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Local Newspapers Are NOT Dead, But They Must Evolve

There’s some very interesting reading in the blogosphere about the future of newspapers today. Shelley Powers has an excellent post about the danger of losing the local news, the ‘quiet stories’ if local newspapers were to go under. Then I happened across Dave Winer’s suggestions for reforming newspapers and bridging the gap between bloggers and newspapers, which Doc Searls then expanded upon in a big way.

Finally, Robert Scoble declares in Scoble-esque hyperbole that newspapers are dead.

All of this was fascinating to me, particularly in light of my recent criticisms of the Norwich Bulletin and my own local newspaper, the Ventura County Star.

As I was taking one last pass through my feeds, I ran across this editorial written by the Star’s Publisher, Tim Gallagher, about the way they are integrating their online services with their print edition. He writes:

We are changing. But right now the world is changing faster. I am convinced the industry will catch up.

and this:

…the newspaper business is suffering through a slump in several of our advertising categories. This is causing us to examine all our costs and the way we do business. Earlier this week, we offered a voluntary package of pay and benefits to some of our longtime employees who want to retire or do something else for their livelihood.

Now, let me be clear about profit and loss. This slump does not mean your local newspaper is going out of business. On the contrary, any one of you readers would be absolutely delighted with the after-tax profit of this company.

But industry today is not about making a profit. It is about making the profit you told Wall Street you were going to make. When you are coming up short on the revenue side, you need to cut back on the expense side.

Where he really hits home is toward the end, where he says this:

For decades, the newspaper industry ignored new technologies that ate at its bottom line. Radio, television, cable television — all of these were treated by the newspaper barons as “passing fads.” Finally, as the Internet emerged, newspapers embraced the change.

Smart newspaper companies are growing their audience and increasing their advertising thanks to Web sites they operate.

To their credit, the Star has aggressively incorporated technology into their site to encourage reader participation and interest. I’ve subscribed to their RSS feeds for over a year now, they invite comments on every article (and trackbacks, too), have provided a place for bloggers, community announcements and other local interaction. This is all good.

However, they need to read Doc and Dave’s posts for ways to expand their online presence more effectively. Here’s my top suggestion: Turn off the registration feature to READ articles. Force registration to post comments, but not to simply read articles. If there’s an article in the paper about my daughter’s dance school doing St. Patrick’s Day shows that I want to send to my mother, she is NOT — I repeat NOT — going to register for your site to read one article. However, she might visit and click through to other articles while there, and maybe even click an ad or two that interests her if she doesn’t have to register first. Open the gates, let in the readers.

Gallagher closes with this:

This is not for the fainthearted. It requires willingness to challenge “the way we’ve always done it” and to change.

Our commitment to you is to bring the very best local news and advertising to you, however you want it delivered.

I believe him. I’ve seen the evolution and transition over the last year, most of it to the good. I appreciate the delivery of my local news via RSS, and the ability to post comments directly to articles as well as blog on them (though I’m less eager to blog when my post will link to a gated article).

I don’t believe print newspapers are dead, like Scoble does.  There is still something magic about picking up a paper and reading through it for the little local tidbits — the obits and the birth announcements and the school goings-on — that I don’t necessarily pick up via RSS.  But this is a time for change, for evolution and out-of-the-box thinking.  We need reporters who are comfortable writing online and in print, who have training and are professional journalists, but look to the local voices to gather facts about local issues.

I don’t always agree with the spin the Star reporters put on their stories, but I do believe they are pointed in the right direction.

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