Some Words of Advice for Small Newspapers

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By: Steve Outing

In some feedback from my most recent columns came a couple requests that I offer some advice for small newspapers. Some of my recommendations of late, it seems, appeared to apply more to bigger news institutions.

OK, let’s go with that this month, then. Let’s explore what small newspapers should be doing — those probably operating with thin staffs and modest financial resources — to keep up with the times and resist the industrywide trend of flat or declining print readership and loss of advertising dollars to new forms of media.

Here are 10 things that publishers and editors of small newspapers should be doing, with emphasis on the online side of the business:


1. Copy and build from the industry leaders

Some of the most innovative new-media work in the newspaper industry in the last decade has come from small or medium-small newspapers. To get ideas, you don’t have to look too far or too hard. Look at what newspaper Web sites by the Bakersfield Californian, Lawrence Journal-World, Bonita Daily News and Spokane Spokesman-Review, for instance, have done in recent years. Keep close tabs on their Web sites, because they often introduce new features that are worth emulating. (True, those aren’t all “small” papers, but some of the things those papers do online could be accomplished by smaller publishers.)

A simple way to check out the best online work of small newspapers is to review the small-newspaper category winners of past EPpy Awards.

If you admire the online work of these industry leaders, look into what they may offer to other companies. The Bakersfield Californian’s online division, for example, recently debuted a division called Participata that licenses the technology it created for its community and social interaction Web sites.


2. Don’t hire print-focused employees

Every hire counts at many small papers. It’s long been common practice to look for people able to do multiple tasks, because the money often isn’t there to hire people who are highly specialized, the way a wealthier metro paper might. But the Internet era requires more than finding people who can snap a news photograph and write a story and lay out the front page.

Small newspapers often look for recent college graduates to staff their newsrooms, in part because those employees won’t demand high salaries. Hiring journalists and ad sales people right out of college makes even more sense today. Not only will recent graduates probably fit within your budget, but they’ll have an understanding of the modern media picture — at least, they will if they went through a credible journalism or communications program.

My advice is to ONLY hire people whose skills cross media platforms. Look for people who not only understand and are enthusiastic about online media, but who also can serve the print edition well. If a job candidate says she has always aspired to be a newspaper reporter, and doesn’t come in the door with some multimedia skills and experience such as video and audio production, frankly I’d keep looking. You might even go so far as to look skeptically at candidates who look great when it comes to new-media skills but lack the experience or motivation to work on the print side, if you simply can’t afford that much specialization.


3. Hire a hot-dog programmer, one way or another

Here’s the exception to No. 2: No matter how small your newspaper, you need at least one smart, committed Internet developer/programmer. In this new age when the Internet is so important to all newspapers, I don’t think you can march forward into the future without at least one true Internet geek on staff.

Maybe you’ll get lucky and find a journalist who’s also part geek. Journalism schools increasingly are turning out people like that, but not in high numbers — and they’re in high demand, so don’t count on nabbing one if you’re a small paper and lack the wherewithal to pay competitive salaries.

If that’s simply unreasonable for your small paper, then get creative to fill that need.


4. Find (free or cheap) help and go crazy with experimentation

Is there a college or university in your community or nearby that you can tap? Offer internships and look for students who are into media and computer science. That’s not always an easy combination to find, but how about hiring a two-person intern team — an online savvy journalism graduate student and a computer science person — and assigning them to work together on a futuristic project?

In fact, this is something I’d like to see more newspapers do: Assign journalist-programmer teams to new projects. Get these two disciplines working together more. Hiring more computer types for this sort of collaboration probably seems unrealistic at many small papers, but perhaps there are low-cost options available, such as working with nearby schools.


5. Make a class assignment.

On the local-college theme, check in with journalism and advertising professors and see if they’d like to create a real-world class assignment for their students in concert with your newspaper and its Web operations. For instance, if your Web site is starting up a citizen-reporting initiative, see if you can find an advertising class where you can give students some real-world experience selling for it.

This is not and should not be just some ploy to get free help. Advertisers are still skittish about their messages showing up next to user-generated, unedited content. Yet news organizations are looking to citizen content as an increasingly important part of their operations. For the good of the industry, someone needs to figure out how to meld advertising revenues and this new democratic form of publishing. This could be a good challenge for a group of students, and a useful academic exercise where results are shared for the benefit of the entire news industry.


6. Join forces with other small papers

If your small newspaper is part of a larger chain — and if there’s a new-media operation supporting all the properties in the chain — then good for you. Of course, as a small member of the chain, you may not get all the attention you’d like.

