AOL has announced its entry into community journalism. An AOL subsidiary, Patch Media Corp, has launched Patch.org, a series of hyperlocal news sites. Patch will partner with community foundations and other organizations to launch community news Web sites. At least at this point, AOL says its target markets are communities and neighborhoods that lack adequate news media. Patch.org is a charitable foundation that will return profits to the community it serves. Patch will include both news content and advertising.
Well, Chicken Little, the sky could indeed be falling. So reports Alan Mutter in his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog. Mutter is reporting NAA figures that actually passed along the “good news” that newspaper sales were off 23.7 percent in the final quarter of the year. That’s the good news? It is when you consider the fact that sales were off 28.3 percent in the first quarter, 29 percent in the second, and 29.9 percent in the third. So 23.7 percent is looking pretty good now, huh? Mutter says: “If the rate of decay continues to slow in 2010, the industry will shrink at a slower pace than it did last year. But it still will continue to shrink. And declining shrinkage should not be taken as a sign of health.”
William Durant didn’t like automobiles.
Durant, who was in the carriage business in the 1890s, thought cars were smelly and noisy, not to mention downright dangerous. But he realized that automobiles, as distasteful as he thought them to be, were the wave of the future. So he left his still-successful carriage company, one of the world’s largest, to join the new Buick company.
Ultimately, Durant went on to found General Motors.
The point? Durant’s times were a lot like ours. He was living at the edge of a paradigm shift-a whole new mode of transportation. Cars did not take over from carriages immediately, but within a decade, it was obvious that they would soon rule the road.
We live in a similar age, but the paradigm that’s shifting is communication, not transportation. One advantage that Durant had over today’s current industry-in-crisis — newspapers — is that the industrial landscape of his day was shifting more slowly. Metro newspapers have gone from boom to bust in a decade (though many in the know have been pointing to the danger signs for metros even before the advent of the Internet).
The just-released Pew Report only confirms the bad news for big-city newspapers. According to the report, newspaper ad revenues (including online) declined by 26 percent last year, bringing the total loss for the past three years to 43 percent. The Gawker blog even headlined the recent post on the Pew Report this way: “There is Literally No Way to Make Money Selling News.” Wrote Gawker: “That is the only conclusion a reasonable person can reach reading this new Pew Foundation report. Paywalls are anathema. Nobody clicks on ads. The value of news is zero dollars and zero cents.”
To be fair, the Pew Report did talk about some encouraging news, mainly that metros, after having shed considerable expenses and salaries, are returning to profitability. But even that has a downside: These papers are now mere shadows of their former selves. The Report quotes a journalist who said that the independent contractors who deliver the paper complain that the Monday edition doesn’t have enough throw-weight to get all the way up the porch. The report said that newspapers now spend $1.6 billion less annually on reporting and editing than they did a decade ago.
But what about community papers, generally acknowledged to be the most successful part of newspaper journalism right now? Is our situation as bleak – or at least uncertain – as that of our metro brothers? And what are the modern-day journalistic Will Durants doing as they face that future?
First of all, what’s the good news in community journalism, as compared to the metros in crisis? Community journalism is different in the following ways:
- Competition. If you want the news in communities across Texas, typically newspapers are your best bet. We don’t have all of the magazines, radio and TV competitors that big-city papers have. And Internet penetration is not as significant – some rural communities do now have broadband services available and mobile service is sometimes spotty. We have a near-monopoly on the news that matters. You can’t say it better than one small-newspaper editor in Pennsylvania did: “It’s often said that newspapers are dying, but that’s a gross oversimplification. The papers with the big problems are the metropolitan dailies. But here, if you want to read a professionally written news story about what the Board of Township Supervisors did on Thursday, you really don’t have much choice but to pick up the Elizabethtown Advocate, because I was the only journalist at that meeting. I am the only game in town.”
- Demographics. The population is often older, which means they are more print-loyal. Older readers are comfortable with their coffee and morning paper and less likely to want to go online for their news — even if there were an online source for local news, which there typically isn’t.
- Advertising effectiveness. The bottom line is that if you want the news in many communities in Texas, we’re pretty much the only game in town. And local businesses who want to reach consumers know that — there’s no medium more effective than the newspaper. All newspapers have been affected by the economic downturn as the advertisers they depend on suffered in the recession. But community newspapers have taken less of a hit. In the second quarter of 2009, metro ad sales dropped off a little more than 30 percent; ad sales in community papers dropped off just over 12 percent.
