Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

Do newspapers’ competitors use newspapers to build their own brands and doesn’t that reinforce the value of newspapers?

Absolutely! In this tough economic environment and to coincide with the signing of the federal stimulus package in late February, ValPak, the blue envelope coupon direct mailer, chose newspapers in 30 of their franchise markets to launch a national campaign promoting its ValPak brand and product as “The Original Consumer Stimulus Package.”

Last year Valpak changed its marketing strategy and in 2009 opted to target beleaguered business owners. What’s the media ValPak chose to reach beleaguered business owners in 30 U.S. markets? Newspapers!

Newspaper advertising works best — ask ValPak!!


We live in interesting times: A new business model takes root in community journalism

Move over, Voodoo priestess. The ancient Chinese had it right. The most effective curse is this one: “May you live in interesting times.”

We in community journalism certainly live in the most interesting of times. There have only been a few generations who have been fortunate (?) enough to live in the days when a new medium is being introduced and therefore redefining the old media.

It happened when Gutenberg invented the printing press, which took over dominance from the manuscript culture. Didn’t happen again until the 1920s, when newspapers were threatened by the new medium of radio. And radio had the shortest Golden Age of all, because when it was at its height, TV was invented and began claiming living rooms for itself in the early 1950s.

As each new medium came along, the old media had to redefine themselves and find new roles. When the Internet was invented, we saw email revolutionize personal communication and then search engines redefine how we got information. And now, we realize that one impact of the Net is to make a publisher out of everyone with a computer.

Even 10 years ago, we thought the newspaper — especially in smaller communities — had the market cornered on news and information. To be sure, someone could always start a rival publication, but costs were typically prohibitive.

No more.

Anyone with a computer is now potentially your competition. And if they don’t know how to start a newspaper, or what to put in one, or how to lay out the pages, or where to find news — no worry. There are Websites all over whose entire goal is to show anyone, anywhere how to start a newspaper on the Web.

Some start as blogs, some are primarily opinion journals. Many come and go overnight. But other people discover that with practically no overhead — no reporters, no rent or utilities, no presses — that they can get local names and photos and news and information on the Web and update it daily, and find an audience. And that audience may be your readers.

As they build audience and get more eyeballs onto their pages, they inevitably attract advertisers.

These Internet start-ups are more prevalent on the coasts, but it’s inevitable that we will see more and more in Texas. I asked Texas newspapers about their local Web-only competition recently and here’s a sampling only of what I found. Take a minute to scroll through the list to follow; you will find all kinds of new Texas Webmedia here, but these new publications represent a real threat to printed newspapers in Texas. The level of sophistication varies, from just blogs to legitimate online newspapers, but all represent alternatives to newspapers — and they frequently have more news, more photos, and more local opinion than papers do. Click on as many as you can, and you’ll get a feel for what may be the wave of the future.

Here they are:

And if you’re thinking that even starting a Web paper may be a daunting task for some potential competitors, what if they could just open a franchise operation, complete with all the support they needed? Check out As the organization’s Website says: “We’ll show you and support you as you build an audience and support the growth of the local community through innovative, proven advertising packages designed to build your town’s business success, make your neighbors aware of the issues and events of importance to them, deliver local news that concerns your lifestyle, and more features to keep your visitors coming back again and again.”

How serious is this company? HometownTimes launched 513 local online newspapers across the United States in January. It was recently ranked No. 10 in a listing of Atlanta’s Top 25 Franchises.

Have you heard…

  • An analysis of circulation figures published in the 2004 Editor & Publisher Year Book showed that of the 9,321 U.S. newspapers listed, 9,104 (97.7 percent) had circulations below 50,000, a common benchmark used to distinguish “big” from “small” newspapers.
    Those 9,104 “small” newspapers reported circulations totaling 108.9 million, compared to a combined circulation of 38.2 million for the 213 “big” newspapers.
    The majority of all newspapers are weeklies, with an average circulation of slightly less than 7,500.
    Among the 1,456 dailies, 1,239, or 85 percent, are small newspapers, and reach about 44 percent of all daily newspaper readers.
  • Social media have now overtaken pornography as the No. 1 use of the Internet, according to research by the Institute for Public Relations.
  • Ottaway Newspapers has launched electronic editions of its newspapers aimed at cell phone and smart phone users. “Seekers of news and information in our markets should be able to access our content on the platform that either they are most comfortable using, or that is most useful to them at the moment they need to be informed,” said Sean Polay, Ottaway’s product manager for distributed media. Ottaway is using internally developed software to support the initiative. The Cape Cod Times in Hyannis, Mass., was the first Ottaway paper to launch the service.
Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

Can my print ads actually get people to go online and check out a product or service?

