I've long been a fan of Editor & Publisher columnist Steve Outing, but his latest piece - "Some Words of Advice for Small Newspapers" - may be a bit unrealistic.
In his Jan. 3 column, Steve said: "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 industry-wide trend of flat or declining print readership and loss of advertising dollars to new forms of media."
A worthy mission.
Steve listed 10 suggestions for small newspapers to emulate. The first was "copy and build from industry leaders."
Steve then identifies four "small or medium-small newspapers" that other publishers can emulate. The papers he picked were the Bakersfield Californian (circulation 62,000 daily, 74,000 Sunday); the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World (daily and Sunday circulation 19,000); the Bonita Daily News (circulation 10,000 in fast-growing southwestern Florida, and really a zone edition of the Naples Daily News; and the Spokane (Wa.) Spokesman-Review (circulation 100,000 daily and 129,000 Sundays.)
These four papers are hardly small by my definition, but then I came from owning a weekly newspaper in Montana with a paid circulation of 1,950. TownNews.com was born in the back shop of that little weekly.
Most of the 1,500 newspapers served by TownNews.com are smaller than the small papers Steve is using for models. The smallest of his examples, the Lawrence Journal-World is based in a progressive campus community with one of the most progressive (and free-spending) ownerships in the nation.
The Journal-World and the other three papers are undoubtedly good models to look to, but they are far from typical small newspapers.
Steve's No. 2 suggestion: "Don't hire print-focused employees." He said, "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." I agree fully with this recommendation, but many small markets have a limited talent pool.
Steve's No. 3 suggestion: "Hire a hot-dog programmer, one way or another." He adds, "No matter how small your newspaper, you need at least one smart, committed Internet development/programmer. In this new age when the Internet is so important … I don’t think you can march forward into the future without at least one true Internet geek on staff." I'd suggest that Steve visit some 8,000-circulation dailies or weeklies and get a dose of the real world. Getting a competent web master who can work well with the news and advertising staffs ought to be a higher priority than employing a "hot-dog programmer" who can leave you in deep doo-doo if he/she quits.
Steve's No. 4 suggestion: "Find (free or cheap) help and go crazy with experimentation." He added, "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…(H)ire a two-person intern team - an online savvy journalism graduate student and a computer science person - and assign them to work together on a futuristic project…" A good plan if the paper can find such skilled talent that will work for free or cheap.
Steve's No. 5: "Make a class assignment." He purposes that you "check in with journalism and advertising professors and see if they'd like to create a real-world class assignment in concert with your newspaper and its Web operations." Might work in one in 50 small markets.
Steve's No. 6: "Join forces with other small papers." If corporate resources aren't available, Steve suggested, "how about teaming up with … papers of comparable size in other areas? … Hook up via an e-mail discussion list or Web forum … then create a project that all parties will benefit from…" My comment: Always good to work with other papers your size. Maybe something can be put together.
Steve's suggestion No. 7: "Develop lots of localized online communities." Steve states, "As we all know, the Internet's true strength is community - to find and put together people with (sometimes esoteric) shared interests." He then promotes the company he is working for - Enthusiast Group - that helps create such communities. He said, "…(T)here's opportunity for (small newspapers) 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 other's throats and the communities become battlegrounds.” My comment: There's good reason to worry about participants tearing at each other's throats. Advertisers aren't crazy about sponsoring such products.
Steve's suggestion No. 8: "Utilize the camera-toting army." He suggested, "Small newspapers … should get on the bandwagon of being the place where anyone in the communities can go to share their news and passions with the rest of the community…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…" My comment: Get a camera for everyone on the newspaper staff first.
Steve's suggestion No. 9: "Mix up professional and citizen reporting." Steve added, "Get over the old notion that only the professional reporters…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." My comment: Most small newspapers have welcomed photos and news items from the community for years.
Steve's suggestion No. 10: "Play off what else is available online." Steve said, "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 …" My comment: Newspapers have long used stringers and community columnists, and this type of content can be posted to the Web. Just be careful about a wide variety of legal issues, such as copyright, invasion of privacy and libel.
I hope publishers of small newspapers will think about Steve's suggestions, even though they may seem out of touch with reality.
For most truly small papers, Steve's ideas may seem impractical, but the times and technology are changing fast. What seems impractical today might be the norm tomorrow.
I've seen great innovation come out of small newspapers, mostly from the brains of the owners or top managers who are constantly striving to survive. Steve could learn some lessons from some of these folks.