But the Pew Report contains some disquieting news for community newspapers:
- As we drop pages in cost-cutting and because of less advertising, our product becomes less attractive to readers. A less attractive paper will draw fewer readers, and fewer readers mean advertisers see less value in newspapers….the classic chick-and-the-egg dilemma. One small-city newspaper owner quoted in the report said he is “worried as hell we’re not going to have enough news in the newspaper to make it worth picking up for 50 cents, let alone 75 cents.”
- One hopeful sign for journalism cited in the report may not be hopeful at all for community papers in Texas. The report noted that it is easier than ever now to start new newspapers on the Web, without the overhead costs that ink-on-paper media have. In other words, it has never been easier for someone with a computer and just a little Web savvy to become your competitor.
- We are faced with a significant dilemma: Our readers are older and are not being replaced by younger readers. The future is clearly on the Web, but most of our revenues are from the traditional print product.
The first automobiles hit road experimentally in the 1890s. The horse still ruled transportation. In the early 1900s, when cars began to be manufactured on a larger scale, most people still rode horses. Lots of folk thought they were a fad. Carriage makers were still profitable.
But Durant and others realized that the future was in the automobile — that cars would not instantly dominate the road, but they would inevitably dominate the road.
Unfortunately, we in Texas community journalism are faced with the challenge of playing on two courts at one time. Our revenue and most of our audience are in print, and we cannot afford to neglect our newspapers. But our future is inevitably digital, and while we focus on putting out the best print product we can, we must explore what our digital future will be like.
At the Center, we’re dedicated to helping all we can. We have done workshops on building your Web presence, and we will do more. We are already flight-testing our free content management system with several Texas community papers; we hope to make it widely available — free — as soon as possible. And we offer consulting services to those papers who are taking the first steps toward an improved Web product.
Will Durant was making money manufacturing carriages. But he realized that the future was elsewhere. And if he had stayed with carriages, he may have ended up losing everything.
The Center wants to help those of you who are looking to find your place in a future of digital community journalism. And in the meantime, we hope to help you produce the best possible printed newspaper.
The Daily Tribune in River Cities is going online-only except for its Sunday paper. The Tribune published five times a week before the transition. The paper cited shrinking ad revenue and high newsprint costs for the change.
Yes, a school district is allowed, and very likely should be required under the Public Information Act, to release information about student transfers as long as it does not release information with individually identifiable information about students.
Educational records generally are exempt from disclosure under the Texas Public Information Act [Texas Gov’t Code § 552.026]. The Texas act defers to the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act [20 U.S.C. § Sec . 1232] when it comes to handling of student records. Thus, federal law and policy govern release of records from educational institutions.
Federal regulations make it clear that information may be released without violating FERPA if all personally identifiable information has been removed from the record to protect student privacy [34 CFR 99.61]. Release of aggregate data, such as the number of student transfers in a school district, would be permissible without violating FERPA as long as any specific references to student names were removed.
Under policy of the Texas Education Agency, records and data of student transfers must be reported to this state agency, which keeps a database of student information. The agency is a “government body” under the Texas PIA, so its records are open to the public as long as they do not conflict with FERPA or fall under any exemptions.
While courts and the attorney general have not clarified what qualifies as an “educational record,” administrative information about school district policy and aggregate data that does not identify students should be open under the general policy of openness at the heart of the Public Information Act.
Requesters should consider all avenues to get the information they need. In this instance, one should not only ask the school district for answers, but also should request aggregate data from the Texas Education Agency, which has public information request guidelines in place (http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/gir/PublicInfoMain.html) and may be able to answer queries such as this more quickly.
Some of you will remember Vicki Simons, who – along with her husband Tony Jones – led two seminars on newspaper management for us five years ago. Vicki has been heroically battling cancer, and, of course, blogging about it (vickicancer.blogspot.com). She died of that cancer on March 1. And in typical Vicki fashion, she left her own obit, which you can read at the URL above. I know you join us at the Center in mourning a great leader in community journalism.
Gone are the days when Americans got their news from only a few sources – maybe TV, a big-city paper nearby, and a community newspaper if they lived in a smaller town. The latest Pew survey, Understanding the Participatory News Consumer, shows that only 7 percent of Americans get their news from a single media platform on a typical day. Some 46 percent get their news from four to six platforms a day. The Internet keeps gaining as a news source – it is now the third most popular news platform, behind local TV news and national TV news. Where are newspapers in the American news diet? 78 percent get news from local TV, 73 percent from a national network or cable network; 61 percent online; 54 percent from radio at home or in the car, and 50 percent from a local newspaper. You can get a digest of findings at the Web site above and download a pdf of the entire survey at that site, too.