Print newspaper ads drive online traffic and purchases. How do we know? Google told us!

That’s right. In a research study commissioned by Google and conducted by Clark, Martire & Bartolomeo in October 2007 and released in April 2008, among individuals who research products and services after seeing them advertised in newspapers, 67 percent use the Internet to find more info, and almost 70 percent of them actually make a purchase following their additional research.

The Google-commissioned research study also found that among newspaper readers who use the Internet …

  • 56 percent researched or purchased at least one product they saw advertised in the newspaper in the previous month.
  • 44 percent of newspapers readers who use the Internet researched at least one product. 48 percent of them visited a store. 23percent called a store and 23 percent asked a friend. 42 percent of respondents purchased at least one product.

Newspapers, Your newspaper … is still the one!

Why? Simply put, newspapers, whether in print or online, have a distinct local audience who trust them. Newspapers, your newspaper, influence and motivate readers to search, learn about, find and purchase goods and services.


A culture of breaking news is essential in the online era

What happens when a major news story breaks in your hometown? Do you surrender the coverage to the near-by major market daily and television stations or do you “lead the coverage” through your web site, even though the story broke the day after you went to press.

The importance of developing a culture of covering “breaking news” on your web site was never more evident in early April when violent criminal activity broke in Wise County — a county of 60,000 persons a half-hour northwest of Fort Worth.

There had been an almost hour-long police chase of a man suspected of hit-and-run driving and car theft when the man, driving a stolen GMC Yukon, slammed into the back of a Bridgeport police car, ramming the car into a trailer and instantly killing Police Sgt. Randy White.

Reporters in the Wise County Messenger newsroom had been following the chase on police scanners when it came to a crashing halt in Bridgeport. Photographer Joe Duty, busy shooting a track meet, was alerted. General Manager Mark Jordan grabbed graphic artist Andrew May who also handles video for the paper and off they rushed to the accident site about 10 miles away from the newspaper office in Decatur.

That proximity gave them a good half-hour to hour jump on the big city newspapers and television stations. Working quickly, reporters Robert Morgan, Travis Measley, Denny Deady and Kristin Tribe got the story up on the newspapers “breaking news” page. Production Manager Todd Griffith kept updating the story with Duty’s photos from the scene. Video with the Department of Public Safety spokesman was on the web site before the metro television stations’ 5 p.m. newscasts.

Throughout the night and the next day the Messenger kept updating the story with more details and photographs. Wise County Sheriff David Walker, who had a helicopter at the scene, asked Duty to shoot crime scene photos — giving the newspaper the aerial coverage that could have been a television exclusive.

Later, Bridgeport police asked Duty to accompany them to DFW Airport to pick up the “honor flag” that is flown when a police officer or firefighter dies in the line of duty.

A dramatic cover in the Messenger’s Sunday April 5 edition of the police officers’ badge draped with black tape capped the newspapers coverage. The story began on page two with photos from the scene.

The culture of “breaking news” was also a headline-grabbing experience for Randy Mankin of the Eldorado Success in 2007 with the raids on the compound of alleged child abusers in Schleicher County.

In Randy’s case, newspapers and television stations from throughout the nation used his stories and some even “moved in” to the newspaper’s office during the siege.

What both these stories emphasize is the importance of building relationships with the law enforcement community. They learn to trust the local paper and when major stories hit, most policemen and firefighters will not forget those relationships.

I recently read a quote in theTCU Magazine from the great Sports Illustrated writer and author Dan Jenkins, who was asked to compare current TCU coach Gary Patterson with a couple of his great predecessors, Abe Martin and Dutch Meyer.

Jenkins said that times were different today and Patterson had to be more cautious with the media — but that wasn’t the case with Martin and Meyer. Of the reporters covering Meyer and Martin, Jenkins said “it was easier for them to make friends with the press and trust them. I was part of that. We weren’t scandal mongers and we knew what to write and they appreciated that. We earned their trust and therefore we came up with a lot of good information that we could eventually use when the time and atmosphere was right.”

To me, that is what community newspaper publishers editors, photographers and reporters do every day.

And when breaking news happens — and your newspaper is ready — it will pay off big time as we fulfill our responsibility to be the dominant source of information for the community.