But if corporate digital publishing resources aren’t available to you, how about teaming up with (non-related) papers of comparable size in other areas? The Internet, obviously, makes it super simple to collaborate. Hook up via an e-mail discussion list or Web forum with newspaper folks in a similar situation, then create a project that all parties will benefit from. Share the work load among participating papers. Share the costs so that you can afford a new Web site feature or initiative that you wouldn’t be able to pay for all by yourself. Got something on your dream list that you can’t afford? Find some partners in a similar situation.


7. Develop lots of localized online communities

As we all know, the Internet’s true strength is community — to find and put together people with (sometimes esoteric) shared interests. In fact, that’s what drives my current company, the Enthusiast Group, which publishes participative, citizen media-driven online communities for adventure and participant sport populations. (Currently, we publish YourMTB.com, YourClimbing.com and YourRunning.com, with several more under construction.)

If you don’t mind me sharing some experience from my company, I’ve been pleased that our communities have been nearly completely trouble-free. While there are the comment spammers who we must keep at bay, members of these communities — all people who are passionate about their sports — stay remarkably on topic and very seldom launch into unseemly behavior. (Sure, trouble could happen and probably will at some point, but we think we’re prepared to deal with it.) I think it’s the “don’t soil your own nest” syndrome. Because users of these online communities feel so attached to them, they typically stay on good behavior.

My lesson here when applied to small newspapers is that there’s opportunity for them to create small online communities centered around narrow topics within any paper’s market area. One approach to successful social networking, I think, is to apply it to homogenous groups where the participants are unlikely to tear at each others’ throats and the communities become battlegrounds.

This especially applies in discussion forums, where many a newspaper Web site has had trouble with unruly denizens. When the topic reach is too broad — and when within it there are controversial topics — all sorts of flame wars and nasty behavior are the norm. The participants in such forums don’t have enough of a personal connection to the forums — it doesn’t feel like a community that’s important to them — to not “soil the nest.”

I really believe in the power of active, participative online communities. I think that newspapers haven’t done nearly enough with them. And small papers, especially, can foster online communities at minimum cost.


8. Utilize the camera-toting army

My company’s online communities revolve around the idea that everybody has a story to tell, and we provide the place to share it. Small newspapers likewise should get on the bandwagon of being the place where anyone in their communities can go to share their news and passions with the rest of the community. (Let me emphasize: This should be about sharing information and passion, not just “news.”)

Digital video cameras are pretty cheap these days. How about setting up a citizen loaner program, where you lend a camera to folks who sign up and let them keep it for a week. The payment you expect for loaning the camera out is a video story at the end of the week. (I wouldn’t couch this as expecting a “journalistic” product from participants, though. Give them free rein to shoot whatever they want — which might be an amateur attempt at covering a traditional news story, or it might be something just fun and creative, like much of the stuff you find on video sharing sites like Youtube.com.)

Many people these days carry a still and video camera in their pockets wherever they go — their cell phones. So also make sure that you have a place for community members to share their news as well as fun stuff.


9. Mix up professional and citizen reporting

I’ve mentioned this before in this column, but it especially applies to Web sites of small newspapers. Get over the old notion that only the professional reporters on staff have the right to tell the story. If there’s a bad car wreck and some witnesses have photos and/or video of it, run it alongside your reporter’s work on the story. Not only will you then be providing a more complete view of the news event, but those citizen reporter/photographers will feel a much stronger affinity with your news organization.

Figure out a way to present staff and citizen submissions alongside each other, but identify what is what. This is a smart thing for a small newspaper, which probably doesn’t have the resources to do a bang-up job on everything it covers. Utilize citizen content to enhance what you offer your community.

And in the spirit of citizen content, let community members have their say in their own words — even if that means allowing bad grammar and misspellings. As long as it’s crystal clear that something is from a community member in his own words, very few people will mind. (That’s been my experience on Enthusiast Group sites so far.)


10. Play off of what else is available online

Time magazine named “You” the Person of the Year for 2006. The idea behind Time’s choice, of course, is that millions of people are now taking advantage of what’s available to them to cheaply publish on the Web — from sharing videos on Youtube and Google Video (and a bunch of other video hosting sources), to photos on Flickr.com (and a bunch more similar services), to their personal stories, news and diaries on a long list of blogging services.

There are people — probably lots of them — in your community who are caught up in this new form of global self publishing. As publisher of a small newspaper, you should be taking advantage of that. It costs you nothing to host videos from people in your community who are already posting stuff to Youtube. Ditto for their photos on Flickr.com.

The Internet sector is incredibly vibrant right now, so watch for new things that tap into the trend toward global self expression, and take advantage of that if the services allow republishing — as most do these days.

The one caveat is to check the terms of service of any such service to make sure that commercial use such as you’re considering is allowable.

You can’t afford to reinvent Youtube for your small newspaper Web site, so take advantage of what Youtube, et al allow.

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