Aaron Brown is a frequent voice on KAXE and is firmly planted in the worlds of traditional media (weekly column in the Hibbing Daily Tribune and commentaries on KAXE) as well as new media (a prolific blogger at http://www.minnesotabrown.com/). From time to time we sample his writing here - if you have an interest in Iron Range politics or media in rural areas - we suggest you keep up with Aaron on his blog. Here's a recent post of his:
The future of small town media in 1,000 words by Aaron Brown
A really interesting comment about local newspaper websites crossed the blog yesterday morning. As you may know, the ACM family of newspapers on the Iron Range now require readers to sign up for a free account to use its newspapers’ websites. A MinnesotaBrown blog reader responded to the change in this way:
What the hell are they thinking with this "free account" crap? I refuse to register. I find their sites difficult to use, and damned annoying in that they don't include all the articles. In fact, I've pretty much quit going to the sites at all because they try to make it hard for me to use their sites, in the apparent hope that by doing so, I'll buy a paper.Well. I don't. I am not a newspaper reader. I don't buy newspapers, and I'm not about to start buying them. I DO go to websites to read news. Presumably they derive ad revenue from the advertisers on their website who count on me to buy their goods and services just like those who advertise in the paper assume there is a connection between readers and sales.
I feel the Range papers are marginalizing their online readers. They are marginalizing the potential of their online business. And they are marginalizing their future existence.e hell are they thinking with this "free account" crap? I refuse to
register. I find their sites difficult to use, and damned annoying in that
they don't include all the articles. In fact, I've pretty much quit going to
the sites at all because they try to make it hard for me to use their sites,
in the apparent hope that by doing so, I'll buy a paper.
The comment prompted this thought on my part. If and when the storied “e-Media Revolution” that people keep talking about happens (the time when the Internet finally and fully absorbs the functions of "old media" like newspapers and broadcast TV) the first wall that crumbles won't be the big city daily papers or CNN, but the small town newspapers and local TV news affiliates. This massive change will happen from the ground up.
These are my own thoughts based on my experience as a college communication instructor, former Iron Range small town daily newspaper editor and current writer and blogger. I still write for the Hibbing Daily Tribune, so it's important to note that I'd like to keep that job and that I'm not picking on that publication (or its parent company and affiliates), nor can I reveal any trade secrets (if I ever really knew any). But I can talk generally about the struggles that small town papers face in the Internet Age.
Here’s the problem. Let’s consider a hypothetical small town newspaper that had a circulation of, say, 15,000 in 1988. This paper has probably lost half its readers since. Today’s circulation, 6,000-7,000, consists of people disproportionately older and less Internet savvy than the population at large. Meantime, new readers were learning that they could get a good deal of what they wanted from this hypothetical paper’s website. Papers without a website were openly mocked by the Web-proficient members of their community, to the point where all papers adopted websites. As these websites developed, enthusiastic news people realized that the Internet is a really great medium for the written word and the websites grew in popularity.
But web readers got the product for free, advertisers weren’t willing to pay much to get on the website and the whole effort was costing the industry gabuldyjillions of dollars (an approximation). Newspapers were well aware this was happening and their leaders held numerous meetings (believe me). Some tried password protecting their web versions, but few would pay to read the papers online. Others tried making their web versions so awesome that they could entice advertisers to buy online ads. Some customers did, but this still didn’t make up the revenue.
Let me crystallize the problem: More people (and most young people) are using the Internet to receive news, but no one has figured out how to make as much money operating an online news site as newspapers USED TO be able to make before the Internet. Because media consolidation has driven up the debt service on your average small town paper to well above what is financially prudent, the old revenue figures are crucial to maintaining company stock prices. Unless this problem is figured out (and that ship may have sailed) we are trolling toward a total media realignment that will begin not with the New York Times, but with all the small papers about the size of the Anytown Whig-Observer. When these weeklies, small dailies and mid-sized papers in competitive markets realize that their revenue has fallen so low that it is equal to what they could make off the Internet alone AND when a majority of their readers are already on the Internet (two things not yet true, but coming), they’ll reconfigure. Add in the fact that many newspapers are now either owned by or in some kind of partnership with a local television network affiliate, and we’re talking about united, multi-media news operations functioning with the same editorial staff and disseminating news on TV and high-end websites, or perhaps a yet unknown combination of the two.
Oh, but there will be hundreds of bankruptcies and tens of thousands of layoffs before this occurs, so let’s not get too excited.
I teach blogging seminars for the KAXE Community Journalism Project. I’m not speaking for them either when I say this. But there is an efficiency argument that the Internet is a much more cost effective way to gather and share news in small towns. Over time, I could easily see community news websites that combine video, audio and print content replacing the old media. We definitely aren’t there yet, but nonprofit community journalism operations like KAXE are way out ahead of commercial companies in small towns. Streaming media on the big sites like http://www.cnn.com/, http://www.msnbc.com/ and http://www.foxnews.com/ is great – and will remain the standard into the future. But the “revolution” won’t really be at hand until the dams break in small and medium markets. When it happens, the results will be part chaotic, part fascinating and most assuredly remarkable. And while people in today's media industry will be affected negatively at first, it's important to remember that we will still need journalists, editors, technicians, graphic designers and photographers in this new media.
Now, there’s no reason that my current employer (I hope still current after speaking this heresy) and its sister publications on the Iron Range can’t survive or even thrive through all of this, but doing so will require a nimble approach when the majority of their readers make the leap to the Internet. None of this will happen next year, but I expect that it will happen before long. And it will happen in every corner of the world.Even, perhaps especially, here on the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota (U.S.A., the World, the Universe).
PS: And for those who prefer political posts, I'll leave you with this: the biggest uncontrollable variable in the budget of a small town paper is the cost of employee health care. Guess what happens as a result? Layoffs and a gradually crappier health care plan.