload data to a form on the news room’s website, not actually write up full stories. Then the reporter would give interviews and perform deeper data collection at a later time, only when necessary.

After having qualified my earlier statement, I noticed that the editors were much more receptive to this idea. The only problem was that they didn’t have the technology to implement a system in which members of the community could upload information. The problem is not unwillingness to change, it’s a lack of having the right tools to implement change. Local news editors are not always tech savvy and so they don’t know how to make this kind of change happen.

However, what if a group of motivated people were to build an easy to use software model that could be implemented by even the least tech savvy local newsroom editors? Could this make a difference? Maybe this could be a part of what CivicEdition offers to the world of local news. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Think outside the newsstand,
Joe

Image by inju

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Philip S. Moore August 10, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Don’t worry about it. People in the “digital world” may like their news instantly, but they aren’t willing to pay for it. That’s hardly new. Radio offered instant news and gave it up because there was no audience, or at least not enough of one to make instant news a product the radio stations could sell.
The key to newspaper survival is to let the Internet be what it’s going to be–a place for snippets, comments and rumor-sharing. Newspapers should concentrate on providing an intelligent and authoritative source for local news, as well as local advertising. Make it something worth waiting for and people will wait.

2 Joe August 15, 2010 at 9:09 pm

Hey Phillip

My concern is if newspapers don’t adapt to “new media” (digital) they will be beaten at their own game. Craigslist took millions of dollars out of the newspaper’s balance sheet while publishers looked on in utter dismay… My fear is someone will do just what you suggest “provide intelligent and authoritative source for local news” but in a low cost digital format… and that would be the end of the industry as we know it!

3 Philip S. Moore August 17, 2010 at 5:04 am

Joe, I understand where you’re coming from, since that’s been the demonstrated concern of newspaper publishers since the emergence of the Web. However, it’s just not real. Despite the “print” look and feel of the web, it’s not print. It’s a new medium, with new rules and a new content structure. It can’t and won’t offer competition to the newspaper unless the newspaper undermines its core mission to try to compete on the web.

The fact that Craig’s List slammed local papers doesn’t demonstrate anything more than poor salesmanship at newspaper classifieds. Smart ad departments have been able to use CL and dedicated web sites, such as Realtor.com and Cars.com to promote classified and class-display sales, adapting to the new paradigm by promoting classifieds and display ads as a high intensity strategy for driving traffic to the web.

The key to winning is always playing your own game, not the other guy’s game, and doing it better.

4 Joe August 17, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Interesting… Can newspapers (as we know them today) still meet their core mission (assuming the mission is independent professional journalism) using an online medium? I hope they can under the new rules… God I hope they can, because if they can’t I am afraid they may be minimized…

I agree with you on how the publishers got out sold by CL and others!!! I do believe they can win back that revenue if they focus on their strength which IMHO is “local”… They own the relationships with the community and the advertisers… That after all is their strong asset!

I am hoping they can play their own game but just on a new field (sorry for the metaphor (;-)

5 Philip S. Moore August 18, 2010 at 5:35 am

Joe, you ask if newspapers can still meet their core mission using an online medium. The answer is “no”. As I noted before, quoting Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message.

That means the journalism and advertising we accept as the newspaper’s mission cannot, by definition, be met anywhere else but in a traditional paper-and-ink newspaper. That’s not a bad thing. Books will continue to be books, magazines will continue to be magazines, TV and radio will continue to be TV and radio, and the online medium will find and define its own mission, whatever that may turn out to be.

For newspapers, the only online value is in the Web’s ability to provide easier access to archives, easier subscription service and a handier tool for managing advertising contracts.

6 Joe August 18, 2010 at 6:36 pm

ahhh
So my real question should have been… Can local Journalism meet their mission regardless of the medium (print or digital)… I believe they can and in some cases are doing a good job. Making money is all together a distinctly different issue… I am a bit older and kind of like the paper “feel” but my kids who represent the next generation will have nothing to do with print… We both read the same articles. In fact they typically get them before me because I wait for the paper. I would argue the journalistic mission (unless I am missing something) is met in both cases…

7 Philip S. Moore August 19, 2010 at 5:45 am

Joe, the answer is yes AND no. Local journalism can meet its mission through any medium. It just won’t meet it the same way. Just as local TV and local radio news differs in content and presentation from local newspaper journalism, the Internet is and will continue to be fundamentally different in from print media in its mission and message.

Here are two fundamental differences:

1. “Push” media–local TV and newspapers–are near saturation in penetration but limited in reach. “Pull” media is the polar opposite, offering a global reach but scant community penetration. This means that local media can muster tremendous local impact by reaching an audience with tremendous interest in being informed, while Internet media seeks the attention and sensation of a much broader audience, less interested in being informed than entertained. “Push” media is part of the community, while “pull” media is part of the data “cloud”.

2. Newspapers provide news in context, giving meticulously researched depth and meaning to transient events. The Internet is a medium of the transient, insisting on readers providing their own context. This is why newspaper readership has always, and I mean always, been greater among the middle aged than the young. Until you have a mortgage and kids of your own, you don’t need context, because news is just another form of entertainment. Once you’re a committed part of the community, you can’t live without context, because context is what you need for the informed decision making you’re faced with every day.

That, by the way, is why I’m not inclined to worry about young people’s affinity for the Web. For now, Facebook and YouTube are enough. For the future, they’ll want more. When they do, it’s the newspaper that will provide it.

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