Tales from the Trail: What does the future hold for small newspapers?

22 May 2015

PeterBohan

Peter Bohan was a Reuters journalist for 30 years before becoming Executive Director of Reuters America Service, a product aimed at U.S. newspapers, web sites and broadcasters as an alternative to The Associated Press. Peter – Midwest Bureau Chief at the time – built the service starting in 2010 in tests with Tribune Company, which  became the anchor client for RAST in 2011. Peter spends more time than anyone working with U.S. newspapers to see how Reuters can address their needs.

We asked Peter to blog from time to time to share how it’s going.

Tales from the Trail: What does the future hold for small newspapers?

There has been a lot of anguished reporting this year on whether small daily newspapers have a future in the Digital Age. What’s it all boil down to?

The most interesting parts of the debate focus on two questions: what do local readers need? How do they want to receive it?

The Pew’s annual reports last month on the state of the media and in March on “local news ecology” threw some light on both questions.

As with most newspaper industry stats, the numbers are skewed by the dominance of the top 100 with 100,000 print circulation. What the struggle is like for the 1,200 or so other smaller daily papers remains in less clear.

Nevertheless, some survive-and-thrive trends for both big and small papers are coming into focus. One is a new push toward “usefulness” – trying to win back lost local readers looking for “life easing local services,” as Nieman Labs media analyst Ken Doctor calls them.

Another trend is a recognition that the mobile phone, even more than the desk top, as where the reader is – and will be. Another is that video as a necessity, not a nice to have. Yet another is the rising demand for audio in the form of podcasts.

But for local papers the refocus on useful and easily accessed information is probably the most important trend.  Doctor’s April 16 post did a great job cutting through the clutter of digital angst to focus on essential questions for local papers.

“Newspapers were never only about the hard news that consumes the home pages of newspaper sites and mobile fronts,” Doctor says. “They did so much for readers that they commanded (and deserved) that 20 minutes of engagement time daily.”

A nice wakeup for newsrooms: you mean ‘news’ is not the main attraction of newspapers?

It is vital – but not enough. If not news, what is the magnet? “Information – connected, actionable information,” Doctor says. “The kind of thing that StubHub, OpenTable, Angie’s List and Yelp (among others) have done so well.”

Moreover, he says: “Recreating them makes little sense.”

Whoa. That sounds like the battle for local hearts, minds and wallets has already been lost. But Doctor says no. He suggests local papers “recreate themselves as centers of information,” as the provider of “not news curation, but community information curation.”

In short, he says, local papers must ask the question: “What is it that local consumers now want that they don’t get, or that they could get better?”

He’s on to something.  I’ve seen this refocus at work in vibrant small papers across the country. It takes time. But the local audience is being drawn in by determined out-reach, public service news coverage, ease in staying connected, and usefulness to the reader – ie. customer.

Some papers have already taken back primacy for local readers on local jobs, job training, cars, travel and entertainment. And, as Pew notes, newspapers remain the branded drivers of civic reporting in all areas.

Check these sites from a few local Reuters newspaper clients:

http://www.jobshq.com/

http://bangordailynews.com/homestead/

http://www.wecreatehere.net/

A final thought: Doctor’s check list for local publishers, to gauge if they are still too much like old-style taxi cab companies, is not to be missed.

He isolates real-life factors that now engage readers: mobile access, time-savings, ease-of-use, memory aids, personalized files (“my stories”), and value pricing. His recommendations like removing “friction” to connect and “delight with the depth that only a local newsroom can offer” are worthy touchstones for any local masthead in the Digital Age.

So it is heartening to see newspapers trying to reconnect with their audience via usefulness.

If they have a local TV station, it’s a head start. As Pew’s in-depth report on 3 local news “ecologies” says, local TV is still the number one news source whether in Denver or Sioux City. But 40 percent in Sioux City also still get local news from the daily paper, versus 23 percent in Denver. And only about one in 10 in all three (Macon, Ga. was the other community examined) said they get local news from social media.

That last point on social media runs counter to Big Media’s focus on digital youth and their clicking habits which claims that 4 of 5 millennials get their news from Facebook.

Those stats may be accurate. But the fact remains: Facebook is not a content creator and for local readers’ real life needs it is essentially, well, faceless.

Bottom line: the opportunity is ripe for local newspapers to exploit their brand in their own community — digitally – via easy to get, “need to know” local information.

A local paper can be as “social” as any social media. It just has to broaden what it sees as “news” to embrace all useful and vital information that meets the daily living needs its  many neighbors face.

If it can’t do that, who can?