The future is now for Texas community journalism

In Washington Irving’s famous tale, Rip Van Winkle sleeps for 20 years and is amazed at the changes that have occurred over two decades when he wakes up and returns to his community.

In our world, 20 years seems like an eternity. Our community journalism landscape has changed more over the past several years than Rip’s did over two decades. True, we’ve seen changes in our communities, changes in readership patterns, changes in the technology with which we produce our newspapers, and certainly changes in economic conditions. But there was always one constant: While we knew that circulation and ad revenues would change, the expense and uncertainty of starting a new newspaper would pretty much guarantee that it would be difficult for potential competitors to start up a rival newspaper.

And that’s still true, if you’re thinking about another ink-on-newsprint product. But if you’re thinking of another medium that can provide what a newspaper does-perhaps more-and do it more cheaply and with more up-to-the-minute news and advertising … then we’re living in that day, right now.

The old A.J. Liebling principle that the freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, no longer applies. Today, anyone who can put up a Website is a journalist. And your competition.

We’re not talking about the future, either. This is now. All kinds of sites offer templates and suggestions for starting an online newspaper. Go to Google and put “start an online newspaper” into the search box. You’ll be amazed. Go to a site like and see how easy it is to become a publisher/journalist/columnist/photojournalist. Or check out the Knight Digital Media Center; the Knight Foundation is offering grants for groups to set up their own hyper-local news and information sites. Here’s how the site describes the program: “The Knight Citizen News Network is a self-help portal that guides both ordinary citizens and traditional journalists in launching and responsibly operating community news and information sites and that assembles news innovations and research on citizen media projects.”

This Website put up by the Texas Center for Community Journalism is a great example. Less than a decade ago, if we had begun the Center and wanted to communicate with the state’s newspapers, we would have thought about publishing a tabloid. That means printing and mailing and a host of additional costs — the costs you live with daily. But now, all the need is a Website. Our “staff” writes for free. We can publish as much as we want – as many pages, as many pictures, video, audio … you name it. All for free. And we can change it daily. Free.

What we can do for the Center, anyone can do in your community. If your new cyber-competitor shoots a basketball game, he or she does not have to select one or two good shots. They can use all the good ones and make a slide show. Back it up with music. Include video. Use a podcast of the coach’s postgame press conference. How long will it be before advertisers discover just how many people are checking out that basketball coverage?

A thoughtful writer on a Chicago media blog recently reminded his readers that “the future of newspapers is not the same as the future of journalism.” Journalism, he said, will survive. After all, journalism is news; it’s storytelling; it’s information; it’s images we want to see; it’s what we want to know and need to know.

But then there’s the issue of how news is packaged and delivered. That can and most certainly will change. The only question is this: Will Texas newspapers be pro-active in developing their presence in digital media, or will we sit by while others draw the audience that we have worked so hard to attract?

Quick hits

  • According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 40 percent of Americans get most of their national and international news from the Internet. That’s up from 24 percent in 2007. In comparison, 35 percent rely on newspapers and 70 percent on TV as their main source for news. But the most important finding may be Pew’s research on Americans under 30. Among the under-30 crowd, 59 percent indicated that they get most of their news from the Internet. TV tied with the Internet at 59 percent.
  • Nielsen Online is reporting that nine out of the top 10 newspapers experienced growth in online traffic between December 2007 to December 2008. The average growth across the board equated to 16 percent. While online traffic is up, print circulation and advertising is falling off. Also, the industry experienced roughly 15,554 newspapers job cuts in 2008.
  • Check out the top 10 newspaper Websites

By Kathryn Jones Malone

Kathryn Jones Malone is co-director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism. She began her career as a staff writer at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, then worked as a staff writer for the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News; as a contract writer for The New York Times; as a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly magazine; as editor of the Glen Rose Reporter; and as a freelance writer for numerous state, regional and national magazines. She teaches journalism at Tarleton State University.