See all of the Messenger‘s coverage about the death of Sgt. Randy White


Texas community journalism Websites not using blogs extensively

If you had written the word blog just 13 years ago, everyone would have thought you’d made a typo. Maybe you mean blob? Or blot?

How times have changed. Blogs — short for Weblogs — are part of our lives and part of the vocabularies of pretty much everyone who’s halfway Web-literate.

Need proof? Check out these numbers, courtesy of Technorati’s State of the Blogosphere report:

  • Facebook recorded 41 million unique visitors last year. MySpace had 75 million. Blogs had almost 78 million unique visitors.
  • 50 percent of Internet users read blogs.
  • In 2007, there were 22.6 million bloggers in the United States.
  • There are almost 1 million blog posts a day.

In its report, Technorati noted that when it did its first report on blogs in 2004, the typical reaction to the word was, “Huh? Can you repeat yourself?” Four years later, blogs are commonplace.

And newspapers throughout the nation have become a part of the blogging phenomenon. Blogs get more voices into the newspaper, allow staffers to share insights on how the news comes together and how they do their jobs, and allow more coverage of areas far too specialized ever to justify ink on the printed page. Since cyberspace has an unlimited news hole, newspapers can include the blog on fitness tips for the elderly or the news of a six-block area on the east side of town.

Blogs have ended up playing an important role in American life — it was bloggers who brought down Sen. Trent Lott when they reported his off-the-cuff remark about Strom Thurmond. And bloggers who torpedoed Dan Rather for his sloppy reporting of George Bush’s military record. In fact, you can argue that political bloggers have become an integral part of American politics — the Obama campaign obviously used blogging more effectively than anyone else ever has.
For whatever reason, Texas community newspapers have been slow to use blogs extensively.

Roy Robinson, publisher of the Graham Leader, told me in an email that his newspaper has moved slowly because of legal concerns.

“According to our attorney, if our staff were to edit any posted blog, the newspaper would immediately bear 100 percent liability for all blog messages,” Roy emailed me. “His interpretation, as explained to me, is that the newspaper has no exposure for liability on unedited blogs, but if messages are screened and/or edited, the newspaper becomes wholly liable. If his direction is correct — I have since been told it might not be — it’s a bigger risk than we can afford to take.”

And then there’s Elaine Kolodziej, publisher of the Wilson County News, who tells me that the News blogs “get tons of hits.”

“Readers love the interaction,” she wrote.

Elaine said that they have been using blogs for several months now, and they plan to expand their blog offerings, including some from staff members. She notes that they provide for reader feedback on their stories, allowing “community posts that act like blogs.”

“Sometimes they take on a life of their own,” Elaine said.

If you include blogs, of course, it’s important that you keep them up to date. Beth Nelson, editor of the Hays Free Press in Buda, says her paper’s blog readership has suffered “primarily because we have a hard time keeping them fresh and provocative.”

“Our competitors with Web-only papers do more of that kind of thing,” Beth wrote. “As a professional journalist, I find it hard to use blog-style writing.”

The Wise County Messenger uses a different approach: Their staff blogs give readers an insight into the newsgathering process. Check out their blog page, called Making a Mess [referring to the Messenger]. The deck reads “where communication meets community journalism.” The Messenger blogs allow staff members to share a behind-the-scenes look at the stories run elsewhere in the paper and on the Website.

These are just some of the approaches you’ll find in Texas community journalism. Let us know what your paper is doing with blogs and how your community is responding.

An Internet shortcourse on newspaper blogging


Ask an Expert Questions and Answers

A local agency recently held a closed-door meeting with a businessman who is trying to buy a piece of property. Can they do that?

The Texas Attorney General’s office has held that outside members of the public are not allowed to attend executive sessions.

The Texas Attorney General’s office, moreover, notes on its Web site in discussing the state open meetings law, specifically, that “a governmental body … should not allow someone to attend an executive session regarding a proposed real estate transaction if this person is bargaining with the local unit for the purchase or sale of the real property.”

A governmental body is allowed to discuss in executive session a real estate transaction, or to discuss that item with its own attorney, but the Attorney General has held that outside parties (other than certain officials or personnel, such as a city manager or school superintendent) are not authorized to attend an executive session.

For more information, visit the Texas Attorney General’s Web site.

You can click on the open government section and find a number of resources, including copies of the Texas Open Meetings and Open Records Laws, and easy guides to those laws. You can also print off copies of specific attorney general opinions to give to local government officials, if they doubt your word.

Here are some direct links