About 30 years ago, the writers at National Lampoon produced a wonderful parody of the local Sunday newspaper. The paper, called the Dacron, Ohio Republican-Democrat, featured a main story about 2 Dacron women who were missing while taking a once-in-a-lifetime vacation in Japan. At the end of a long, long story, the writer notes Japan was destroyed by a natural disaster.
That over-the-top local treatment was funny 30 years ago, but was NatLamp spot on for what newspapers will become in another 10 years?
I ask this after reading Tuskegee News publisher Paul Davis’ column “Community newspapers doing nicely” I don’t know Davis, but after reading this, I love him. I can just imagine him sitting at his desk in his storefront office across the street from the Coast to Coast store, typing away on his Underwood to get this out on time.
OK, a bit of an exaggeration. But he does make a point. We focus too much on the dire state of the newspaper industry, but we talk mainly of the major metros and the companies that owns hundreds of smaller newspapers. However, in the small towns throughout the country, many of these newspapers are indeed holding their own.
Now I admire Davis for taking the high road, that the mission to readers and advertisers remains intact. And there is a lot of truth to that. In a community where everyone knows everyone else, you don’t want to upset your customer base. But you can’t say the Philadelphia Inquirer or Minneapolis Post-Tribune doesn’t have that same mission, so what sets them apart from Paul Davis in Tuskegee?
Simple … Tuskegee owns its market. The majority of these community papers are the only source of local news and information. Folks in these towns are most likely finding out about the world from some other source, but if they need to find out about the fire down the street, or where they can get a deal on an oil change, they run to the News.
And local is where the majority of newspapers will need to go to survive. As technology continues to improve our ability to gather and read news from around the world, only a few media sources will shake out as the source for world and national news .. sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, BBC, ITN. That will force the metros to redefine themselves. The Tribunes, Heralds, and Newses will need to look at becoming the local source, which will be difficult because a number of good suburban newspapers and alt weeklies have been establishing that local market for years.
So small community papers are in the catbird seat, so to say. But I hope Paul Davis won’t sit back in his wooden desk chair and gloat. Small papers need to develop and adapt to new readers and their needs. In addition to improving websites, they need to create local databases that will provide readers with instant information. They need to create online communities to spark and maintain debate and dialog.
I recently had an e-mail exchange with the publisher of a small Michigan paper who was nice enough to show me his redesigned newsroom flowchart. I was impressed because it addressed the same issues that the metros are facing, but it was targeted to address his community. Here’s someone who’s looking ahead … and working to own his community.
The mission doesn’t change. It’s how we accomplish that mission does.